Pokemon Go and the Myth of Virtual Reality

July 2016
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Pokemon Go is such an unprecedented global phenomenon that it has officially become all things to all people – a health craze, a menace to cyber security, even a political tool. No matter where you turn, someone is either hailing, decrying, or attempting to incorporate the game into a new context. After a summer of worldwide unrest and brooding darkness on both sides of the Atlantic, it is both refreshing and bizarre for the media to seize so desperately onto people collecting tiny virtual monsters on their phones. The unstoppable tidal wave of hype points to a deep collective longing for escape when reality gets too grim. It also serves as a reminder on the importance of this longing for fuelling the technological innovations of today, and those yet to come.

For those over 40 or recently returning from remote islands and needing a basic overview of the facts behind the phenomenon, Pokemon Go is a game played on a mobile phone. Since its gradual launch in select countries in early July, the game has been explosively popular, threatening to surpass that active user rate of many other popular digital crazes like Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat.

Players explore their real surroundings on a map and try to capture Pokemons. Photograph: www.flickr.com/photos/scoobie1993

Gameplay is simple: the app offers players a chance to explore their real surroundings on a map and capture the eponymous Pokemon, tiny animated creatures that have been programmed to appear in the wild, in somewhat random locations. The goal is to find, capture, and collect all of the 151 Pokemon types that are scattered throughout the world. To accomplish this, players can stock up on useful Pokemon-hunting items at PokeStops or pit their Pokemon against those of a rival player at PokeGyms, each also require real-world exploring to find and use. And, just as crucially as catching the monsters, players have the option of photographing their finds in all sorts of improbable and hilarious locations and sharing this with their friends on social media.

Neurobiologists were probably the first to realize the massive viral potential of this combination, which hits doubly on the classic reward pattern that once drove us to forage in forests for roots and berries and now drives us to obsessively check our social media accounts every five minutes: the release of dopamine during unexpected success. For cavemen and modern man alike, long periods of tedium were punctuated with unexpected rewards, and the buzz we get in these moments positively impacts our brains and sets them to seek out the same stimulus again and again.

Pokemon Go offers two paths to acquiring this dopamine cocktail: as if finding and catching the monsters were not potent enough, there is also the social reward layer. One must simply post a photo of Jigglypuff peeking out of a bathtub (triumphantly captioned “after like five tries, I FINALLY caught him!!!") to Facebook to immediately garner a stream of ultra-rewarding likes and comments.

When deconstructed, this reptilian simplicity may seem cringeworthy. Yet this is not the first, only the latest, in a long line of mobile games that blend traditional points-gathering gaming with a social layer to create an addictive loop and drive massive adoption: most recently, Words With Friends and Draw Something both capitalized on the same phenomenon, though both fizzled not long after skyrocketing to popularity. And there have certainly been even more explicitly addiction-driving game concepts: Farmville and Candy Crush Saga parted many bored housewives and unemployed twentysomethings from their money in exchange for virtual cows and sweets. They also created torrents of spam that forced Facebook to change its newsfeed algorithm and forced many of us to sever social media ties with friends and family members who seemed incapable of curbing their addictions.

Massively popular, and hence lucrative, mobile games have always created press buzz in Silicon Valley, but among tech cognoscenti, the discussion in recent years has been more focused on the somewhat more highbrow topic of virtual reality: specifically, the coming future of magical helmets that will transport us into a fully digital, immersive gaming world.

While pieces on virtual reality (VR) vary in tone from the utopian to the ultra-pessimistic, the implicit grammatical tense has tended to be far-future, the same reserved for other Silicon Valley trends that feel both tantalizingly close and next to impossible: artificial intelligence, manned missions to Mars, and cryogenic freezing. In part, this may be the result of the disappointingly lengthy process of developing the required technology; Oculus announced their VR helmets in 2012 but has yet to deliver fully on the promise of mass-commercially-available, lifelike, fully immersive gaming. Playstation is now taking pre-orders for VR helmets of its own, but the technology is still a far cry from the dream of an immersive virtual world that is as real or more than the real one.

