Pokémon GO was, and is, one of the most interesting examples of gaming culture in the last two years. Many players and critics have commented on how fad-ish the game was: it became instantly and massively popular upon its release, but the number of active players quickly fell off after a few months. The game brought people together from around the world to capture Pokémon; it got folks outside and exploring; it allowed players to interact with the world around them in unexpected and emergent ways; and it got people to invest a great deal of time and money in its augmented reality.
It’s Pokémon GO’s augmented reality that makes the game so effective, and it’s the limitations of that augmented reality that made the game have relatively little staying power. By providing the ability to catch Pokémon in the world around players, the game seemed to finally deliver on a fantasy many fans of the franchise had had for a long time: living in and experiencing the world of Pokémon. Yet the augmented reality of the game could not really deliver on that promise. Players grew tired of catching what seemed like their millionth Rattata, and augmented reality’s reliance on the actual world meant players constantly bumped into the real limitations that come with our world. These limitations ranged from the legal (trespassing on private property) to the ethical (catching Pokémon at the Holocaust Museum) to the simple physical (crossing a large region takes a lot longer in the actual world than it does in digital game worlds). Perhaps the best example of these limitations was the disastrous Pokémon GO Fest, held to celebrate the game’s first anniversary in Grant Park in Chicago. Constant network difficulties and game glitches made the game completely unplayable at the event, and Niantic (the company that made the game) had to issue refunds and rewards to frustrated and angry players.
What I think Pokémon GO demonstrates quite well, however, is how we construct and perceive realities, and the significant role that narrative plays in those processes. Narrative is much more than a static, pre-determined series of events; games like Pokémon GO suggest it is a lived, embodied process that unfolds in the moment to moment experiencing of a game. As we move around and experience augmented reality with Pokémon GO, we are constructing narratives that shape our perceptions and understandings of ourselves and the world around us. Pokémon GO’s augmented reality coheres and functions because of the confluence of these narrative processes that it contains: first, the narrative of Pokémon that developers write into the game; second, the narratives players generate as they play and experience the game; and third, the narratives that emerge when players come together in groups (such as the narrative of Pokémon GO Fest as a disaster).
Pokémon GO reveals how narrative is one of the primary processes we use to understand and navigate the world. Narrative helps construct our senses of ourselves and the things we experience, including augmented reality. It does so by bringing our different determined, personal, and collective narratives together to form a unique reality. Psychologist Jerome Bruner gets at this when he discusses narrative as a system that actively constructs and organizes consciousness and the perception of reality (Bruner, 2000). Games have pointed us in this direction for a long time, but we have yet to fully appreciate the breadth and power of narrative processes in our play.
By doing so with games such as Pokémon GO, we can better understand our current (augmented) realities, and further use narrative to build new and potentially transformative ones. The narratives of Pokémon GO are our stories, and they have a lot to tell us about ourselves and what we can do and imagine.
Note: This blog is a short preview of my book chapter for an upcoming collection, tentatively titled Not Just Play: Essays on Motivations and Impacts of Pokemon GO, edited by Jamie Henthorn, Andrew Kulak, Kristopher Purzycki, and Stephanie Vie. Keep an eye out for the full collection, and read more about these ideas there!