Rhetorical Spaces

A blog about writing, space, and technology

Pokemon Go to Sacred Spaces


I was in Europe for two weeks this summer, and as is probably a common experience for many tourists, I went to more museums than I can remember. After a while, I started to notice some interesting variations in how these spaces encode and enforce their historical, political, and/or religious significance by regulating the actions of visitors: at a 10th century church in north Germany, I was told not to film the paintings; at a beautiful, towering cathedral in Poland, I was told to remove my hat; at the former home of Frederic the Great in Germany, I was told to not take any pictures of the palace interior (or else pay ten euros for a "photo pass"); at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, I wasn't "told" to do anything. With each interaction, I gained a little more knowledge about not just why but how spaces are configured as sacred through the actions of those who pass through them.

Public memorials are often designed to be physically obtrusive for visitors. They are material markers whose physical presence is not only intended to represent but to materially enact collective remembrance. In many cases, memorials are designed to (literally) get in the way of the quotidian activities of public life. The German artist Gunter Demnig, for instance, has been installing "stolpersteins" (or "stumbling stones") throughout Europe since the early 1990's. In what is described on Wikipedia as "the world's largest decentralized memorial," a stolperstein is placed at the last freely chosen place of residency for those sent away to Nazi concentration camps. As memorials, stolpersteins are designed to be intrusive, to carve time out of people's habituated routes as they walk by and "stumble" upon them.

I was on a family trip to New York City recently, and one morning we took a train downtown to visit the 9/11 memorial. Walking down Greenwich Street, it's impossible not to see (and hear) the Twin Tower reflection pools. Erected at the original site of the North and South Towers, the pools operate as cultural pedagogy, or as a material instruction for how we are to respond to 9/11 as an historical event: the dialectic between national suffering and national healing is materially "reflected" by the pools' disappearing center (unspeakable trauma) and flowing water (outpouring of hope and support). Similar to Deming's "stumbling stones," the public is meant to encounter the reflection pools as a physically obstructive reminder of American tragedy, incorporating its message as an embodied, affective event.

Surprisingly, I also felt all of these things when my Pokemon Go avatar came across the North Tower reflection pool.

I think one of the reasons I was so shocked by the digital reflection pools is because of the disruption that the memorial evoked within the procedurality of the game's digital environment. As a Pokemon Go player, I typically proceed un-reflectively through the digital landscape of Pokemon Go, only stopping to ponder its non-descript trees, intersections, parks, and buildings insofar as they participate within the processes embedded within the game (i.e. as locations for catching/fighting pokemon). In the case of the North and South reflection pools, however, their presence within the digital world of Pokemon Go was (for me at least) significant beyond their role within the game’s processes. Although they were just a collection of pixelated blue squares, their presence struck me as unique and significant, sticking out like public scars in an otherwise bustling, energetic landscape. The digital reflection pools were so noticeable because they reversed the procedural logic that many find troublesome in the game's ability to (super)impose itself upon sacred spaces.

For someone like Leonard Pitts jr., I should be “throttled” for even having the application open in such a place. Pitts’ article "Capture This! It's wrong to play Pokemon at Auschwitz!" comes in response to reports that Pokemon Go players have been spotted capturing digital monsters at sacred spaces such as Holocaust museums and national cemeteries. For Pitts and many others critical of the game's careless dispersal of pokemon spawning locations, augmented reality games like Pokemon Go are not only distracting for the other visitors, but more importantly dishonor those for whom the space is intended as a site of remembrance.

Pitts is not alone in his disdain for Pokemon Go. From hospitals to private homes, Niantic has received a plethora of requests from various locations asking to removed from the game. Although it seems simple enough to implement in the next app update, Niantic currently has no system in place (at least to my knowledge) for barring pokemon spawning in locations like memorial sites, museums, and cemeteries. (Although, if you happen to be friends with the Niantic Board of Directors, you can personally request that pokemon be prevented from spawning on private property) But even if Niantic were to implement a system for restricting pokemon spawning locations, it would be nearly impossible for Niantic to remove all unwanted pokemon considering that the designation of a space as "sacred" is determined by a multitude of cultural, ideological, and political factors that are not likely to be taken into account for every square inch of the game's digital landscape. Pikachu will always be trespassing somewhere, it seems.

For the most part, it seems that people are not as upset with Niantic as they are the people who choose to engage with the game in a place like Auschwitz. After all, other mobile games and social media apps still function in such places, and we don’t hold those developer responsible for their user's inappropriate actions. The real culprit, it seems to me, is the game's augmented reality functionality, or the overlaying of digital pokemon within physical space. This feature, even though it is a relatively minor aspect of the game, is often featured prominently in articles discussing this issue. Indeed, it’s hard to deny that a smiling, bouncy Koffing (a pokemon who excretes poisonous gas) at the Holocaust Museum creates a jarring and inappropriate visual juxtaposition. There is a kind of digital colonization taking place that undeniably configures the Pokemon Go player as flippant (at best) and cruel (at worst).

In "Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias," Michel Foucault describes how spaces become configured as "heterotopic" when they juxtapose "in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (6). For Foucault, such spaces are full of "superimposed meanings," which then generate further meanings through their concatenation. As Robert Topinka explains, "by cutting and clashing with order, heterotopias force new forms of knowledge to emerge" (64).

What "new forms of knowledge" emerge in the clash between sacred-physical and playful-digital spaces? When I first saw the integration of the north and south tower reflection pools within the game's digital rendering of my surroundings at Ground Zero, I (literally) confronted the key difference between virtual and augmented reality environments: whereas virtual reality traditionally places the user in an entirely digital world with no necessary correspondence to physical reality, AR must necessarily take into account the physical spaces of the user's surroundings in its design, including those elements that merely serve to be "disrupt" the AR experience. I know it seems simple, but the lesson to be learned from all of this, at least in terms of AR as a technology for writing within public spaces, is that "augmentation" is not simply the (super)imposition of playful digital elements upon physical spaces (e.g. pokemon at Auschwitz), but simultaneously the (super)imposition of sacred physical elements upon playful digital spaces (the Twin Tower reflection pools). Indeed, as AR technology begins to move forward and more GPS-enabled mobile AR games are developed, we are likely to encounter even more "incompatible" juxtapositions between physical and digital space.