A few weeks ago, a friend arrived at a late-night party with a strangely dystopian anecdote. While looking up transit directions to the venue, located near the intersection of East 25th Street and Harford Road, Google Maps warned him that he was entering a high crime area. We laughed at how odd and paranoid that alert seemed. But like a cruel irony out of Greek drama, that very smartphone was snatched by kids on bikes as my friend left the party. It was the eerie AI equivalent of Cassandra, the unheeded prophet, being abducted after the sacking of Troy.
That same night, a rooftop full of friends convinced me to download "Pokémon Go." At first, I didn't have much interest in the actual game (I'll admit, that's changed), but I'm fascinated by the way people negotiate the built environment. And as inane as "Pokémon Go" might seem, its effect on the way people use, share, and discuss public space has been profound. It's also wildly addicting, largely because so many people are playing (the game surpassed Twitter's daily active users less than a week after its launch). Even if you don't really care about catching a Pikachu, it's hard to resist joining in the fun of a collective obsession. I imagine this is why agnostics default to whatever religion they happen to be surrounded by, or why half the city pretends to care about the outcome of sporting matches that don't actually affect anyone's lives.
Essentially, the game reduces the cityscape to a tidy map evocative of "the grid" of cyberpunk lore (more about that later) with certain spots marked as places to collect items or battle other players. These locations are recycled from developer Niantic's previous game Ingress, which allowed users to mark points of interest as "portals," in addition to data from then-parent corporation Google, who had access to an archive of historic markers and other landmarks. The result is an odd amalgamation of "Pokéstops" and "Gyms" that include everything from graffiti and punk bars to burned-out storefront churches and historic homes. The jail is a gym (really). My boyfriend even found a sex store Pokéstop that featured in-game text praising a great selection of butt plugs. The Pokémon of our childhoods this is not.
The game encourages users to visit these locations on foot, creating a vast network of pedestrians on an exquisite-corpse of a scavenger hunt. It highlights weird architectural details tucked away in alleys, forgotten monuments, and overlooked scraps of the city that often straddle the public/private domain. It achieves what the Situationist philosophers of the 1960s dreamt of—a mass "dérive" where the rational city becomes a fantastic playground, its hidden gems to be discovered and celebrated. I've always tried to live by the Situationist imperative to "live without dead time" (how much more fun is a 30-minute meander through unexplored backstreets, running into acquaintances and strangers, than a five-minute cab ride spent checking one's email?) and now it seems millions of other people are too. Visit a random sculpture in a public park in the dead of night, and there will be half-dozen people (of all ages, races, and subcultures) excitedly striking up conversation over where to find a mythical beast or which of the three Pokémon "teams" they belong to. After several years characterized by anxieties over "the other" and the public sphere—from racial tensions and profiling to ISIS attacks and mass-shootings or police-state curfews and neighborhood watchgroups—an accidental army of civilians has reconquered urban social space.
"Pokémon Go" is revolutionary not because it's radically integrated with the world we inhabit, but because it seems engineered for the world we ought to be inhabiting—one where pedestrians should feel free to meander, giddy tourists in their own city, and where black and brown young people shouldn't need an excuse to congregate in a park. The app has been blamed for countless muggings, car accidents, and incidents of trespassing (I'd like to point out that a Sunday drive or car trip to the bodega is obviously statistically so much more dangerous that I'm not going to bother doing the math). The blogosphere has even speculated (perhaps rightly so) that playing the game increases the chances of black users having potentially deadly encounters with trigger-happy racist cops. But Pokémon didn't create those problems, it merely lays them bare. The right to move one's body freely through this world should be one of our most fundamental.
The game highlights how epically society has restricted it. Anecdotally, it seems to sometimes offer a "cover" for marginalized groups to access those rights. I've witnessed crowds of African-American tweens penetrate the Hopkins bubble and approach white and Asian students without raising so much as a stir from nearby campus security, their outstretched smartphones acting as passports they shouldn't need but do. When my boyfriend and I (who look "suspicious" or, at the least, visibly queer) followed our Pokéradar down an alley, a little too close to a luxury condo development, we were trailed by a private security guard in a marked car for half a block. She drove off after we turned around, revealing that we were cradling the now-familiar pulsing blue map rather than drugs (gasp!) or our cocks (double gasp!).
From an architecture and urban planning perspective, the game reveals countless other deficiencies—how many suburbanites, frustrated by the lack of nearby Pokéstops, have now realized they live nowhere near any point remotely resembling anything "of interest"? Strolling down MLK Boulevard or North Avenue, the inability to "reach" Pokéstops on the other side of the "street" explicitly manifests how absurdly wide and disruptive these car-centric barriers are to human-scaled life.
Novelist William Gibson famously defined "cyberspace" as "a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions" in the early '80s. "Pokémon Go" isn't that ubiquitous yet, but maybe it should be. In Gibson's world, data presented an alternate metaphysical reality that could be democratically hacked in opposition to oppressive private interests. It's a trope that didn't age well into the dot-com era. But today, augmented reality has actually hacked our physical city into something a little more magical (and yes, juvenile) that taps our hunter-gatherer instincts. But "the grid" that Pokémon renders Baltimore into is a far more democratic and fun space than what we've inherited from policymakers, and that's something we ought to consider seriously. The Situationists valued play and psychogeography as both a means and an end to achieving a more just world. Half a century later, we have an incredibly fertile tool for exploring those notions. How many voters might be swayed against Trump's wall if they could catch a Mewtwo just a few steps over our arbitrary borders?