The Tragedy of Pokémon Go

What it takes for good ideas to attract money.

Ian Bogost

Summer, 2001. Players install the boxed, retail software for an Electronic Arts game called Majestic. After signing up, the game sends players messages by phone, email, AIM, BlackBerry, and even fax—shards of a paranoia fiction story that plays out in real-time. The title goes on hiatus after the September 11 attacks—this was not the year for fourth-wall-breaking paranoia fiction entertainment. It shuts down the following spring, but not without establishing the genre of the alternate reality game (ARG).

Autumn, 2003. The Japanese gaming giant Konami releases Boktai, a vampire-hunting game for the GameBoy Advance. The title’s weapon uses sunlight to combat vampires, and it must be charged by taking the handheld gaming device outside to expose the cartridge’s light sensor to the sun. While created as pure entertainment, some bill it as an “exergame,” a video game that encourages physical activity.

Summer, 2004.  A subliminal message in a theatrical trailer for the first-person shooter Halo 2 sends fans to an unassuming beekeeper’s website—the “rabbit hole” for an ARG called ilovebees. In the ensuing months, players around the world decode strange data that turns out to be GPS coordinates and timestamps for payphones, which ring to deliver both recorded and live updates from characters in the game’s fiction. In 2004, nobody has a GPS-enabled smartphone, yet, and payphones still exist.

Winter, 2004. High school students move a 20 foot-tall, inflatable big horn sheep through the streets of Minneapolis. They are armed with camera phones, which are still novel. The goal: to capture semacodes (an early QR code competitor) printed on billboards, bus ads, and other urban surfaces within the area occupied by the team’s animal totem. This is ConQwest, a “pervasive game” sponsored by the telecom company Qwest in ten US cities. Four years later, one of ConQwest’s creators, Dennis Crowley, creates the location check-in app Foursquare.

Spring, 2007. Area/Code, the creators of ConQwest, release Plundr, a location-based pirate adventure game that transforms wi-fi hotspots into islands on which players can trade and battle. To travel to a different island, players must physically relocate to another wireless hotspot. Suddenly, a Starbucks is not just a Starbucks.

These are just a few of the ancestors of Pokémon Go, the smartphone-based, physical-world rendition of the decades-old monster fighting game that took the world by storm over the weekend. It has a direct precursor, too: in 2012, Pokémon Go developer Niantic, previously a part of Google, had created Ingress, a science-fiction narrative game played in real locations with Android phones. Pokémon Go is really just a branded re-skin of Ingress, using the points of interest and mapping data that had been created for that game (or borrowed from Google).

Seen in the lineage of its ancestors, Pokémon Go isn’t what it seems on first blush. Billed as an augmented reality game, the title does offer an experience that blends computer graphics with live camera video. But that aspect of the title is entirely optional. Sure, it makes good on the delightful proposition of hunting Pokémon in the real, physical world, and at locations that correspond with the monsters’ various capacities. But mostly, it gives players appealing, local images to help endear others to the experience on social media—and thereby to spread the urge to play among others who’ve enjoyed Pokémon over the last two decades.

For the creators of alternate reality games, pervasive games, big games, and all the other names that have been used to describe computer games played in and across real-world spaces, Pokémon Go represents a bittersweet victory. On the one hand, it shows that an unlikely combination of technology and social will has finally made a truly mass-market pervasive game possible. On the other hand, as Area/Code co-founder and current NYU Game Center director Frank Lantz told me, “such a victory was only possible thanks to years of corporate patronage from Google, along with the licensing of the most popular videogame IP of all time.”

When they first hit the scene more than a decade ago, pervasive and alternate reality games promised to offer a different way to see and understand the physical, material world. The game designer and author Jane McGonigal, who was also one of the “puppetmasters,” or game-runners of ilovebees, insisted that the “alternate” in “alternate reality” didn’t signify the alternative reality of fantasy, but the alternating one of realism. These games wouldn’t replace the world, either as escapist entertainment or as instrumental exercise or socialization therapy. Instead, they would force the fictional and the real worlds to swap places, and rapidly. The result would be a new and deeper appreciation for the real reality that the games use as their materials. That’s one reason pervasive games so often make use of paranoia fiction: they make visible previously unseen—even if preposterous or unlikely—possibilities.

And Pokémon Go sure seems to be offering lots of alternating realities, for good and for ill. A middle-aged white guy befriends (and wards the cops off) two black men in the park at 3 a.m. A Massachusetts man reportedly causes a multi-car accident trying to catch ‘em all while driving on the highway (the report itself turns out to be a hoax). One player finds a dead body while hunting pocket monsters; others get lured into an armed robbery. And mostly, adults and kids commune over an entertainment property old enough to be multi-generational.

The vast majority of pervasive and alternate reality games turned out to be sponsored affairs. Buzz marketing projects created for their ability to generate “earned media” rather than for their entertainment or social value. Ilovebees advertised Halo. ConQwest was a telco marketing campaign. Even Trent Reznor eventually got a promotional ARG to promote the Nine Inch Nails concept album Year Zero. There was just never another way to bankroll these curiosities.

Nor to sustain them. Majestic was a curiosity driven mostly by one strong executive personality at Electronic Arts. Area/Code, the creator of ConQwest and Plundr, eventually sold the studio to the social game giant Zynga, which later shut it down unceremoniously. 42 Entertainment, which created ilovebees, Year Zero, and others, bills itself as an advertising agency first: “We’re shifting the line between marketing and entertainment,” their website tragically proclaims.

Even Google couldn’t make Ingress work without reskinning it as Pokémon. And while Pokémon is popular and basically harmless, the alternating reality it offers is still that of a branded, licensed, kiddie cock-fighting fantasy. Even if paranoia fiction is aesthetically facile and retrograde, and even if location-based entertainment need not be serious and political, there’s still something fundamentally revolting about celebrating the Pokémonization of the globe as the ultimate realization of the merged social and technological potential of modern life.

But then again, duality was always the promise of alternating realities in the first place. Your BlackBerry was both the delivery device for a paranoia fiction and the tether that bound you to work. The semacode was always both a game token and a cipher for a dumb telco ad. The payphone was always both a dying social tool and the mouthpiece for a marketing campaign—for another videogame.

We can have it both ways; we have to, even: Pokémon Go can be both a delightful new mechanism for urban and social discovery, and also a ghastly reminder that when it comes to culture, sequels rule. It’s easy to look at Pokémon Go and wonder if the game’s success might underwrite other, less trite or brazenly commercial examples of the genre. But that’s what the creators of pervasive games have been thinking for years, and still almost all of them are advertisements. Reality is and always has been augmented, it turns out. But not with video feeds of twenty-year old monsters in balls atop local landmarks. Rather, with swindlers shilling their wares to the everyfolk, whose ensuing dance of embrace and resistance is always as beautiful as it is ugly.