Pokémon Go in Person's Hand

Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Pokémon Go and Hyperreality

Pokémon Go has been lauded for getting people outdoors, walking, socializing, and learning. But where do players draw the line between the game and their real world? In this piece, Amanda Fehlbaum explores the phenomenon of Pokémon Go using Jean Baudrillard’s concepts of simulacra and simulation.

You may have seen them in your neighborhood – people walking around, their eyes glued to their smart phones. Suddenly one exclaims, “Hey! There’s an Abra over here!” Another one talks about needing to walk to hatch their eggs. You wonder if aliens have invaded or if you are in some sort of social experiment, but the truth is both mundane and bizarre: people are playing Pokémon Go.

Pokémon Go is a free smart phone application that grew in popularity virtually overnight. As of July 11, 2016, people have been spending more time on Pokémon Go than on Twitter and it has been installed on more devices than Tinder. If you are old enough, you may recall the popularity of the Pokémon cards, television show, and video games. Pokémon are creatures that are fought, caught, collected, grown, or evolved into stronger forms.

Prior to the release of Pokémon Go, the interactions that took place were relegated purely to the virtual world and one’s imagination. In other words, if you caught a Pokémon, it was from getting a card in a pack or playing a video game. With Pokémon Go, people are sent out into their neighborhoods to find Pokémon “in the wild.” Granted, you can only see the Pokémon around you if you are using the Pokémon Go app; otherwise, you are oblivious to the Pikachus and Psyducks around you in parks, offices, police departments, gyms, churches, backyards, city streets, and some strange places. Users can also collect Pokémon eggs within the game that require users walk a certain distance in order to hatch.

Different Pokémon appear depending on the person’s location and the time of day. This encourages users to go out and explore the real world as well as interact with others. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is having mental health benefits. Tumblr user theawesomeadventurer notes, “honestly Pokémon go is probably going to help a lot with people who have depression because rather than laying in bed all day we are getting us and going outside and actually enjoying ourselves rather than laying in bed all day.” Likewise, there are claims that people are getting more exercise as a result of Pokémon Go. Twitter is full of people talking about how their legs are sore from walking, running, and biking in efforts to catch all the Pokémon. “This is the most walking I’ve done all summer in the last three days,” Pokémon Go fan Philip To said in an interview on CBS Evening News. Exploring one’s environment can also lead to learning about local history, a goal of public archaeology – in fact, an Eevee was spotted at Stonehenge.

Sociology of Pokémon

By using the smart phone’s camera, GPS, and clock, Pokémon Go users engage in an augmented reality, or a merging of digital information with material reality. I argue that they are also engaging in hyperrealism, or when a new experience has replaced or is preferred to an original experience. In a previous Sociology in Focus piece, French sociologist Jean Baudrillard’s (1929-2007) concept of hyperrealism was explored in the context of theme parks. In the case of Pokémon Go, simply walking around and exploring one’s neighborhood has been replaced by an enhanced experience where you stare at your phone in hopes of encountering a virtual creature.

Hyperrealism involves simulacra and simulation. Simulacra can be something that does not exist but is treated as if it does and has existed. The simulacra – the Pokémon – are not real, but are treated as if they were real in that people are physically going out and hunting them. A simulation is an imitation of a real-world process. When Pokémon Go users concentrate on their devices, they are immersing themselves in a simulation. In other words, they focus on their smart phone screen rather than the world around them, as if the rectangle in their hand gives them a clearer view of the world than without the screen. Police departments are already cautioning Pokémon Go users to be aware of their environments and their surroundings, lest they become too immersed in the game, or simulation. Some individuals have been entering no trespass areas and putting themselves in danger in an effort to catch Pokémon, thus prioritizing the game over legitimate concerns.

Given that Pokémon Go is a new phenomenon, the tangible benefits gained in the real world (more exercise, social interaction, education about local history) are unknown. We also do not know the extent to which individuals will become absorbed in the game as it blurs the line between real and digital. One thing is clear: Pokémon Go definitely makes the familiar strange.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Provide an example of hyperealism not discussed in this piece. Explian your answer and describe the simulacra in your example.
  2. Some recording artists and stand-up comedians are banning cell phones at their concerts because they do not want audience members to then upload the content online. Others argue that they like their audience members to be “present” during the shows. What are your thoughts on such a ban and do you agree with the artists’ reasoning? What does it mean to be “present” during a show?
  3. If you have played Pokémon Go, what are some of the benefits that you can think of to playing the game? Do you think you are still aware of your surroundings when playing it?
  4. Pokémon Go collects a lot of data about its users while they play. How does this relate to the concepts of the quantified life and panopticon? (See this piece for a refresher on those topics).

Image by Eduardo Woo via Flickr