iii. first encounters with Pokémon GO

Critics of Pokémon GO have called the app a device for amassing geospatial intelligence, and an instrument for violating personal information and privacy. The autoethnographic approach employed here recognises that these concerns are important, but they are only one way of addressing the disruptive potential of Pokémon GO and the degree to which its play has been performed, contested, resisted and rewarded at a local level. The debate and concern over the potential abuse of surveilling features of all mobile technologies should not be minimised, but it is also only part of what is going on and we shouldn’t abandon a closer look at the entire experience.

My first experience with the Pokémon GO app transformed the interior and exterior of my workplace, the University of Wollongong, especially how I came to view and experience the campus. Often a place of intensive periods of work, teaching and researching, inside classrooms and between them, the campus – although an aesthetically enchanting location of artificially created streams and duck ponds and richly authentic native flora – had become a familiar site. That changed with Pokémon GO, as I searched the local environment for virtual monsters between classes, on the way to the library, to buy coffee and attend meetings.

The app changed the way I was oriented to the campus. My typical landmarks of central buildings, duck ponds and pathways changed to focus on the Pokéstops in the game which would reward me with in-game items. I was also intrigued to learn, and often think about, how these in-game locations were crowdsourced by players of Niantic’s previous game, Ingress. Walking between Pokéstops, I began to hold the phone up in front of me as I walked: forcing my eyes between the virtual environment of the simplified Google Map on my screen and the direction I was heading. This act signalled my performance of play, and I noticed other ‘Trainers’ who similarly identified themselves as players to the world with a particular stance that centres the phone at chest height or above and in the middle of the view. The app forces the player into a new physical relationship with the phone, holding it out in front to look between the screen and the path ahead. This new way of holding the phone while walking aggravated a pre-existing neck injury, and I found myself always trying new ways of holding the phone to reduce its impact on my body.

Pokestop

My favourite UoW campus Pokéstop.

 

Here I note the immense power and privilege that comes with the position of lecturer at an Australian university. First, because my wage had enabled me to buy into a contract for a new iPhone, the 6S, in the week of the app’s launch (deciding between the closed model of Apple products and more open operating system of Android devices). Having access to the high number of 4G access points on the rooftops of the campus buildings and the institutions high-density WiFi signals servicing the demand for high-speed internet access of students and colleagues, meant that connection – when the servers were operating- was assured and not disrupted by gaps in coverage experience by other regional and rural players. The campus was also privileged as a prime location for Ingress players, university students who had mapped the location of potential sites of significance and interest by submitting details to Niantic as part of the play of their previous game.

Pokemon GO map of Pokestops on the University of Wollongong Campus

Pokemon GO map of Pokestops on the University of Wollongong Campus

This Google Map is an incomplete picture of the Pokéstops that I choose to seek out as I walk across campus. I no longer travelled along the most direct route between buildings, which increased the distance I covered with the app and advancing the number of pokémon I could find and the number of Pokéstops I could visit each trip. I began to leave the office to make short walks of ten minutes more often.

Until playing Pokémon GO, I had assumed that non-university attending players would regard the campus as a public place. My assumption was that ‘the public’ would visit to take advantage of the density of pokémon and Pokéstops. I had assumed, wrongly, that players would regard the University campus as a public place, similar to the Wollongong Botanic Gardens directly across the street, which also has a high density of available Pokéstops.  My incorrect assumption was revealed by a question on the Illawarra Pokémon Go Facebook group. On the annual recruitment ‘Open’ day the University of Wollongong marketing team added ‘lures’ to each of the campus Pokéstops.  Lures are purchased in-game items that increased the number and rarity of Pokéman ‘spawning’ in that location, which resulted in the arrival of a rare Kabutops: the question posed to Facebook asked if it was permissible for those not intending to enrol to be on the campus.

 

 

ii. an autoethnography of Pokémon Go – beginnings

Pokémon Go is an augmented reality (AR) locative data application with a virtual and ludic interface connecting mobile device users to a universe filled with friendly monsters. The game functions like a magical talisman revealing hidden creatures in the everyday environments of our networked connected world. Released in July 2016 on the iOS and Android operating systems by Niantic Labs, the app had a turbulent first month. The experience of Pokémon Go in the first few weeks of play was characterised by disruptions: a fervour of activity and excitement generated by a new relationship to the user’s mobile device which revealed unconsidered dimensions to familiar locations.

Pokemon Go App location

By holding up the mobile phone, the user, the app and the object transform the ordinary space of homes, work environments and public places into newly inhabited locations full of ‘first generation’ of Pokémon. Generation One (Gen 1) refers to the first Pokemon game for the Nintendo Game Boy developed by Game Freak for Japanese audiences in 1996. At launch, Pokémon Go included 151 pokémon of different rarity, which produced a highly nostalgic experience for players of Gen 1. The first few weeks of Pokémon Go was also marked with very high degrees of player frustration, as the servers which Niantic used to support the game were not able to keep up with demand. Hackers and modders overloaded the game’s application programming interface (API), and players were shut out of the Pokemon tracking features meant to encourage the exploration of the play environment for hidden pokémon. These features were removed from the game entirely and later reinstated in a less server intensive iteration, which caused many players to register complaints via social media sites including Facebook, Twitter and Reddit.

