Pokemon Go is a mass demon summoning that's destroying our reality

Or: how Pokemon Go, Ingress, and other AR location-based games are changing the way we experience our world

There is a surprisingly good argument that Pokemon Go constitutes a mass act of demonic summoning which threatens to destabilise our conventional reality and may already have done so.

The idea, as explained by British game designer Minkette at Videobrains last year, is this: Pokemon Go’s gyms Pokestops are determined using data drawn from its predecessor game, Ingress. That data was generated by players, who put down “portals” in places which they frequently visited. So the distribution of these points is really a map of human psychic investment, of how significant places are to people – “a new map of places of power” equivalent to modern ley lines. Then we put a game about summoning invisible monsters on top of that. “And everyone wonders,” said Minkette, “why 2016 went so badly.”

Many people have imputed occult power to videogames. Ever since James Dallas Egbert III got lost in the maintenance tunnels under Michigan State University – his mind supposedly warped by too much Dungeons and Dragons – they have been depicted as powerful perverters of our youth. I have absolutely no doubt that someone, somewhere, believes Pokemon Go is a tool of Satan. In fact, I think I met the person in question in Union Square, Manhattan, under the eyes of the great glowing Metronome, shouting about how everything we see is a lie and phone payment systems are a precursor to the Mark of the Beast.

The troubling thing is that I now think Niantic, the developers of Pokemon Go, might believe something like this too. Albeit in their own way.

Earlier this month, Dennis Hwang, a former Google Doodler who is now Niantic's director of visual and interaction design, gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference. The next day his company won “best handheld / mobile game” at the Game Developers’ Choice Awards, testifying to the power and reach of a game that for some months in 2016 looked like it was taking over the world. And in fact, according to Hwang, from the beginning Niantic was motivated by a desire to modify people’s actual behaviour in meatspace, using mobile games as a prompt.

“We wanted to change how people were reacting to their smartphones,” he said. “You see a beautiful beach and you see a family that has children, and the parents are just looking at their phone while the kids are begging for attention. So we looked at smartphones, and we said, hey, these are really powerful computing devices in virtually everyone’s pockets….we can change the relationship people have with their surroundings using these devices. That was the core mission of the company.”

It worked. In parks and public spaces across the world Pokemon Go catalysed seemingly spontaneous mass gatherings of the kind which have historically terrified authorities, radically temporary communities drawing together people who would never otherwise have shared the same space – as well as numerous smaller encounters in suburban creeks and backlots. Public libraries and museums found their foot traffic rejuvenated overnight. “It was amazing,” said Hwang, showing a picture of a huge “Pokemon crawl” in San Francisco.. “It was almost this utopian thing – it didn’t matter what gender, what class you’re from, what ethnicity…Pokemon was this common bond. In parks you could see hundreds of people and someone would yell out ‘Pokemon!’ and the whole park would cheer.” Behind the scenes, Niantic had trouble managing the demand: its server traffic was 50 times their target and 10 times their “worst case” maximum load.

That success was born from a recognition that “augmented” reality is already here in the form of the boring digital tools we now use to navigate space. In big urban centres mapping apps, GPS and instant taxi bookings create an extra layer of reality on top of the usual streets which supplement and potentially threaten to obscure them. Niantic wanted to find out, given these tools, how you could make people move. “If we can change someone’s habit, change their route through the commute, if they walked a few extra blocks, we would be totally happy,” said Hwang. “We knew how hard it was to get people off the chair and move due to some app or some game.” Then he showed a map of someone’s walk to work before Ingress and after it: one a straight line across the side of a park, the other an intricate wander through the park itself.

But the behavioural changes driven by Ingress went beyond that. Just as Pokemon Go players had walked 8.7 billion kilometres by December 2016, 60 per cent of surveyed Ingress players reported losing weight. Thousands gathered for big social events called “anomalies” in Cologne, Tokyo, and Seoul. “We started seeing Ingress marriages and Ingress babies,” said Hwang. Some people got tattoos of the faction icons, leading Hwang to realise with horror that he could no longer change what had theoretically been only provisional art assets.

So yes, Niantec created an invisible force field interpenetrating the world which drove changes in that world which might otherwise seem inexplicable. But don’t take my word for it: the reason I bring up occultism is because Ingress’ marketing leaned heavily into such ideas. The game was explicitly built around the fantasy of a secret world, of secret energy flows, just behind the ones we know. Hwang showed a trailer which was full of suggestive quotes the game was attempting to make literally true: "Certain places have an energy that not only attracts people but attracts events…You just have to know where to look and know what you’re seeing…What if they're already among us, but we don't realise it?" Part of the pleasure of location-based AR games is that “they” really are, and maybe you get to be “them”.

Yet this sense of secret fraternity, so common to cults, which fulfils the literal meaning of the word “occult” (that is, “hidden”), can also be disturbing. The sociologist Nathan Jurgenson has argued that Pokemon Go was read by muggles as a potential threat to social order because of precisely this tension: “It creates a knowledge of and experience with the world that isn’t shared by everyone present,” making “space feel a little less shared and public, and a little more exclusionary and fractured.” Yet it also makes this secret knowledge visible by creating groups of people who are clearly, mysteriously enjoying a joke you’re not in on. Think of the fear provoked by a snatch of laughter in a hostile place: maybe they’re laughing at you.

And here is where things get messy, because the temporary communities and connections created by Pokemon Go were not always utopian. You’ve probably already read the tales of dead bodies in ditches, Pokemon-aided robberies, cliff falls, accidents. There is an equally long list of protests from operators of shops, churches, war memorials, holocaust museums, cemeteries, and the Indonesian army. Many such complaints have now been rolled into a combined class action lawsuit representing property owners who did not give permission for Pokestops to be placed on their land.And when those huge happy mobs descended on public parks in Milwaukee, they caused such damage that the city now requires makers of location-based games to take out a permit before using their locations.

These problems can’t possibly represent more than a small share of human encounters with Pokemon Go. But they happen because, in Jurgenson’s phrase, reality is “always already augmented.” What we’ve seen is the game’s spatial layer crashing into and rubbing up against the other layers which are already there, and which rarely affect every human being equally. There is the legal layer, the lines drawn across maps defining areas of property and zones of urban regulation, sometimes depending on complex chains of records stretching back into the 19th century and requiring specialised labour to trace. There is the social and material layer: who exists in this space, who do they welcome and exclude as a matter of practice, and how do they do so? There is the institutional design layer – the network of assumptions and practices which leads to a space being designed in the way that it has been (such as with adequate lighting or without ramps for people in wheelchairs). And then there is the psychological layer, which influences and is influenced by all the others. From the fear of middle-class people who cross through poor neighbourhoods, through the feeling of surveillance and ‘not belonging’ experienced by people of colour in overwhelmingly white spaces, to the intimate knowledge women and queer people often have of where they are likely and unlikely to be harassed, catcalled, or assaulted, we all have beliefs and assumptions about the spaces we move through, which are justified or useful to almost infinitely variable degrees. We know the taste of these beliefs intimately, even if we don’t understand them; we know when we have crossed over an invisible line into a place where we feel welcome or unwelcome, safe or scared.

These layers, as Brendan Keogh has written, “give [Pokemon Go] a politics, whether the game wants it or not.” Niantic have created a system which leads people to move around in a particular way, creating new lines of force for them to follow. But that space is already occupied by other lines of force which interact with the game’s in unpredictable ways. To go in search of a Pokemon is to put yourself on a collision course with some or all of these other layers. And to build something which systematically incentivises people to search is to build something which systematically produces those collisions.

These collisions are not necessarily bad or dangerous. They are precisely what makes the game interesting. A collision is happening between the game and your existing assumptions about spaces when you see a Drowzee in your office in your lazy boss’s chair, or simply a leaf-type Pokemon in a park. As I’ve argued before, this is simply how games operate: by producing encounters between a digital stimulus and the pre-existing biological, cultural, and psychological systems which let a play of lights on a screen be interpreted as a human figure who looks kind of like your ex. But obviously it matters what kind of collisions are being produced (e.g. with your ex).

After Dennis Hwang’s talk I asked how prepared Niantic had been for these kinds of problems, having already seen what they could do with Ingress. “We did anticipate a lot of those issues,” he said, “but in a much smaller scale. We didn’t quite anticipate the massive explosion of player activity.” He pointed to adjustments Niantic has made since release, such as a speed limit warning which kicks in if you try to travel over 10.5km per hour and continual reminders to players to “be aware of their surroundings.” There is now a procedure for requesting Pokestop removal. He also said the company has a “healthy relationship” with park operators and local governments, with whom it is in “continuous dialogue”.  

Still, I wonder if they really comprehend the forces they are calling up. Niantic’s response to the lawsuit cites the Pokemon Go Terms Of Service, which forbid trespassing, and a message on its own website which tells players who find Pokestops on private property that there’ll be “more just around the corner.” But at the same time Niantic themselves have explicitly said they wanted to change people's behaviour, to change reality via the application of secret energy flows. You can't set out to do that, take credit for the changes you intended, and then say you're not responsible for the ones you didn't. Ask how well that went for Faustus.