If it weren’t for the spread of the coronavirus, I’d be on a plane, returning from a game studies conference I had been looking forward to all year. Instead, I am walking in a slow semi-circle across a deserted town square, the spring sun warm on my face, trying to catch a particularly stubborn Jigglypuff. Which isn’t too bad, mind you. In any case, this post is not about lamenting the hardships of a comparatively comfortable life under lockdown. Rather, it is about the (re)discovery of an unlikely coping strategy: Pokémon! Or, more precisely, the AR game Pokémon Go (Niantic 2016), which seems to have come to play a disproportionately large role in my life of late.
Developed by Niantic, a software developer specialising in augmented reality (AR) games, Pokémon Go first entered the market in 2016. The release was accompanied by a hype – reports of hundreds of people swarming remote or even dangerous spaces to catch a rare Pokémon abounded – and the game was reviewed and analysed in virtually all dedicated journals, online spaces, and research fields. Essentially, the Pokémon games are about catching, trading, and fighting imaginary monsters, the titular Pokémon. The franchise’s success is mainly built on a popular series of roleplaying games (Gamefreak/Nintendo 1996-ongoing). With few exceptions, these games follow a teenage protagonist in a fantastic world on a quest to “catch them all” and become the greatest Pokémon trainer of all times.
While the premise – collecting Pokémon, levelling up, and fighting the bad guys – has not changed all that much in Pokémon Go, Niantic’s game, instead of taking players to a different world, has Pokémon appear in the everyday life of its players. Go uses Google Maps and GPS data to make the player’s surroundings appear on the screen of the smartphone – either as a schematic map or, in AR mode, through the phone camera. The player’s reality is then overlaid with several points of interest, such as arenas, with fictional characters such as members of the evil Team Rocket, and of course the Pokémon themselves, which can be collected, kept as pets, “upgraded,” or used to engage in virtual fights against fictional antagonists or other players. Encountering a Pokémon “in the wild” (which can be anything from your kitchen floor via the local cemetery to the city centre) starts a minigame in which players can try to catch the creature. At certain points throughout the city, usually making monuments, artworks, and other points of interest, Pokéstops can be found at which players can collect items and other rewards. Walking certain distances can yield additional rewards such as items, encounters with rare Pokémon and experience points.
In their self-proclaimed mission to facilitate “exploration, exercise, and real-world social interaction,” AR games like Pokémon Go can be characterised as a product of a social climate that emphasises exercise, well-being, productivity, and connectedness. In a much more cynical view, Pokémon Go is symptomatic of new forms of governance based on self-regulation and a new reality under what social scientist Shoshanna Zuboff has termed surveillance capitalism. That supposedly free games and smartphone applications such as Pokémon Go take part in the collection of large amounts of data – data which can then be instrumentalised to distil information about people’s behavioural surplus as well as to make predictions about and develop effective control mechanisms for people’s future behaviour – is hardly a secret. Neither is the fact that Pokéstops, while often drawing the player’s attention to local history, culture, and other curiosities, are also sold to the highest bidder, i.e. companies can pay to have their location turned into a customer-drawing virtual point of interest. So why play the game at all?
Pokémon Go in Times of Lockdown
I first registered an account for Pokémon Go almost two years back, when I found myself in the possession of a smartphone capable of handling the game, but somehow, we never hit it off. I remember disliking the feeling of distraction, or perhaps rather hyperattention, that came with trying to keep track of both layers – the augmentation and the “real.” I felt I was losing track of my surroundings, seeing through the city as if it was a superficial coating for a more substantial reality, and not the other way around. Add to that the ominous feeling of being tracked; my patterns of movement through the city, the daily route to university and back, the occasional trip to the city centre, walks and hikes on the weekend, all monitored and documented, turned over to and transformed into ”big data.“ So I put the game down, and never touched it again. Until April 2020, that is. Several weeks into lockdown, somewhat bothered by a mild case of cabin fever, and at the other end of a long and fruitless spiral of reading motivational quotes and lists of “10 things to do,” I gave Pokémon a second chance – and boy did it deliver!
For the better part of two months now, I have been playing almost daily. My virtual bag filled with lures and traps, I embark on my usual trip around the block just after coffee, emails, and an hour or so of reading. Sometimes, a second expedition into the world of colourful monsters follows a few hours after lunch, when I feel my concentration waning.
At this point, I should probably add that, in my region, leaving the house with no better excuse than taking some fresh air and getting a bit of exercise has remained possible so far, so that the term “lockdown” is a bit of an exaggeration. Nevertheless, the effects of shop closures and social distancing could be felt throughout the country, and – in the absence of Pokémon – there is very little incentive to leave the house for no good reason.