Despite the early days of server-side instability, this game continues to attract millions of daily users, generating more than a $1 billion (USD) in 2016. There are numerous reasons for the game’s global success beyond the popularity of the Pokémon franchise. Among them is the unprecedented harnessing of existing technology: the phone’s forward-facing camera enables the augmented reality feature, overlaying pokémon onto the world; the internet connectivity provides access to the in-app Google Maps overlay revealing the hidden locations of pokémon around us; the network data storing the locations of Pokéstops (generated by players of Niantic previous locative data app, Ingress) which are required to receive in-game items and player experience points that increase the level of their personal avatars (XP); the mobile phone towers and GPS satellites triangulating location means the players transverse the virtual game space in the real world through walking or running; and the haptic phone interface which provides the experience of catching Pokémon in the wild, bringing to life the dreams of millions of players who have enjoyed Nintendo devices for three decades.

Norman Denzin, (2006) argued that doing and performing autoethnography is a way of being ethical and political in the world. This approach suggests that respecting objects is not merely understanding their role in the political economy of late capitalism, but requires making sense of our relationships with them as they are performed, lived and experienced in the everyday. Pokémon Go brought with it the sudden increase of people looking at their phones in public. A wave of news stories surfaced about absent-minded mobile phone users endangering lives, breaking property boundaries and turning previously highly regulated spaces such as workplaces such as offices, hospitals, police stations, as well as cultural sites like war memorials and museums into playable zones. Pokémon Go, with seemingly careless ease, reordered and destabilised previously established location-based networks of performance and behaviour.

The feelings of euphoria and discovery that characterised Pokémon Go play by people across the globe looking into their phones to see the world anew, was reflected on in the tweet from Nathan Sharp:

Nathan Sharp's Pokemon Go nostalgia

The launch of the app coincided with the original series celebrating its twentieth year, with GameFreak releasing a new Nintendo DS game, Pokémon Sun and Moon. The new game updated the player’s experience but kept intact the vision of its creator, who synthesised elements of the Shinto and Buddhist cultural experiences of his earlier life, bringing them together with his love of bug collecting. Unlike GameFreak, Pokémon Go’s developer, however, was not a traditional game development company and the app lost many players as Niantic changed fundamental aspects of the game after launch. Very few games companies would, or would be able to, remove core design elements post-launch.

At the time of writing, while the initial disruption and playful sense of discovery have abated, there remains a colossal and very active contingent of players around the globe. The game remained in the top five grossing apps available via the Apple iTunes store, with over $950 US million in revenue and attracting millions of previously non-gaming consumers to the market in 2016 (Stewart, 2017). The Pokémon Go app was released to the public in a very unfinished state -providing a bare minimum experience – it continues to be updated by Niantic in non-regular updates that remove some elements of the game and change others. This makes the play experience less stable and predictable compared to other Pokémon games.

i. autoethnography of objects

Autoethnography uses narrativised experience in order to examine, interpret and explain cultural experiences and practices (Adams, Holman Jones and Ellis 2015):

“Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience.” (Ellis, Adams and Bochner 2011: np).

Autoethnographic researchers describe and analyse cultural beliefs, practices and experiences that qualitatively recognise the value of the research relations with others, but rarely do those others include objects. One notable autoethnographic engagement with tangible materiality is Paul Booth’s Game Play (2015) which examines paratextuality in contemporary board games. Adapting Matt Hill’s approach to the study of Fandom, Booth explores the ludic functionality of analogue games through play by scrutinising the tastes, values, attachments and investments of his and his game group’s personal experience. Objects, however, are only peripheral in the engagement and while some of the physical matter of board games is considered, objects take a backseat to the reflexive analysis of the subjective experience of the researcher and his team of players.

Autoethnography is a research method that is careful and methodological in its reflexivity, but the focus of reflection is almost always on the self, society, the personal and the political. Objects are rarely considered in equal measure to the subjective experience of autoethnographic ‘thick description’ (Geertz 1973: 10), and objects are not considered as partners in the narratives and stories that reflect heavily on time, place, emotion and affect but rather as a basis for heightened concerns about social, political and ultimately subjective identity. In the desire to make sense of the messy and uncertain social life, autoethnography attention is paid to the physical experience and embodiment, but even the body as an object is often sublimated in the narratives and accounts that are used to answer questions about how identities matter. It is important to understand that the identities, characteristics, experiences, regulation, silencing, disregard and abuse of objects also matter.

