Pokémon Go and the Invitation to Play

I considered –briefly- writing an essay about why I’m not playing Pokémon Go despite it seeming to be nearly perfectly designed to appeal to me: a breakout, hyper popular Augmented Reality Game (ARG) that is currently dominating the overall geek conversation that all my friends are playing *and* you catch + battle Pokémon? That checks off so many of my interest’ boxes it’s almost obscene. But simply put, I’m not playing because -at this point in my life- I have to be almost Spartan in my selections of past-times & hobbies, and I’ve decided that I don’t want to add any that involve a screen (since so much of my life is staring at one anyway) even if the screen in question is mobile and is actively aimed at getting me to interface with (a mediated version) of the larger world. I can’t do everything, I can’t play every game; and endlessly chasing the new hotness means I’d never get to enjoy anything.

However, I did want to touch upon the great promise of Pokémon Go as the first ARG to hit critical mass and so fully breach into the popular imagination. I also wanted to explain what it is about this promise that I believe makes it one of the most helpful trends I see in the world right now. That is, I wanted to write about Pokémon Go and all the ways we are getting better at inviting ourselves and one another to play.

Play is one of our human superpowers. We can learn, develop, make, and discover things in the course of play that are impossible to do otherwise. Engaging in play is also a hack to get around all the learned behavior (justified or not) about why the world and our fellows are scary assholes who should be dreaded and avoided. For a non-human version, see this photo of a polar bear and chained husky spontaneously playing together and feel that joy for just a moment.

As a society, we’re not always good at encouraging play. As worst, play is seen as only fit for children… one of so many pleasures derided as unfit’ for serious, right thinking adults. This rationale I find hilarious as everyone plays (at least according to my definition of play); or at least everyone in my experience seems to *want* to play even if they’ve calcified to the point where they don’t trust themselves to do so. One of the things that so many people love about being parents (or even moreso grand-parents) is the fact that everyone allows for/can so readily get sucked into play with children.

But yes, play is some of the biggest business we have. Watching football alone is consumption, watching football with friends while you yell out jeers and groans, chatting about the game, crafting a fantasy football team; all these things are play and the opportunity play these games with their friends is the primary reason (I think) people watch football. The easy way I parse between consumption and play is that play requires your direct participation while consumption doesn’t (and even activities which lean more towards the consumption’ end of the spectrum are so readily turned into play). In the same way, watching Mad Men’ is consumption, engaging in forum discussion or attending a Mad Men costumed premiere party is play. Sports –with their long history, with their incredible profitability- have been deemed (by and large) to be the serious’ kind of playful pleasure fit for adults; as has dressing up and attending an opera, the conversation around literary novels, and so on. While it’s not even, more and more passions and more and more play is becoming accepted; even celebrated (if only because of its profitability).

The aspect of Pokémon Go (and the promise of ARGs done correctly) is that they spur players to play with the wider world, they facilitate pleasant collision with others, they create space for a different and novel form of play based association. As a society, we’ve largely relegated play to specially designed zones, or to be confined within out our own four walls. And play you’re unfamiliar with also can look odd and –for those of a certain mindset- scary; with our overblown phobia of terrorism, innocent play’ can easily get reported as suspicious activity’ with terrible consequences for the players. But our entire world can potentially be played with, and there are thousands around us at every moment who might well want to play with us. And at times, it seems like all anyone is waiting for is the barest invitation that this instinct to play is ok.’

ARGs have a great potential to create new opportunities for encouraging playful reengagement with our public spaces and with strangers outside our home. By this standard, Pokémon Go has been a tremendous success (in spite of the tut-tutting of the reactionary fun police). At the same time, ARGs have the potential to be avatars of tremendous soft’ coercion which encourages users to actively work against their own interest: most especially in how and what data is collected, in nudging us to travel *here* instead of *there*, in providing a layer of gloss to obscure and hide the underlying injustice & preventable ugliness that reality testifies to. And we’re still learning how the game will function with regards to these pitfalls.

However it shakes out, creating community (most especially community that cleaves across the lines with which we usually divide ourselves) is a profoundly democratic, quietly revolutionary act. Association –outside of one’s own loosely defined family- is difficult, scary and perhaps not something we spent most of evolutionary history selecting for. This sort of association however, collaborating (or at least tolerating) with those radically different from oneself, along with *any* excuse to meet your neighbors, make new friends, compare notes and build lines of trust and communication is all absolutely vital to circumvent the worst possible futures that our instincts towards tribalism are forever guiding us towards.

Does this all sound a little grandiose when referring to a game about catching silly digital monsters that communicate by repeating their names at varying tons and intensities? Probably. In the same way, Twitter never started a revolution, and the ability to contact anyone via Facebook (or even email for that matter) didn’t lead to an utopia of increased interpersonal understanding. But it’s not about whether we train Pokémon or trade goats or debate post-post modernism; it’s about the drive to expand our circle of trust, our familiarity with the ‘other,’ our potential for collaboration. And in this Pokémon Go is succeeding (at least for now) at an incredible scale. And now it’s on all of us to design better games and contribute to the culture & conversation that grows up around these games to get more players playing, participating more meaningfully with their world and their fellow humans.

Or as the sages say, Game on.’

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