By Neil Merrett
Without sounding like the Daily Mail, from Downing Street and the Holocaust museum, to sex shops and the open sea, the world is facing a pokemon infestation and humanity is….. well confused by what it all means
Technology, like the 24 hours new cycles, moves quickly and in unpredictable directions.
So it was perhaps unsurprising that barely days after the latest apparently world shaking political event in the UK, Downing Street – the near ancestral home of Britain’s prime minister – was hit by an event that has shook the entire world, so long as you are under forty.
Pikachu, the bright yellow electric-type that has for almost two decades adorned lunch boxes, books, films, games and any other form of merchandising sold to generations of children, was spotted outside the home of Britain’s new leader at a time of significant upheaval in British politics.
From the perspective of British journalists and new agencies, the UK’s vote to leave the European Union just a few weeks ago has meant it has not been a time for slow news days.
Yet it was a new app, based on a popular but long running Nintendo game series, that has equally dominated headlines and social media over the last ten days.
Pokemon Go is here.
Caught on the phone screens of journalists there to capture a largely unprecedented era in British politics with the coronation of Prime Minister Theresa May, BBC news found itself covering the spectacle of a Pikachu being caught outside Britain’s house of power.
In a post that has no doubt been seen by hundreds of thousands of people, one of the world’s largest news organisations found itself explaining the app, which makes use of GPS functions and augmented reality on phones to place Pokemon at unique locations around the world.
In a slightly less tactical fashion to the popular games that are sold exclusively on Nintendo systems like it handheld consoles, players who download the app for free – where available – are able to capture, interact and fight with their creatures, which appear via camera functions in very real world locations.
To many it is cute and fun, nostalgic and new, an antidote for an uncertain time for the world.
It is also undoubtedly one of the most surprisingly and significantly successful apps to have launched in what feels like eons. Not bad for a spin-off from a company that has been hugely precautious of allowing use of any of its core brands on non-Nintendo platforms.
A number of respectable news outlets were suddenly having to explain what a Charizard or a Raichu is, with Forbes reporting that Pokemon Go was, within less than a week of launch, set to pass Twitter in terms of daily users on Android devices – even without having a full global launch.
— Carolyn Velociraptor (@Arumi_kai) July 10, 2016
So as the world for people with any vague or passing interest in politics felt like it may be ending in some very real and tangible ways – the week’s main leader has undoubtedly been where on earth people can find a rare Mewtwo.Augmented reality is nothing new on handheld devices, with Nintendo offering free software on its 3DS console for years that allows players to utilise their cameras to project shootable things in the very real world around them.
Yet it required a third-party company to take one of its most lucrative titles and completely grip kid-dults and children around the world – in a strange form of almost real-life pokemon hunt. Virtual reality again takes an unexpected form.
Like in the games itself, first launched on the very first Nintendo Gameboy to huge success in 1996, young adventurers can set out into the world to capture mystical, and at times absolutely baffling creatures to love, cherish and then engage in pitched battles with other players.
For many it’s the dream, So what can go wrong in spinning this out to the real world to anyone with a hand held device and a little time on their hands?
— FOX 29 (@FOX29philly) July 14, 2016
So reported Philadelphia-based news agency Fox 29 as people’s hunger for misadventure, cute Japanese fictional cartoon creatures and life threatening mishaps was shared around social media.
Not for the first time over the best part of a decade that has been blessed or cursed with smartphones, new and obscenely popular technologies can very quickly change reality, socially acceptable behaviour and how society generally functions.
Joel Golby, writing in Vice with a healthy amount of mirth about the Pokemon infestation, noted that the global nature of the game was soon causing excitement and confusion in equal measure. Not something you might have expected at an unassuming sex shop in Plymouth.
Pointing to a story from the Plymouth Herald, “Sex shop at the centre of Pokemon Go craze”, the paper noted that the app had turned some of the city’s most unknown tourist spots into meccas for players.
“Local businesses and popular landmarks, including the Private Shop on Princess Street and Goodbody’s cafe on Mutley Plain, have been turned into ‘pokestops’ and ‘training gyms’ as part of new game, Pokemon GO!,” reported the herald.
Other businesses and companies, from science museums to commercial behemoths like McDonalds, are meanwhile considering how they can lock-in to the craze for a healthy bit of profit and well intentioned cosplay no doubt.
While the prospect of fast food outlets and child friendly learning centres exploiting the prospect of being so-called pokecentres is probably a no-brainer, their seemingly random placement at the sites and monuments to some of humanity’s most brutal and significant history has been more problematic.
“Koffing the poison gas Pokemon found at Holocaust Museum”, reported Toby Meyjes for The Metro.
According to the report, staff at the Washington DC memorial have been expressing increasing concerns at players seeking out Pokemon at some of the museums most sensitive and poignant sites.
“It’s got so bad, that museum staff have had to go to the lengths of telling people not to play in the memorial to victims of the Nazis,” added the report.
Yet humanity’s spirit for ludicrous innovation and gimmicks has continued unabated, regardless of the – at times – grim realities of everyday life or practical challenges of avoiding physical harm to oneself.
One early adopter of Pokemon Go in Wyoming discovered a genuine human corpse out on the poke trail.
While police found themselves called to a late night Pokemon disturbance in a Sydney park as hundreds descended late at night onto a quiet neighbourhood, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office has even re-issued privacy guidelines to protect real life confidentiality of data.
— ICO (@ICOnews) July 12, 2016
Perhaps if final proof were needed of a free to download game’s potential to blur the digital from reality, and the tangible from the intangible, the Church of England has put out advice – that is not entirely as ridiculous as it sounds – about the dangers and theological implications of the recruiting potential houses of god to become pokecentres.
“Download Pokémon Go on your mobile or tablet. Through the game, you will be able to see if your church is a PokéStop or a gym. You might also spot people standing outside the church on their phones who may be playing the game and at your ‘PokéStop’,” said the guidance.
As well as holding ‘pokepartys’ – a legitimately terrifying prospect at first glance – the church suggests providing battery stations and wifi support to allow people to play the game at the church – a touching if somewhat manipulative statement.
And yet encouragingly, and somewhat progressively, it also encourages staff and priests themselves to play the game and learn about Pokemon Go, “ it’s a good way to start a conversation that may lead on to other things.” A fine sentiment for trying something new if ever there was one.
— StStephensRednal (@ststephenscoe) July 14, 2016
Commentators, including this site, have for years tried to speculate about what point it is that videogames may begin to encroach on reality, perhaps as a more palatable or bright alternative to the outside world.
Science fiction has long speculated that games may eventually become “better than life”, allowing players to fulfil their emotional, sexual and even gastronomic needs powered by some comic wit and an implausibly large, room-sized supercomputer that can sate their dreams.
Yet as we career towards 2020, large sections of the public seem to be on their way to reaching this digital nirvana, needing nothing more than a camera phone and an active imagination.
Not quite the brave new world, but baby steps nonetheless.