The omission of objects in autoethnography is understandable as the methodology places the ‘self’ within the scope of the investigation and the narratives developed are the framing devices for critical analysis of subjective experience. Autoethnography asks the researcher to consider their own biases, opinions and assumptions as part of the process of discovery and learning. This approach makes objects part of the intellectual firmament that autoethnography so promisingly seeks to escape. To consider objects is to risk falling into the ‘crisis of representation’ (Adams, Holman Jones and Ellis 2015: np) precisely as we are attenuating our senses to “local knowledge” that promises to subvert existing power relations to ‘create more just and equitable living conditions”. There is a sense that this kind of qualitative research can only focus on human intentions, actions, and motivations, and to incorporate objects is to fall back into the traps of colonialism, scientificism, and capitalism. Autoethnography is “a method for exploring, understanding, and writing from, through and with personal experiences in relation to and in the context of the experiences of others” and those others can include objects (Adams, Holman Jones and Ellis 2015: np).

In the posts to follow this one, I will provide an autoethnographic account of the interactions with the objects involved in playing Pokemon Go and experiencing Virtual Reality.  The autoethnographic account will seek to retain the core ideals of the methodology which generally involves the foregrounding of personal experience; an illustrative sense-making processes; highly reflexive analysis; illustration of insider knowledge to document a cultural phenomenon and experience; critique cultural norms and practices; and seeks to communicate with and respond to audiences from outside the academy (Adams, Holman Jones and Ellis 2015: np). In order to include objects in what Leon Anderson (2006) describes as Analytical Autoethnography, it is possible to rebuild attention between the subject and object by including 1) attention to the social world that the objects and the researcher are a part of; 2) reflexivity involving understanding of the privileged and often unique position of the researcher and access to the objects; 3) narrative visibility of the active researcher, which makes visible the human and the non-human within the networks of the social world under observation; 4) a non-technical account of the interaction and dialogue between the researcher as subject and the objects involved in the encounter, and the experience of others as presented in available media to be consumed, such as YouTube accounts, Memes, Tweets, and communities of practice, including specific online communities (fans, experts, reviewers) in a dialogue with others (Anderson 2006: 386); and finally 5) a commitment to theoretical analysis which draws on empirical evidence to conceive and test theoretically the illumination of a broader set of cultural and social phenomena.

Call For Papers: Persona Studies

CFP Volume 3, Issue 1

We now invite submissions on all persona-related topics for volume 3, issue 1 (to be released April 2017).

It seems the world’s attention is shifting to consider questions of authenticity and legitimacy in a post-truth, fake news era. The increasing polarisation of political and social views is heightening tensions in families, workplaces, and public spaces. The role of the persona, whether writ large by celebrities or produced for intimate, domestic networks, can provide us with critical insight into ways people perform their various identities for others.

Creative works and traditional article submissions could address (but are not limited to) persona in:
Politics
Television, film, radio
Games
Social media
Subculture
Celebrity
Feminism
Youth
Professions
Mobile media
Authenticity
For both creative and critical works, please submit a 250-300 word abstract or proposal to personastudies@gmail.com by 3 February 2017. Artists and authors will be notified of initial acceptance by 10 February 2017. Please note that official acceptance of the work is contingent upon peer review. Full papers (5,000-8,000 words) and projects are due 11 March 2017.

For creative submissions where peer review or critical response is not desired, a full submission will be required by 1 April 2016. Please advise in your initial proposal if you would a creative arts review.

 

An invitation to Pokémon Go players in Wollongong and the Illawarra.

We are a small team of researchers at Wollongong Uni seeking participants for a study of Pokémon Go players. Now the hype has settled down, we want to talk to regular players about their experiences using the app in the local region.

The study has three parts, an initial interview, a walk-along session where we film and map your typical play experience, and a final ‘watch back’ where you view your play session back via 360 video, to comment on the urban experience of playing Pokémon Go.

Please respond to this post, PM for further information or contact us via email:

Dr Thomas Birtchnell – tbirtchn@uow.edu.au 

Ms Victoria Ikutegbe – vui982@uowmail.edu.au

Dr Chris Moore – chrism@uow.edu.au 

Ms Loren Vettoretto –lv623@uowmail.edu.au 

this time around

Teaching this semester involves a welcome return to DIGC330 Digital Asia and the most satisfying collaborative blog I’ve been fortunate to be a part of in my teaching experience. The subject is very much directed by the students own interests, both personal and professional, and the results are unpredictable and revealing of the way that we are capable of coming to an understanding of cultures that are not our own.

Two colleagues from the University of Wollongong Library, Michael Organ and Rebecca Daly, will be presenting our peer-reviewed paper on the virtual Yellow House pilot project at the VALA2016 conference this week in Melbourne. Owen Godfrey (@Cider3dPrinter) put together these two short videos to give a quick demonstration of the simulation and how it looks on screen and in the Oculus Rift.