Pokémon GO: ‘The divide between the digital and the physical is becoming increasingly blurred’

Pokémon GO players are getting acquainted with cultural monuments and historical buildings they wouldn’t know about had it not been for the game, but it is another example of online seduction and distraction from bread-and-butter issues around us

Costumed performers as Pikachu, the popular animation Pokemon series character, perform at the Yokohama Dance Parade in Yokohama, Japan back in August 2015
Costumed performers as Pikachu, the popular animation Pokemon series character, perform at the Yokohama Dance Parade in Yokohama, Japan back in August 2015

If you’ve been walking round Valletta, Sliema or Mdina and noticed people staring in confusion at their mobile screens whilst considering their surroundings, you can safely deduce that they’ve been entrapped by the latest augmented reality game that is Pokémon Go.

And if someone you know suddenly drops their phone behind their back and stares at you blankly, you can equally safely assume that they are Poké-hunters.

Premiering on July 5 – and reaching Malta on July 16 – the game has attracted millions of people across the globe as they try to capture the digital monsters. 

The chase did create some casualties abroad, as people ignored traffic signs or road rules, causing accidents and falling off cliffs. It seems that the Maltese are more responsible players – with the exception of a Valletta priest who claims receiving a call by an enthusiastic Poké-hunter begging him to open the doors of St Augustine’s Church as “a Pokémon was inside the church”. 

Apple on Friday confirmed that the game brought in more downloads during its first week of release on the Apple App store, than any other app.

So the sceptics and those who have snubbed the game ask: what’s so special about it? 

Well, as reviewers have repeatedly pointed out, the game is getting people out and about, in search for populated hotspots. A dog sanctuary in Indiana offered Pokémon Go players the opportunity to walk a dog while hunting for Pokémon and hatch eggs … and a few dogs were adopted in the process.

Taking the local scenario, players are getting acquainted with cultural monuments, historical buildings and churches they wouldn’t know about had it not been for the game.

“We have to keep in mind that these youth are finally getting off their computer and walk to catch a Pokémon – or walk 5km to hatch an egg – and they’re discovering a lot of new things about the city,” Valletta mayor Alexiei Dingli tells MaltaToday.

“We need more of this sort of interaction in order to populate our city and turn their experience from a passive to an active one.”

Valletta already has more than 100 Ingress portals, a game developed by Pokémon Go creators Niantic which uses players to visit real-life locations. Data generated from this game led to the setting up of PokéStops – landmarks where Pokémon can be caught – and PokéGyms – where trainers battle and gain Pokécoins that can be spent in-game on items.

The game takes players to various locations within Valletta, Dingli adds, pushing them to venture into new parts of the city they otherwise would have never visited. According to Dingli, even businesses in Valletta stand to gain from all the hype.

“Shop owners should look at gaining advantage from this phenomenon. They should not think of Pokémon Go players as a nuisance, but rather as customers who haven’t yet interacted with their business. 

“We’ve seen far too many youth loitering around the main street of Valletta doing nothing. The game adds foot traffic and thus creates an opportunity to make a positive first impression with potential customers. Businesses can use lure methods – at a small cost – to attract Pokémon in their area and thus making them easier to catch. They can offer incentives and discounts to all those players in order to convert them into customers.” 

Sociologist Michael Briguglio described the game as the latest example of the interaction between social media and one’s construction of self-identity through fluid communities. 

“This time it takes pace through the playing of a game with nostalgic features and which incorporates physical interaction with other persons. The divide between the digital and the physical is becoming increasingly blurred,” he says.

According to Briguglio, Pokémon Go is another example of how people of different ages sign up to online seduction, seeing it as a fact of life, and jealously defending it against the invaders who raise questions on matters such as surveillance, time-wasting and distraction from bread-and-butter issues around us. 

“Pokémon is ultimately what we make it out to be in our everyday life. Personally, I think that the most useful usage of its symbols was when Syrian children used Pikachu [a Pokémon monster] to remind us that they – the children – really exist, in a real world of war and migrants dying at sea.”

The heartrending social-media campaign is using Pokémon to highlight the plight of Syrian children, asking players to “come and save me”.

According to award-winning novelist Immanuel Mifsud, the game’s lure is that the very thin line that separates reality from unreality has always intrigued human beings. “We might think that Pokémon Go’s augmented reality game is something new but its novelty seems to lie more with its very rapid and broad spread than with the game itself.”

Indeed, to play it, people need not learn a new language, a new programme or use a new instrument. “It involves a play with reality: you, as supposedly a real person, create an avatar, a fictitious personality which you then put in a quasi real world to interact with other avatars … personalities that you know, deep down, are unreal no matter how real they look.”

A play with reality, he adds, is not something new and goes further back: “I think experimenting with mind altering drugs, such as LSD, was itself a play with reality, where reality was modified through perception and the expansion of consciousness.”

In essence, Mifsud argues that Pokémon Go is yet another activity, in a long series of ventures, that titillate humans’ desire to put themselves in that very narrow border between what is supposed to be real and what is not. 

“Let us not forget that Plato, over 2,000 years ago, condemned artists because they produced copies of reality: art seemed to him hyper real, unreal or augmented.”