Pokémon GO & the Perception of Space

New Topographies and Transmedia Storytelling

We live in a hyper-orientated world. From Google maps to Citymapper, and from Yelp to Uber, our everyday movements are not only informed and influenced by smartphone applications but are also tracked, collected and analysed. Our movements are quite literally defined by a complex network of geo-locating technologies, ubiquitous computing, and navigation applications.

Players looking for Pokémon in the streets
Players looking for Pokémon in the streets

These applications, while making our lives easier, cut down the opportunities for spontaneous and creative explorations of the cities we live in. Our movements and potential encounters with our environment become prescribed and efficiency-oriented; no time for pointless strolls. Pokémon GO became a sensation by ostensibly allowing just that: walking in the city not simply to get from point A to point B but just for fun! By inserting a narrative into the very act of walking, Pokémon GO gamified the experience of being in the urban space.

Pokémon GO became one of the most downloaded and profitable applications of 2016, with more than 500 million users at its peak. Now that the hype is long gone, we are left wondering what the game’s legacy is both in terms of transmedia storytelling and location-based entertainment. Pokémon GO’s success was largely a result of a millennial nostalgia for the console-based Pokémon first released in 1996 during their early teen years. But unlike the older versions of the game, in Pokémon GO, players find and collect Pokémon in real world locations and landmarks: a Pikachu behind the bins, a Squirtle in your bedroom. In Pokémon GO, the whole world becomes a gaming arena. Images and interactive content manifests in specific locations, creating augmented reality (AR) environments. By integrating the real environment into the game, Pokémon GO allows us to re-think space in relation to media.

Pokemon Go and AR technology
Pokémon Go and AR technology

Although geo-specific augmented reality has existed for at least ten years before Pokémon GO was launched (with relatively popular mobile games such as BotFighters and Ingress already incorporating GPS into their core functionality), the game was the first successful mainstream application of the technology. The augmented reality aspect of the game mainly involved two-dimensional Pokémon images superimposed upon the camera feed. This was an important aspect of the game’s viral social media marketing, with players sharing screenshots of Pokémon in real locations or with them in selfies. Despite the simplicity and the many flaws of its design (namely the countless server crashes, battery drainage, and inability to trade Pokémon between players), the phenomenal uptake of Pokémon GO heralded the coming of AR as the next mainstream feature of mobile tech. At Apple’s latest iPhone X presentation, there was a strong focus on the augmented reality features with a particular emphasis on AR games. The merging of our everyday lives with gaming narratives and interactivity creates a compelling opportunity for storytelling that captures the audience’s imagination. The story unravels in the city and the player becomes the protagonist: the narrative intertwines with real life.

Missing Voice map, Janet Cardiff
Missing voice map, Janet Cardiff

Mobile phones are the perfect device for site-specific story-telling as they incorporate geo-locating technology (GPS), broadband connectivity and the capacity to reproduce high-fidelity image and sound. Narratives are enriched multimedia and multi-sensorial elements. Before the ubiquity of smartphones however, site-specific and transmedia narration was pioneered in the art world. In 1999, for example, Canadian artist Janet Cardiff created a series of site-specific projects around Whitechapel in London. missing voice: case study b starts as a conventional historical audio-guide of Whitechapel Library, but the listener soon understands that Cardiff’s voice descriptions follow a bizarre trajectory. “Try to follow the sound of my footsteps, so that we can stay together,” she says, before taking the listener on a 40-minute tour around east London. During the walk she describes a crime scene and slowly constructs a mysterious narrative within the space, forming a complex emotional map of the surroundings. The artwork is completed by the body of the listener moving through space. The listener has to combine information coming from the environment—images, sounds, smells—with a pre-recorded narrative. As the narrative is interlaced with the listener’s memories of the city, familiar streets become strange, and new places are introduced or formed through the interactive story. By effectively creating their own customized story, each listener is able to take ownership of the final narrative.

Finding Pokémon with friends
Finding Pokémon with friends

In a similar way, Pokémon GO transforms urban experiences and creates hybrid spaces which combine real and virtual elements, allowing for the creation of an augmented yet personalized narrative of space. What truly elevates the Pokémon GO experience however, is that other users are also participating in this process, thereby forming temporary communities that socialize these new spaces. The players meet, talk and exchange stories. This assemblage of virtual elements, physical spaces and social relations creates a hybrid, new topography; an original territory created by and open to creativity. This is a counterpoint to naive conceptions of consumer culture where the consumer was understood as a passive receiver of media and brand communication. Conversely, the consumer in Pokémon GO co-creates the story and has a stake in it.

The new topography of Pokémon GO allows us to envision new ways for identity formation and brand communication. However, blurring the boundaries between the physical and digital worlds, as media scholar Mary Flanagan warns, could cause a form of “entertainment colonization” in which the players unwillingly commoditize unaware bystanders. The real world turns into a spectacle: a dirty alley becomes a Pokémon nest and passers-by unwillingly become background characters of Janet Cardiff’s Whitechapel-based audio crime story. This form of entertainment engulfs public space while at the same time remains inaccessible by those who lack the cultural capital or the means to consume it. For every individual able to enjoy the augmented environment, many others remain nothing more than background characters with no control over their representation or participation.

Ultimately, spatial and immersive design seems here to stay. It is increasingly gaining importance from retail marketing to mobile gaming, and from educational applications to futuristic entertainment platforms. If Pokémon GO has proven anything, it is that an innovative platform can motivate the user to leave the comforting safety of their homes and get out, interact with others and encounter all the unexpected possibilities that the real and augmented world offers. Interestingly, these experiences have the ability to persist in the memory of the player long after the game has ended, as the player has, in effect, “lived” the game. It offers a degree of immersion and powerful engagement that many brands covet. The challenge now is to think about how brands can leverage transmedia storytelling platforms to connect meaningfully with individual consumers and wider communities as these technologies develop further.

— Foivos Dousos, Cultural Analyst