“Pokémoning While Black”


Angelique Harris and Jonathan Wynn

Have you been swept up in the Pokémon Go phenomenon? For those of you who haven’t: Pokémon Go is a virtual reality game that uses real places and a cellphone’s GPS, and the goal of the (mostly) free game is to search for and collect different Pokémon characters: Doduos, Tentacools, Onixes, Smeargles, Drowzees, and over a hundred others. (We have absolutely no idea what these names actually mean.)

We didn’t know it was coming, but all the sudden people were out on the streets with their phones, pointing to street corners and talking with strangers.

On the one hand, this seems to be a fantastic way for people to get out and in the streets, interacting with strangers: There have been stories in the media of people meeting in uncommon places at uncommon times. This is what urban sociologist William H. Whyte called “triangulation:” when some external third thing, like a mime or a public statue gets two strangers to interact.There have been some interesting uses of the game. There is a social media campaign that posts pictures of Syrian refugee children with Pokémon Go characters to help bring attention to the over 11.3 million Syrian refugees who have been displaced thus far in the civil war. A Michigan Children’s Hospital quickly realized that they could use the game as a form of physical therapy for patients. (Other hospitals are less keen about the game.) TechCrunch offers another example of an animal shelter in Muncie, Indiana, that tries to get people to take a sheltered dog out for a walk while playing Pokémon Go.

Conde Nast Traveler notes that the game is pushing people to explore their cities, communities, and public facilities, and to interact with strangers. (Although the Holocaust Museum wasn’t thrilled with the use of the game in their building.) A game that getspeople out of the house and using public spaces, is likely a good thing too: almost 1/3 of the U.S. population is obese and only 27% of high school students get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day. It is clear that Pokémon Go creators intended for their game to be used to encourage players to interact with their physical environment as opposed to simply in a virtual one. Yet, a latent, or unintended consequence, of this game is that it makes us acknowledge that all gamers are not the same.

There are many things that were likely not taken into consideration during the conception of Pokémon Go. It appears that creators seem to take for granted that we all have the same access to and experiences within public spaces. We know that social experiences are shaped by everything from race, gender, and sexual identity, and they intersect with body shape/size and physical ability as well. And recent news has brought attention to the video game industry’s rampant racism and sexism. The controversy has been called “Gamergate.”

Let’s take a moment and think of those more traditional video games. Think of games like Mario Brothers and the Legend of Zelda to more recent ones like the Grant Theft Auto franchise, God of War, and World of Warcraft. Most of these games feature male lead characters with women playing either sex objects, victims in need of rescuing, or are basically ignored. (This isn’t even saying anything about the increased violence found in video games.) Although recent research argues that more people of color and women agree that there is ample racial and gender representation in video games, critics argue that games are created for and by the White male gaze, by that we mean that they were created for and from the perspectives and experiences of men, and mostly White men – what they like, what they have experienced, and what they might have access to. This is an example of what sociologists mean by structural racism. Although not always intentional, the privileging and normalizing of White experiences further oppresses and marginalizes people of color.

This brings us back to Pokémon Go, which gets us thinking about how these virtual concerns spillover into the lived domain, and how concerns about the offline world shape augmented reality. Anyone with access of Facebook and other forms of social media has seen that Blacks have routinely been assaulted or apprehended by simply entering public spaces such as playing at a pool party, riding a bicycle through parking lot, playing in park, or even holding a toy gun in Walmart. The Pokémon Go phenomenon illustrates how Black and Brown youth and adults do not have the same access to public spaces as their non-Black and Brown peers. As such, Pokémon Go should make us reconsider access to public spaces and our experiences within them.

However, access to public space isn’t just racialized. One of us (Wynn) has a forthcoming book chapter about how geocaching, another technology-meets-reality game wherein players hide secret “caches” of miscellany in public places, was deeply problematic in the post-9/11 New York City. People, including the Department of the Interior, were highly suspicious of men and women hiding small packages around the city at the time as in NYC, people are often told, “If you see something, say something.”

However, public spaces are not only policed by police officers, but also by everyday people. For instance, in the UK, police have asked people to stop calling them about their Black neighbors because they feel they look “suspicious” even if those people are either doing nothing or walking through their own neighborhoods. And there are a number of incidents of people of color being mistaken for criminals and assaulted for walking around their own neighborhoods.

Unsurprisingly, this fear of Blacks, and in particular fear of Black men, takes on new meaning when a game encourages players to wander in public spaces. If you Google “Pokémon Go While Black” you will see the scores of pages either cautioning Black men to not play the game or warning them to be safe while they played the game. There is, for example, the story of the Iowa football player who was stopped by police while playing Pokémon Go because he matched the description of a robbery suspect. He described his experience in a lengthy Facebook post, which later went viral, and warned people to pay attention to their surroundings.

In addition to the dangers faced by Black men who play the game, we also find reports that Pokémon Go characters seem to be less common in African American communities and spaces where Blacks would likely feel more comfortable. (There was a game called Ingress that predated Pokémon Go, and the Miami Herald points out how there are fewer stops in Black neighborhoods in Detroit, Washington D.C., and New York City.)

It is a phenomenon even more surprising and disturbing considering the obvious overrepresentation of Pokémon Go in urban areas. (Washington D.C. is an interesting case because, the Miami Herald notes, the downtown is minority-majority, but has more Pokémon Go locations than most cities because of the abundance of historical sites and monuments.)

Some have argued that this could be because of the lack of monuments and central sites in these communities where players can capture Pokémon Go characters. (This, in a way, means that Pokémon Go only indicates an even more serious concern: a lack of public resources in African American neighborhoods!) Others have simply noted that White players might not feel as comfortable going into these spaces, again, reinforcing the notion that these games are designed for White players.

It is certainly likely that the creators of Pokémon Go had no intention of the game igniting so many discussions concerning race and access to public space. However, the designers of a game that uses the real world ought to consider the non-virtual implications of these non-trivial social dynamics. Any sociology student could have told them: Society is so much more complex than any video game!


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