Pokémon Go and the Sanctity of Heritage Landscapes
One of Finland’s best-preserved wooden churches today sits outside Oulu, where the Kiiminki Church was completed in 1760. The modest cruciform frame church in northern Finland was designed by church architect Matti Honka and is noted for its spectacularly well-preserved altar painted by Mikael Toppelius in the 1780s. Like scores of other Finnish community church yards, the Kiiminki church is surrounded by a cemetery that includes the remains of local soldiers who fell during World War II. Often referred to as “heroes’ cemeteries” or “hero graves,” these resting places are staples of the Finnish countryside testifying to the Finns’ concrete World War II losses—and at least implicitly underscoring the nation’s defense against global super powers.
In the midst of the Kiiminki cemetery a stream of visitors moves across the site in a very distinctive motion familiar everywhere in the world with wireless coverage. In small groups shuffling forward, trading counsel, and studying their cell phone screens, Pokémon Go players hunt down virtual creatures in real-world surroundings including Kiiminki’s church and cemetery. The augmented reality mode of Pokémon Go transforms prosaic spaces—neighborhoods, religious spaces, historic sites–into newly engaged landscapes populated by multi-colored creatures, Poké Stops to fortify your avatar’s supplies, and Poké Gyms to train and bond with other players.
Anxious observers almost instantly distinguished the characteristic Poké-walking movement—intently shuffling forward focused on the app’s visualization of local space—as “zombie-like,” implying or openly arguing that such apparent movement and consciousness is another confirmation that youth in particular and society in general have retreated from reality and apparently authentic human experiences. One critic of players crowding into a Sydney, Australia park argued that when gamers descended onto the park “it looked like the scene from World War Z with zombies about to breach and climb over the wall.” The Independent’s Michael O’Doherty dismissed Pokémon Go players in Dublin as “phone-addicted cretins” who confirm “that much of the general population is far dumber than we all feared.”
In a Huffington Post piece on Pokémon Go Dawn Q. Landau also invoked the rhetorical “zombie apocalypse” and acknowledged her own uneasiness that players “stagger around waving their phones in the air, or stare off at the landscape, with a feverish look: zombie.” However, she concludes that the game promotes genuine social and spatial engagement, suggesting that players are “talking to me, and happy to tell me about what they’re doing. They’re talking to each other, as they all try and get new high scores. They’re engaging in their communities and the out of doors. These zombies are not the brain dead creatures that I expected from a zombie apocalypse; they’re fun, and excited to spread more fun.”
The trickle of Pokémon Go players in Kiiminki, Finland can be found in an astounding number of places throughout much of the world. Alongside the Crown Jewels, for instance, the Tower of London harbors a host of rare Pokémon including Koffing, Tentacool, Hitmonlee, Sandshrew, Polywhirl, and Dragonite; Times Square has a massive Poké Gym; and legions of Pokémon hide in the gardens in Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, an early 20th-century Shinto shrine to Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. While the number of active players has decreased since the game’s release in July, there were still about 30 million active players at the end of August and roughly 5000 downloads of the game every minute on September 1st. In July the National Park Service reported a dramatic upsurge in attendance it linked to Pokémon Go play; the New York Times’ Amy Butcher celebrated the game’s capacity to illuminate local landscapes that melt into ignored everyday life; and some churches have applauded the game’s ability to draw visitors to houses of worship.
The places where Pokémon Go can be found include many heritage landscapes, and some observers decry Pokémon Go play in sacrosanct places violated by a Pokémon hunt. In July, for instance, both the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and Auschwitz asked that they be removed from game maps because they were sacred sites (a year ago Pokémon Go maker Niantic Labs also drew criticism for including Holocaust sites in its augmented reality game Ingress). Similar resistance to Pokémon Go play has been voiced at heritage sites including the National September 11 Memorial in New York City, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, and Arlington National Cemetery, but even less traditional heritage spaces have banned Pokémon Go in environmental preserves, small French villages, and local cemeteries (though some communities see the game as a mechanism to transform cemeteries into broadly used public space).
