Pokémon Go – When the cemetery becomes a playground

16. June 2023

For a while, the cemetery seemed like the ideal playground for Manuela: hardly any people, no cars, but total concentration. The business graduate is an avid player of Pokémon Go, the famous game that involves using a smartphone screen to hunt for digital monsters, known as Pokémons, in physical space. A wild Pokémon is captured when the players throw a digital Pokéball at it by swiping their fingers on the screen. Such Pokémons also inhabited the main cemetery in Neuss, until some players—as Manuela tells it—trampled “loudly over the graves”. The cemetery administration therefore persuaded the game’s manufacturer to delete the Pokémons in question.

That was five years ago, but with more than 70 million active players worldwide, Pokémon Go is still the most popular of the so-called hybrid reality games. We study this phenomenon in subproject B04 because it is a particularly vivid example of how digital reality is entering public space via smartphones. Cell phone owners have long used digital maps to navigate unfamiliar streets in real time, or dating apps to find people to flirt with in their vicinity. Such apps, which access the location functions of smartphones, are summarized in spatial research under the term “locative media”. Researchers anticipate that they will increasingly shape public life in the future. In our research project, we investigate how social cohabitation changes in the course of this mediatization. We are specifically looking at hybrid reality games because they currently push the limits of the technical possibilities of locative media. Social consequences and conflicts presumably manifest more forcefully and earlier here than in other areas of public life.

We are therefore not only conducting numerous interviews with Pokémon players in Germany, but we also traveled to Tokyo, the mecca for hybrid reality games. The smooth integration of Pokémon Go into Tokyo’s public space can be observed on the forecourt of the Yodabashi Camera electronics market. Hundreds of players regularly gather here to defeat particularly powerful Pokémons. Stickers displaying the Pokémon logo identify white benches as seating specifically intended for players. These are arranged in long rows so that the people sitting there can look in the direction of the electronics market, though in actuality they mainly look at their cell phones. Just as many passersby crowd in between and next to them, going about their business and barely noticing the players present.

From Europe, we know that many cemeteries—see Neuss—, churches as well as memorials have now banned Pokémon Go. In contrast, we find that in Tokyo playing Pokémon Go is perceived as less conflictual and is generally tolerated even by religious bodies. On our forays through Tokyo, monster hunting was possible at religious sites or cemeteries at all times. On the grounds of temples, statues serve as Pokéstops, where players can equip themselves with Pokéballs and other tools for monster hunting. Our Japanese interviewees report that even the few temples and shrines where Pokémon Go is unwelcome rarely opt for the technical solution of deletion; rather, they post notices asking players to refrain from playing there.

Evidently, there are crucial differences in the public approach to hybrid reality games. We now want to analyze these differences further in order to understand what kind of strategies and cultural practices have emerged in both countries to deal with and/or avoid space-related disputes. We also want to contribute to the overarching project of the CRC to analyze conflicts between different spatial figures and to elaborate the aspect of multiple spatialities. Ultimately, we aim to learn more about the problems that locative media are likely to present in the future as well as the potential solutions that are already starting to take shape in different regions.

Author Information: Eric Lettkemann holds a PhD in sociology and is a researcher at the CRC 1265. In the subproject B04 on locative media, he deals with spatial conflicts resulting from the increasing overlapping of public space with digital significations.