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.
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.
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.