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Pokemon Go and the psychology of public spaces

August 11, 2016

We have a deep interest in designing public spaces that invite rather than deter civic life. So how much is there to learn from the astounding popularity of a mobile game?

Modern life is private. Success is readily defined as the individual standing out from the crowd. As a society, we honour and admire those whose accomplishments and achievements we can seemingly attribute to their own individual abilities and who don’t appear to rely on the support of others. Being part of, instead of standing out from, a community rarely feels glamourous. This view has been the predominant template for many of our own lives. We are focused on our own careers, our own possessions, and our own families – areas which we assume to be critical to our personal recognition and status.

Yet this private and rather self-centred way of living bears many problems. We might miss a sense of belonging. We tend to be limited to a small, potentially narrow set of perspectives on life. We are ultimately left alone to deal with those troubling and difficult aspects of existence that even the most “successful” among us aren’t spared and amongst which we might consider anxiety, loneliness, and distress.

There is tremendous benefit to be gained from engaging in a community, from opening ourselves beyond our carefully shaped circle of people we readily interact with. That is why an indispensable component in any urban planning efforts are shared public spaces – places that invite us to venture outside the secure and private walls of home and engage in what we might call civic and communal life. Yet as we consider approaching such public spaces we encounter what proves to be an enormous obstacle to their popularity: we imagine what those other people out there might be like.

This can lead to disastrous conclusions. We are the unfortunate victims of an organisation which operates in the business of producing the most attention-grabbing and plain incredible depictions of what other people are like. This organisation is called the media. We cannot be blamed for worrying that other people might have quite malevolent and potentially violent tendencies and are interested mainly in their own individual success and fame. In other words, we are to be forgiven for not being intuitively attracted to the idea of dwelling in the unpredictable environments of shared urban spaces.

Enter Pokémon Go.

The mobile game’s download records across platforms manifest themselves not least in the unusually crowded public areas in various big cities. It seems as though the creators of the game have had notable success at enhancing the appeal of leaving the sofa in favour of shared public spaces. Whilst scouring a public square for a Spearow or a Doduo, we might suddenly feel comfortable in the physical presence of a fellow player whose path in live had never crossed ours and whose existence we had never contemplated before.

There are of course vast reasons for concern and criticism. The game has created yet another source of notifications to crave, often tied up with disappointment when, after reaching for our phones, we find out that we had just bumped into yet another Zubat on our way home. It has increased the risk of distraction for drivers at the augmented sight of an elusive Marowak by the side of the road. And players are faced with temptations to either trespass on private property or disrespect public institutions by chasing a Bellsprout through a national cemetery.

The daily flow of news about such incidents has made it easy to condemn the game and vilify its players. It is a move as tempting as it is unhelpful. No one has ever changed their mind or behaviour from being openly reviled or ridiculed.

The more promising and productive approach is to attempt to understand those who experience unprecedented levels of excitement at the thought of claiming a Pokémon gym in their local neighbourhood. To dissect the appeal of something we may personally disapprove of is a hugely difficult, but at the same time immensely valuable task, for we might manage to extract lessons, applicable outside the augmented and virtual world of video games.

Pokémon Go profits from its low barrier of admission, thanks to relying on widely familiar technologies. A smartphone with GPS and internet access is all that is required for a player to start throwing virtual balls at small creatures. A large part of the game’s appeal also stems from its built-in level system – an attempt to provide each player with quantitative proof of their level of proficiency (and, by implication, the number of hours of their lifetime they have so far devoted to the game). In addition, players have a wide range of social media platforms at their disposal to share part of their experiences with others. This opens up an opportunity not just to communicate parts of who they are but, more importantly, also to be understood by others, which serves to satisfy a central human need.

What sets Pokémon Go apart from previous successful mobile games is that players are not constrained to share their experiences online. They may well find themselves discussing their latest achievements in the physical company of other players, who, until just a moment ago, were nothing but strangers. It is in this context that the game’s main lesson emerges. Pokémon Go succeeds in bringing us together with previously unknown people by rendering more salient a part of our identity we have in common. If, in our virtual adventures to catch them all, we are motivated to join large crowds on public squares, it is precisely because we can see that these people, despite the fact that we have never met them and hardly know anything about them, are in fact a bit like us.

It is this sharpened sense of commonality that mitigates some of the uncertain and unpredictable nature of approaching a public space and manoeuvring ourselves into the close proximity of others. We knew this before Pikachu was conceived. We can observe it on other occasions, such as large sports events. After winning a big game, we feel comfortable celebrating out on the streets with complete strangers because that particular context serves to remind us that those around us have largely the same interests and intentions as we do. These contexts allow us to step beyond the images of other people we inadvertently picked up from portrays in the media and form impressions which are more representative and infinitely more helpful for civic life: most people are actually quite nice and not that different from us.

We should not wait for the creative genius of mobile game developers or the odd national sport event to be courageous enough to come to this conclusion. We should rather treat these rare events as guidance for how we can engage in community and public spaces much more often and without the need for a special occasion.

Among the 151 Pokémon that players around the world have set out to add to their virtual collection, there is one which seems to stand out in a rather odd way. Unlike other Pokémon, Ditto doesn’t have any of its own specific characteristics, other than being an amorphous blob. Instead, it takes on the appearance and features of whatever Pokémon it encounters. We might only have to suspend our rationality to a small degree to find in this fictitious creature a helpful maxim for our own lives. We too might be able to leave behind the surface differences between ourselves and other people and draw attention to the things we have in common, the experiences we share, and the problem we face as a group that is greater than our individual circles.

The analogy is imperfect, yet the conclusion is too valuable to be dismissed. There is far more that unites us than what divides us. We should go outside and open ourselves up to those who we share our surroundings with – but leave the phone in our pocket.

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