Pokemon Go has sledgehammered through this rarefied bubble and introduced a new vocabulary word to the tech press that was previously focused on virtual reality: augmented reality. It turns out people are perfectly willing to immerse themselves in the real world, so long as it is sufficiently modified to suite their escapist needs.

The concept of augmented reality (AR) is by no means a new one, but it has tended to center on the world of non-gaming commercial products. Google, Apple, and Amazon are all currently busy acquiring or investing in Internet of Things technologies that blend the real with the virtual instead of supplanting it entirely. This is evident in Google's acquisition of the virtual home thermostat startup Nest, the bid of all three players for dominance in the realm of voice-activated device control (Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, and the Amazon Echo), and the rise in importance of mapping in Google's product pantheon, now elevated to a height close to search.

Other huge, recently successful startup ventures like Uber (augmented reality taxis) and Airbnb (augmented reality hotels) further underscore that a great deal of the developed world is already living every day in AR. It only took the appearance of a silly monster game to finally label it as such.

In this milieu, Pokemon Go is a natural evolution (Pokemon pun intended). We all have phones in our pockets, and for those living in big cities, the act of walking down the street with a screen practically pressed to the nose is so common that we have all unconsciously developed an autopilot mode that can guide us at least a block, if not more, with only the occasional eye flicker upwards to watch for oncoming pedestrians, cars, or poles. Playing the game requires little to no change in already ingrained behavior, and no advanced equipment. For the already-always-connected, it is as easy as breathing.

The inventors of Google Glass must surely be cursing the fact that they had not thought to boost adoption of their much-maligned product using Japanese cartoon characters. In some ways, Glass was the diametrical opposite of Pokemon Go: a technology in search of an idea. This probably explains in part why it was a failure. To understand why, it may help to look back long before the days of pocket-sized computers or pocket monsters.

In his essay “The Myth of Total Cinema,” French film theorist Andre Bazin makes the controversial claim that the evolution of cinema was guided not by incremental technical innovation, but by the persistent idea, long before it was technically possible, that reality could and should be fully, perfectly captured in all its rich, dynamic detail. “An approximate and complicated visualization of an idea,” he argues, “invariably precedes the industrial discovery which alone can open the way to its practical use.”

Augmented reality seeks to blend the real with the virtual instead of supplanting it entirely. Photograph: www.flickr.com/photos/alter_nati_va

Bazin was taking on film historians who argued that the introduction of sound was an abomination on the perfect, classical form of silent cinema, arguing that all true cinematic visionaries throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century wanted sound, color, motion, and all the trappings of reality they could get, and were simply limited by the technology of the time. As a Marxist, he was also arguing with himself, discovering that the cinematic art did not fit neatly into the prescribed categories of economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure.

But he could just as easily have been writing about today’s Silicon Valley, where ideas are often sold for far more than the technology that makes them possible, and some ideas (flying cars, human cloning, mass-produced food and goods manufactured through nanotechnology) live only as myth, waiting for the day when some fortuitous accident in a science lab makes them a reality.

We can think of Pokemon Go as a joyous articulation of a well-known myth: the myth of the polytheistic, animist universe. This myth expresses our innate desire to look at the world and find more than buildings, cars, and people, but also magical creatures lurking just below the humdrum surface, and to lose ourselves in their world. This is not a new desire – it is one we share with our earliest ancestors, who were brought together by the spirits they saw in land and water. It is this desire, just as much if not more as the desire for total realism that Bazin describes, that has guided our species from cave-painting to 3D blockbusters, video games, and beyond.

But just as Bazin points out that cinema in his day had yet to realize its full vision of definitively capturing reality – he boldly claims that “cinema has not yet been invented!” – so too are we, the augmented reality generation, both on the cusp of and always many more steps removed from realizing the full extent of our latent dream worlds. The dawn of VR is still to come, and many more myths are sure to come alive with it.

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