Heritage sites perpetually wrestle with a host of practices that seem to violate mostly ambiguous implied codes of respect even as they struggle to narrate meaningful historical narratives. Conventionally heritage landscapes preserve history’s stages (e.g., battlefields) or provide contemplative spaces (e.g., museums) that invoke the power of place in service to heritage narratives. Particular places become cast as sanctified through their definition as commemorative spaces acknowledging tragedy and loss, and while few observers would defend Pokémon Go in Auschwitz the exclusion of the game from a host of house museums, public spaces, and historic sites is somewhat more problematic. The anxiety prompted by Pokémon Go may be that it ignores the veneer of heritage and imagines place in enormously broad, digitally mediated terms. Defenders of heritage sites may worry that visitors to attractions like the Tower of London are simply chasing Pokémon and ignoring the heritage itself, but they may also implicitly worry that those heritage narratives are boring if not outright irrelevant to many people.
This digitized heritage experience is perhaps compounded by generational distinctions; that is, a digitally literate youth culture seemingly far-removed from historical events may be departing from staid narrative mechanisms by experiencing heritage landscapes through distinctive digital, social, and embodied experiences. Some ideologues who resist the marriage of technology and heritage experiences risk ignoring their obvious conquest or reveal their own uneasiness about relinquishing control of spatial and interpretive experiences to phone-wielding visitors. However, most heritage scholars have accepted or embraced digital mechanisms to complicate conventional models for historic site visitation, which are often wed to structured historical narratives rooted in the corporeal experience of being in a heritage landscape. For instance, Basel Switzerland is one of the communities that has embraced Pokémon Go and integrated gameplay into visitors’ experience of Basel’s well-preserved medieval town center. Oregon’s Travel Portland is among the cities that provide visitors a guide to Pokémon Go spots at historic sites, museums, parks, and retail spaces alike; similar programs have been launched by Visit Anaheim, Rhode Island’s Go Providence, English Heritage, and Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, where Pokémon can be caught at the fabled Revolutionary War Valley Forge National Historic Park. Colleen Morgan’s Middle Savagery blog nicely captures the potential of Pokémon Go, arguing that the “first lesson from Pokémon Go for archaeologists and heritage managers is that people are looking for novel, collective ways to experience and perform heritage.” Yet in response to Pokémon Go critic Stu Eve’s thoughtful but firm rejection of Pokémon Go on heritage sites, Morgan also worries that heritage scholars’ resistance to Pokémon Go may signal “a corresponding retreat from digital media in archaeology from some of the most forward thinking digital archaeologists.”
Some tourism and heritage observers certainly are skeptical that Pokémon Go can fuel meaningful heritage experiences or is more than a momentary tourist fad. In late August, for instance, Thailand’s Tourism and Sports Ministry proposed to seed much of the country with Pokémon Go attractions, but Thai journalist Achara Deboonme expressed skepticism that “I can’t help thinking that this is a gimmick and that the tourism agency needs to think harder.” Deboonme argued that Thailand already “has great hospitality, food, culture and natural wonders with which to lure visitors,” and she was skeptical that the predominately youth following for the game would attract “`quality’ tourists who are willing to pay handsomely for products and services.”
The phone app Spot Message uses an augmented reality system much like Pokémon Go to visit cemeteries and receive messages from the dearly departed. The app’s developer Yoshiyuki Katori indicated that the sudden death of an uncle “shattered the lives of his family. I also respected him a lot, so I would often visit his grave, consulting with him in my mind whenever I had issues concerning my business. I wondered how comforting it would be if he could talk to me at his grave, with messages like ‘How are you doing?’ and ‘Hang in there.’” Most media attention has focused on the app’s potential to record videos to be shown in cemeteries after death, but the technology could of course be used to document any place-based event, and augmented reality heritage apps have been examined and developed over more than 15 years (e.g., compare the 2001 ARCHEOGUIDE: first results of an augmented reality, mobile computing system in cultural heritage sites; more recently, examples include the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics’ 2015 newsletter on augmented reality applications).
Augmented reality apps certainly could transform place-based heritage narratives by placing them in the hands of disparate storytellers likely to narrate prosaic and perhaps even idiosyncratic histories that break from grand interpretations. It is probably reasonable that some heritage landscapes remain outside augmented reality gaming, but it is difficult in many cases to distinguish between landscapes where heritage should be somehow sacrosanct and where it is open to a reasonable variety of experiences.
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Pentagon Poké Gym image from WJLA
Pokémon Go DoDuo at Holocaust Memorial Museum image from Washington Post
Pokemon Go September 11 Memorial image from Daily Mail
Pokémon Go at Stonehenge image from English Heritage facebook page
Spot Message screenshot image by Ryoshin Sekizai in The Japan Times