Experiencing Rochdale with Pokémon GO

Having never owned a Nintendo GameBoy and going a few years without ready access to a television, I missed the Pokémon phenomenon the first time around. When the craze really kicked in I’d just finished university and was working in a bookshop. My knowledge of Pikachu and friends was from dealing out the blue and silver packets from behind the counter like cigarettes, taking the money (how much?!!) then putting them into a small, branded carrier bag.

Sixteen years spins by, suddenly I’m in Rochdale with a phone that in 2000 I would have thought from Star Trek and I’m flicking the phone’s screen to make virtual red and white balls fly at a squat bird-like being that’s hovering near Rochdale bus station. With a yes! fist pump, the cartoon disappears into the ball in a flash of an animated red-gold beam and “Gotcha!” appears on the screen under the now pulsating sphere. A stats page appears letting me know what my score is (I don’t understand it), then some information about the creature. Eventually the game returns me to a map on the phone where PokéStops and PokéGyms are represented instead of the market, the library, the river Roch. Each PokéStop pertains to an “important” building or memorial; Rochdale bus station, for example, is a PokéStop where you can up the number of PokéBalls – those spheres I mentioned – in order  to catch more monsters.

So far so confusing? Well, yes, I’m still confused too. However, for me, the experiment lies in how Pokémon GO can be used in experiencing place. I’m not alone in this, there have been a couple of interesting articles about it. The first article ‘Pokémon GO: the app that leads you places other apps don’t‘ Dr Tom Phillips invokes the “topophilia” spirit of phenomenological philosopher Yi-Fu Tuan and discusses the merits of the game where new places can be discovered as well as the virtual monsters that are available to be captured.  The second article, ‘Go Pokémon GO: the Social Life of Virtual Urban Spaces‘, stresses the importance of the game through the lens of place-making: a virtual “scavenger hunt”; a way of storytelling that’s captured the imagination of millions through social media, clever marketing, and nostalgia.

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My thoughts on playing Pokémon GO in Rochdale

Using a basic model of reflection based on Kolb’s learning cycle and Boud et al (1985), here’s what I found and some thoughts on the experience. (By way of explanation, laurelpigeon is my avatar’s “nickname”. These were the first two things I saw when trying to think of a suitable moniker as some inconsiderate gamer has used my usual handle of “Jenbee”.) The images were taken from within the game in real time, the area has the monster superimposed in place: the “augmented reality” aspect of the game.

What happened? (Record of experience.)

I downloaded and then tried to play Pokémon GO in various locations as I walked to the train station. My route included: Rochdale bus station, Drake Street, and Maclure Road.

How did it feel? (Reflection on physical / emotional impact.)

Well, to be completely honest, I felt a bit daft playing this on my own. There was a nagging feeling of becoming so absorbed into the technology that I might endanger myself. However, there was a small sense of satisfaction when capturing the creatures. It led to questions and thoughts as I was playing such as: “What’s the point of this game?”; “Why am I catching these things?”; “Is that bloke over there staring at me?!”; “WHY WON’T YOU GET IN THIS BALL YOU ABSOLUTE…”; “DIE DIE DIE!!!” And there were some introspective “I feel too old to be doing this” moments.

Why did it happen? (Reflect and generalise.)

I am assuming that the monsters arriving is somewhat randomised by whomever made this game or by experienced players who have set their Pokémon to guard specific areas, however, the set points (PokésStops and PokéGyms) are positioned by the programmers using some kind of GIS program.

The actual activity happened because I’m curious in how augmented reality affects the way in which we perceive space and place. I’m curious as to how this could be used in mapping Rochdale; I’m currently working on a (very!) basic word-based game built with Python as part of my PhD thesis, the emphasis on on how the player collaborates with the game. My current thinking is that however much you argue that these game apps are more cooperative, or encourage more socialisation, than, say, a single-player game such as Neko Atsume, there is still an element of omniscience or coercion. I’ve programmed the game to be a “choose your own adventure” but it’s an adventure that’s been written by someone else (ie me).

What could I do next time? (Reflect and apply.)

There’s academic application in this in terms of how Rochdale is mapped through Pokémon GO and which places are emphasised. There are also questions that need to be asked around ownership (intellectual property rights), proprietary software (mapping data, character trademarking), social parity (the cost of, and access to, technology) and the energy required to play the game (the potential CO2 output of gaming). But a focus on the positives too; I like computer games, especially ones with a story so perhaps I need to think more about what the “story” of this game is and how I could participate in it in order to understand it and the places it is leading me to. It’s also worth using this experience to think about how as a writer one can manipulate the “geographical imagination” – a humid day where the shadows in the ginnels close in, a mowed lawn crisscrossed like a golfing jumper, graffiti, a single trainer in the branches of a tree,  the monster that waits for you outside the gym on Water Street – in order to colour how that place is perceived.

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