On the trail of rare Pokémon, I seldom take the most direct route to the supermarket or park but wander the city in zig-zags, circles, and detours. Recently, I have caught an Eevee, a tiny, ewe-like creature which now sits perched on my shoulder. My avatar’s shoulder, that is. Eevee accompanies me on my daily strolls through defamiliarisingly empty streets and past closed shops and socially distanced people. By now, I know my way around the arenas and Pokéstops of the city centre, the colourful blobs I see through the layers of augmentation throwing into relief the disconcerting emptiness.
Some Thoughts on (Self-)Gamification
Contextualising Pokémon Go within wider trends of gamification can help understand what the game does, and why it does it so well. Gamification is essentially about the idea to use the logics and mechanics of games to encourage certain behaviours, for instance making laborious tasks more playful and pleasurable. Perhaps the most important and effective lever in this context is the system of rewards awarded to the player. Pokémon Go, for instance, rewards me for walking certain distances, for visiting Pokéstops and catching Pokémon, and for sending gifts to my friends. The rewards increase with regularity, i.e. if I catch Pokémon daily, I get more free items in return. All of these are of course designed to keep me playing regularly, and ideally to encourage my friends to do the same.
Pokémon Go helps me structure my day and establish routines of work, play, and exercise in the absence of the usual cornerstones such as going to the office, my sports class, or meeting friends after work. The game encourages me to take a break and some fresh air, it helps me overcome the inhibition of setting foot into a much-changed city, and it lightens the load of self-motivation. The mantra “finish this page and you may take a trip round the block to see if that cute Pikachu is still there” has proven a successful technique for getting through a tough text without excessive amounts of chocolate.
For what it’s worth, tricking myself into a daily routine that involves work, fresh air, and exercise by means of using the reward system of a game instrumentalising my data and the “playbour” I give quite willingly is not the most idealistic thing to do. But here’s the thing: it works. Pokémon Go saves me from having to spend time and energy on thinking up new rewards and sources of motivation in the absence of the usual things to look forward to (birthdays, nights out, travelling etc.). It also alleviates some of the alienating effect of unusually empty streets, of people walking faster than usual and moving out of the way if you come too close…
A bitter note and some uneasy questions remain: how much of my free will am I willing to surrender, and to what ends? To fulfil expectations of productivity? If so, whose? Like many others, I have postponed uncomfortable questions like these for now, fully aware that with our collective withdrawal we risk important critical debates – such as those surrounding climate change, migration, or the surveillance economy – becoming the silent victims of Corona.
My buddy Eevee is immune to the invisible peril that keeps everyone else at a distance. Eevee likes it when I pat her head, and when I boop her nose, she playfully lunges at me. Eevee also seems to enjoy our walks: for every few kilometres we journey together, a little heart-shaped icon appears above her head. Somehow, and despite my awareness that the very cuteness of my digital companion is designed to turn me into a good consumer, this makes me happy. So on we walk, drawing patterns and pathways on the digital map, but also (and perhaps that is the saving grace) reappropriating an altered city every step of the way.
*©2020 Niantic, Inc. ©2020 Pokémon. ©1995-2020 Nintendo / Creatures Inc. / GAME FREAK inc. Pokémon and Pokémon character names are trademarks of Nintendo.
 Niantic mission statement https://nianticlabs.com/de/blog/nianticrealworldplatform/.
 Shoshanna Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Profile Books, 2018.See also https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/02/age-of-surveillance-capitalism-shoshana-zuboff-review.
 N. Katherine Hayles, “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes,“ Profession 2007: 187-199.
 Several updates which have been added since I last played the game may also have contributed to my altered playing experience. What is more, Niantic has implemented a number of changes and modifications specifically in and for the time of social distancing so that certain goals can now be reached without leaving the house or meeting people.
 The term gamification is used in several different senses, though. For instance, gamification may denote a specific technique, used for motivational and marketing purposes, with which certain tasks, habits, or interactions are made playable and hence – so the logic of gamification advocates – more fun. Gamification may also refer to the spread of game logics and mechanics into other areas of social life. See, for instance, the essays in Mathias Fuchs, Sonia Fizek, Paolo Ruffino, and Niklas Schrape (eds.), Rethinking Gamification, meson press, 2014.
 I borrowed the term (a composite of play and labour) from Julian Kücklich’s article “Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry,” fibre culture 5, 2005, n.p.