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Hyper-reality Ennui and Pokémon Go

Hyper-reality, Ennui, and Pokémon Go: Why Do We Need Augmented Reality?
Andrew Ford

On July 6, 2016, Pokémon Go was released to the hands of an eager public.  The game, created by Niantic Labs, utilizes a phone’s GPS and camera utilities to superimpose Pokémon locations onto a map in real-time so users can “catch” the characters, add them to their collection, and increase the viability of the users’ selected team. In its first week alone, the app has garnered over 15 million downloads, more daily users than Twitter, and more engagement than Facebook – it is arguably already or at least on its way to becoming the most viral app of all time.

            Perhaps due in part to its popularity, the app has received equal parts praise and loathing. On one hand supporters argue that the app is getting people to communicate with one another and, hey, at least they’re getting outside. Users are able to meet people they would likely not otherwise meet and can engage one another in new ways: lifelong introverts are stepping out. And of course, there are less cerebral reasons for the game’s acclaim: quite simply, it’s fun.

On the other hand, there are some sizeable complications. In Harper’s Ferry, WV, a 12-year-old boy was rushed to the hospital for leg injuries sustained while playing the game. A 28-year-old New York man veered off the road and crashed into a tree. As well, police in Missouri arrested four people reportedly robbing users by tracking them via their GPS data. Further, while playing the game, not one, but two 20-somethings fell from the same 50-foot cliff in California. Even more, Niantic was recently scrutinized for requiring access to users’ entire Google accounts, and although this privacy breach has been amended, the company still collects huge amounts of user data.

Beyond these outwardly problematic disasters, offenses, and privacy violations there may be other more nuanced dilemmas associated with Niantic, what Pokémon Go represents, as well as augmented reality in general.

First, it would be worthwhile to note the history of Niantic Labs. Initially an in-house Google project, Niantic established itself as an independent company in 2015. Field Trip, the company’s first product released in 2013, employs real-time GPS map data to educate users about noteworthy locations in their purlieu. For example, if one is taking an afternoon constitutional through Baltimore, the app’s map will show a tag on, say, the Walter’s Art Gallery, display an associated picture, and provide information about the location’s history.

A fascinating app that could inform everyday people of the world’s history, Field Trip hasn’t performed nearly as well as Pokémon Go. In its 3 years, Field Trip experienced somewhere between 1/15 and 1/3 the aggregate downloads Pokémon Go acquired in one week. Similar acceptance estimates can be made from Apple App Store reviews: Field Trip has only 255 total ratings for all versions where Pokémon Go has nearly 75,000. (Between July 13 and July 14, that number increased from 65,000 reviews.) If these numbers don’t speak partially to our values insofar as education and entertainment are concerned, I’m not sure what does.

Beyond the purview of our collective intellect, there may be additional philosophical problems illuminated by Pokémon Go.

To our knowledge we live on and in the most life-diverse planet in the universe – literally. But for some reason, as Pokémon Go makes clear, many are drawn out-of-doors only when given the chance to watch smartphone cameras reveal ensconced digital cartoons. The hyper-reality of these types of games and other augmented reality apps may perpetuate the tech-induced depreciation of an interest in our environment as it already is. When did we stop being interested in – let alone humbled by – our natural world? Pokémon Go may represent everything about which much of our best science fiction seeks to warn us.

But that might be a little too apocalyptic, and of course, as with any dialectical argument, there is always a synthesis. It’s entirely possible to pursue alfresco gaming while also enjoying our extraordinary natural surroundings. In this Facebook video, Director of the National Park Service, Jon Jarvis, implores Pokémon Go users to feel free to play in the parks. But he also encourages them to actually play. Climb the rocks, and run the trails. Swim the rivers, and bike the mountains. All while figuring out where Charizard might be hiding.

It’s important to embrace new technology. Equally so, it is critical that tech users remain cognizant of the social impact augmented reality technologies like Pokémon Go can have, whether that means being more mindful of criminals using our GPS data or the psycho-emotional underpinnings of a life made meaningful only through technology. Perhaps Niantic said it best in the dialogue of a promo
video for one of its other games, Ingress: “This is not psychosis or a cognitive break, but an actual takeover of the mind.”