Have you heard? There’s this game called Pokémon Go, and it’s responsible for a radical new relationship to the city!
Think pieces are clogging Twitter and Facebook expounding the virtues of the augmented reality game that has lead distracted pedestrians off cliffs, into muggings, and straight to a corpse, while simultaneously and dramatically taking away attention from more pressing topics like, say, police brutality.
Here’s a pessimistic (cynical and snarky) round-up of some of the commentary making its way through the internet tubes:
“In our collective hunt for silly cartoon monsters, Pokémon Go players are discovering history and architecture left and right,” writes Mark Wilson for Fast.Co Design in an article entitled "Pokémon Go" Is Quietly Helping People Fall In Love With Their Cities.” In the optimistic article, Wilson notes how many Pokéstops – sites where you can find Pokémon – are real-world historical buildings and landmarks. They’re also strip clubs, abortion memorials, a Church of Scientology building, a memorial to confederate soldiers, the Holocaust museum, and even Auschwitz! Ah, the new urbanity!
“I’m hopeful they’ll look up when they get there,” he writes of two college kids “staring at their phones,” walking towards a “historic Pokéstop.” That being said, he also expressed worry that “you may look to your left at a stoplight and see someone catching a monster rather than paying attention to the wheel.” A well-placed concern, it turns out, as a man drove into a tree the other day trying to ‘catch ‘em all.’
“The game’s potential for educating players on the built environment is substantial,” writes Ross Brady for Architizer. “Some landmarks are accompanied by elaborate descriptions highlighting a building’s noteworthy features or individual elements,” he notes–perhaps one of five or six people to do so.
“With Pokémon GO entering the fray as one of the first mass-market adoptions of Augmented Reality technology, it offers architects, as stewards of the built environment, a moment to consider the level of involvement they’ll claim over this new frontier,” Brady concludes, exciting young architects around the world about a future in which they’ll design parametric Pokémon gyms in exchange for a Squirtle.
“Pokémon Go Has Created a New Kind of Flâneur,” reads the headline for Laura Bliss’ take on the meme for CityLab, which goes so far as to re-write a passage from Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” replacing flâneur with traîneur, and filling readers everywhere with spleen in the meantime.
Of course, Pokémon Go has not created a “new class” of flâneurs, those 19th century bourgeois wanderers described by Christopher Butler as observers, “whose aim is to derive ‘l’éternel du transitoire’ (‘the eternal from the transitory’) and to see the ‘poétique dans l’historique’(‘the poetic in the historic’).”
The flâneur is a detached observer of the city, while Pokémon Go players are obsessively attached to their phone, desperate for a new catch, while oblivious to their context. “But the true voyagers are only those who leave / Just to be leaving,” Baudelaire might say in response to Bliss’ directive, “Go forth and make Baudelaire proud.”
That being said, the comparison isn’t without merit. As Walter Benjamin writes in the Arcades Project, the flâneur “abandons himself to the phantasmagorias of the marketplace”, and “shares the situation of the commodity.” The Pokémon Go player, likewise, willingly feeds the machine of the marketplace, as the app stealthily sucks up your data – from your Google docs to your emails to your location – like Team Rocket stealing Pokémon.
There’s too many articles to summarize ‘em all, but here are some worth a read: