Catching Utopia: the Radical Potential of Pokémon Go

The left has a tendency to fall into the beautiful soul syndrome. For Hegel the beautiful souls are those who abstract from reality, condemning it from a safe position without realizing their implication and guilt in the very construction of this reality. Evil is not in the eye of the beholder, rather, it is the eye of the beholder: the “impartial gaze” which sees evil everywhere while saving itself as the only righteous one, is the true source of evil. The recent responses to Pokémon Go fall precisely into this schema.

Major news outlets are littered with headlines warning the public of muggings and creepy perverts waiting for innocent Pokémon Go playing youth. They love to emphasize how “mindless” players trespass and break laws, finding dead bodies and trouble. It stereotypes players as apathetic zombies. Yet, this is all to be expected from the fear mongering mainstream press. What is most unsettling, however, is that the left has joined in on this game. Articles in popular leftist publications (from The Young Turks to Jacobin, and The Guardian) have been quick to condemn Pokémon go as corporatist, detached from social reality, and ultimately a fantasy disguised to obfuscate class and racial tensions. Its players, they claim, are “infantilized adults” while the game is built around the “systematic bullying of the weak”. The argument continues, that since Niantic worked on GPS and Google earth technology, “something originally designed to help steer guided missiles” therefore, “the game casts its eye over the world from a military satellite far up in outer space, utterly indifferent to sensuous experience, utterly foreign to human life.” Other popular criticisms emphasize that black men, since they are disproportionately more likely to be targeted by the police, should not play the game alone, claiming it is “very dangerous” for select minorities.

The majorities of these critiques, however, are unscrupulous and indicate a glaring lack of familiarity with the game. Some are even more problematic and revert to right wing style invocations of fear (if black men should not paly the game out of fear they should also not walk down stairs or drive a car). While certain analyses are indeed valuable, they all share dismissal of the simple, yet momentous, achievement of Pokémon GO: for the fist time a popular computer game has incentivized massive, useless, gathering in public space. In so doing, it abounds with potential for radical collectivity.

Defending Pokémon Go                       

 The favorite target of criticism is Pokémon Go’s Pokéstop –locations where players receive items and can place “lures”, attracting Pokémon and thus fellow players. The media chastises these locations as dangerous traps where robbers and sexual deviants are preying upon the defenseless. The Left loves to condemn these same spots for their corporatist underpinnings (some Pokéstops are stores): the Pokemap is a zone where corporations dictate movement; they argue that, in the future, businesses will pay Niantic for Pokéstops and lures close to their location. But wait a minute –have these critics actually played the game? The majority of Pokéstops are interesting landmarks from architectural abnormalities to public parks and churches. The game map was not created by businesses requesting to be added to the game map; – it was developed by beta testers who then reported and inputted locations of interest to Niantic. This is how there are extremely specific Pokéstops. Google Maps does not have the technology to detect the “Aztec -style architectural ruins” (a real Pokéstop at the corner of a obscure block in Brooklyn).

Pokémon Go’s map, then, does not simply ignore social reality –it can and does actively engage with it. One Pokéstop in Cleveland marks the space where police killed Tamir Rice. It reads as follows: “Community memorial for Tamir Rice, shot and killed by CPD officers who shot him in under 2s after breaking department policy regarding escalation of force.” Is this not case and point: Pokémon Go functioning as a memoriam for social justice (a justice which mainstream narratives explicitly deny). Since Pokémon Go incentivizes gathering through lures, it creates a hub around this spot and one that inevitably begins to generate talking, thinking, and perhaps even organizing. Those who are uninterested in social justice and come to catch Pokémon find themselves confronted with the hard social reality.

There is thus more to the game then isolated individuals catching Pokémon alone. The map is not an escapist fantasy; rather, it can serve to confront players with social and political reality quite well. There is a direct parallel here between Pokémon Go and what Marxist philosopher Mladen Dolar calls “smoking communism”. For Dolar “social smoking is never socially neutral. Its social and historical connotations stretch in all directions… under present conditions of ban and the growing political anathema, against the backdrop of the excessive campaign and ever new regulations that epitomize something like a caricature of ‘biopolitics’ in its link with exclusion, smoking as a rule emerges as a metaphor, it mirrors and refracts all other exclusions in a miniature model, it traces a line of division which assembles and brings together multiple dividing lines. Smokers state and represent. They represent e. g. the cancer on the healthy social body, and enjoyment is increasingly treated like a cancer on the prescribed normative bodily demeanor.”

 Pokémon Go players are in a similar predicament –they are chastised as unproductive workers, and lazy, infantilized, youth. It is in this space, as Dolar notes, that radical activity can form. Where people from different economic, racial, gender, and social backgrounds uselessly gather, the potential for class-consciousness arises. Here workers share stories about exploitation, complain about game, dream up “useless” fantasies of alternative ways Pokémon Go can function, and so on. At Pokéstops what begins as a conversation about “poke-hunting” may develop into one about the flaws of the game and soon about a myriad of unrelated topics. Rather then representing the “bullying” space that some like Sam Kriss make Pokéstops out to be, they regularly function as the communal space of sharing tips, mutual dissatisfaction, and even items, portable phone chargers, and Wi-Fi for the benefit of the commune.

Obviously, Pokémon go is not a utopia; its corporatist roots are troublesome and no one would claim that it adequately addresses all socio-economic strife. Yet this is no excuse for abandoning the field altogether. In addition to the arguments presented above for its radical potentiality, Niantic claims that only 10 percent of the games planned content has been realized. Pokémon GO is in Beta form, much of it is still in development and open to new possibilities.

Such a scenario, especially with the games much publicized glitches and user frustration, creates a perfect opportunity for unofficial alternative (hacked) versions of the game. Many such versions currently feature workarounds to the Pokémon tracking glitch but the possibilities for more elaborate alternatives are endless. In a similar situation Super Smash Bro’s players, unhappy with the mechanics of the newer versions (brawl) re-wrote the game and created “Project M”. This alternative version became so popular that it at one point even rivaled the original in popularity. What is to prevent something similar from occurring with Pokémon GO?

In instances such as this, the Left has an invaluable opportunity to articulate what psychoanalytic theory calls a “master signifier”. A master signifier is a point that ‘quilts’ the infinite sliding of signifiers by giving a stable meaning to a situation. Pokémon GO is currently lacking such a dominant signification. It is open for interpretation and it is ripe with radical possibilities for future direction. If the left is able to present its own master signifier, for instance, argue that Pokémon GO harbors collectivist potential and should shed its corporatist roots, then it can directly shape its development. It can mobilize people in uproar if Niantic attempts to sell access to Pokéstops. It can help mobilize an alternative version with more political Pokéstops and incentivize communitarianism.

The left should be screaming with thoughts and potentialities. There are millions of people playing Pokémon GO that are alienated by the fear-mongering media, a condescending public, and mishandled bugs in the game; tensions between its community and the creator continue to rise. And yet under these perfect circumstances, ripe for a radical perspective, where is the left? What does it offer to those disillusioned – nothing; a cold shoulder and sharp condemnation. It is all too content to play its game as the beautiful soul – content sitting at home in its masturbatory self-righteous cynicism.

This is indicative of the attitude of late capitalism’s administered society where risk is nullified. As Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, contemporary culture is one where subjects enjoined to partake in activities without their constitutive excessive (risky) feature: coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, love without the fall, revolution without risk and so on. In late capitalism, profit demands stability. The Left’s response to Pokémon Go is exemplary of such an attitude. Its refusal to engage and actively fight for a leftist version of Pokémon signals a refusal of risk –its desire for revolution without revolution; that is, without putting its own beautiful ethical soul on the line and without risky solidarity. It signals in advance that the left does not believe in itself—it already gives the terrain it should be fighting for (a leftist version Pokémon Go) to the enemy.

Pokémon Go is no-doubt problematic, but it also burgeons with radical potential. The Left should never smugly dismiss such explosive sites – that’s the job of beautiful soul liberals. Rather the task of an authentic left is to engage in the muckraking work of illuminating and presencing these points of radical potential.