Back in July, I wrote a short thing for Scroll.in, based on some thoughts I had after Keisha McKenzie’s really great set of tweets about Pokémon Go. At the time, I was also sorting through some of the thoughts that would become this review, and I’m not sure if reading them together might be instructive, or if I’m likely to repeat myself quite a bit. Anyway, the published version of this piece is linked above; here is a slightly edited (or slightly less edited) version:
Amidst the flood of Pokémon Go stories that have dominated the news in the last week or so (to whatever extent a single story can be said to have dominated this week’s news) one recurring theme has been that of the game’s straying into the real world in unfortunate ways. This is unsurprising—the very aspect of the game that is newsworthy is the relationship between its virtual space and the tangible, material space that we all exist in. Exhorting its users to “step outside and explore the world”, the game turns travelling through mundane urban landscapes (more rural areas haven’t been quite as well catered for) into an adventure, making you the protagonist of your own fantastic quest.
There is both joy and genuine radical potential in this sort of transformation of space—as anyone who has ever been a child ought to recognise. Children turn environments made for people not them into different spaces all the time, layering fiction over fact to create a space for play. Other groups also perform versions of this reimagining of space—some practitioners of parkour, for example, describe the practice as a subversive way of reclaiming urban spaces by using them in unconventional and disruptive ways. In a sense, Pokémon Go might be said to be performing the sort of “re-enchantment” of the world that Michael Saler describes in As If, his study of fantasy and virtual reality as responses to modernity. Which is all (as far as it goes) wonderful.
Yet the subversive potential of reimagining the world depends largely on who is doing this reimagining.
Keisha E. McKenzie, an academic, technical communicator and consultant, compares Pokémon Go’s overlaying of real and virtual terrain to the mapping of the world by European explorers in the age of Empire. “Wherever their maps showed the fountain of youth or the city of gold, even if those locations overlaid entire nations and peoples, they claimed the right to go, explore, discover, and capture, and people’s lives became their gamespace.”
It’s hardly surprising that much of modern fantasy, and its associated virtual reality, grows directly out of the genre sometimes called imperial romance—in these adventure stories, the strange terrain through which our heroes must travel in order to complete the quest is that of Asia, or Africa, or South America. They return home wiser, better (and often richer) men. Considered through this body of literature, the vast majority of the globe sometimes appears to exist purely so that British men will have somewhere to have adventures. This would all be very charming, but obviously it’s no coincidence that the genre’s heyday coincided with that of European imperialism. Explorers were romanticised in popular culture, with “real” accounts of their doings proving as popular as adventure novels, and there was an open understanding that the readers of these stories, both real and fictional, would grow up to participate in the protection and governance of the empire. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, however, explorers were running out of “blank space[s] of delightful mystery” (as Conrad describes them in Heart of Darkness) to map, explore and claim. Again, it’s no coincidence that the beginning of the twentieth century should see a flowering of fantasy and science fiction, providing heroes with new worlds (and planets) in which to go questing. Spaces in which, essentially, to be imperialists.
The colonisers had had a vested interest in ridding the land, as far as possible, of competing histories and significances, discounting existing, indigenous cultural and geographical understandings of the space (at this point the author goes off into a separate monologue about the historical uses to which Terra nullius was put). The effect of this in narrative was to rid the territory of any purpose other than the protagonist’s personal or material quest. In fantasy, of course, this is literally true—the fantasy world only exists for the purposes of the quest narrative. Diana Wynne Jones begins her brilliant Tough Guide to Fantasyland (a tourist’s guidebook that takes on practically every cliché of the genre) with the injunction to “find the MAP … if you take this Tour, you are going to have to visit every single place on this Map, whether it is marked or not. This is a Rule.” Local landmarks, where they appear, figure as stages of a sort of obstacle course on the protagonist’s journey to collect (or destroy) the magical object. Or they are reduced to a form of scenery–as Farah Mendlesohn notes (in Rhetorics of Fantasy), the fact that the hero moves through the space has the effect of rendering the world itself static. (The local population is similarly mostly absent, though it sometimes presents another obstacle in the form of a faceless barbarian horde.)
To be able to treat a space as something inherently designed for one’s own personal material or spiritual benefit is to be in a position of power, and these particular spatial power relations continue into the real world and into other genres of writing—at one level, King Solomon’s Mines, Eat, Pray, Love and The Hobbit are all versions of the same story. That this power, this assumption of the fundamental availability of spaces and of one’s own welcome within them, are not available to everyone has become clear over the weeks since the popularity of Pokémon Go has risen—see, for example, Omari Akil’s piece on the potential danger of playing the game as a black man in America, or the conversation initiated by Ana Mardoll, among others, around the difficulties of playing the game for people with disabilities.
The fantasy cannot re-enchant the world without being fundamentally connected to the world, and in the past few days we’ve been reminded of this several times when the demands of the real and virtual spaces have collided—such as the appearance of Pokémon at Auschwitz, at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and at the 9/11 memorial, spaces with too much cultural significance (and specifically, places of mourning) to be easily subsumed into the landscape of the quest (and there’s an important conversation to be had about which are understood to be sacred ). There have also been gruesome stories of people coming across corpses while playing the game.
The possibility of stumbling across a (real) dead body is remote, but there are plenty of good reasons to be wary of Pokémon Go, and other people have already articulated them. It’s unlikely that it will make much of a difference (and sources of joy are few enough in the world at the moment that it’s hard to judge anyone who chooses to ignore the dire warnings). But many of those who play the game will find themselves inevitably negotiating the obstacles that are part of the real world; constant reminders of who does, or does not, have power over the space, and who fantasy quests are really for.