What I’ve learned about human imagination from PokemonGo

The other week the streets around Wellington began filling up with people wandering about staring at their phones.

A barrel of hobbit ale near the Green Dragon Inn.
Another magical world made real – the Hobbiton Movie Set. This is a barrel of hobbit ale near the Green Dragon Inn.

It turned out they were playing PokemonGo, which hadn’t existed the week before but by about Wednesday was being played by at least 29.6 billion people worldwide (I know what I said).

I haven’t leaped on the band-wagon – I don’t have the time, and it’s not the sort of game that appeals to me. But the speed of uptake by everybody else told me something about the human condition.

There’s the obvious stuff – it’s a game that appeals to late-X gen and millennials who remember it from the 90s. It can pick up the way it did because, for the first time, everybody has a smartphone.

But there’s something more. The game is apparently about projecting a hidden world on the real one. And a hidden world – any hidden world – as an awful lot of appeal.

To those who don’t share that world – like the befuddled people on the beach of Wellington’s Oriental Bay who watched a couple of kayakers paddle offshore and sit there staring at their phones – the behaviour of those in PokemonGo land is nonsensical.

For those in it – well, it’s a kind of magic. Hyper-reality. The world of faerie that we wished for as kids and never had. And isn’t that wonderful?

To me this is the message. One of the things humans are very good at is imagining stuff that isn’t there and treating it as if real. This doesn’t mean ‘magic’ and ‘fairies’ alone. A lot of our institutions rest on our ability to make what we imagine seem real, one way or another. It’s how conspiracy theorists get traction. Sometimes that ability can be supremely damaging – witness the social panics that led to ‘witch hunts’ in the seventeenth century and the Communist hunting of the 1950s.

PokemonGo taps into the same deep thread, which runs in many ways to the heart of the human condition. I think it’s this that has seized imaginations – the popularity of Pokemon, originally, was merely the starting trigger. And with it, Nintendo has (again) turned the gaming world on its head. I suppose the other big players will be scrabbling now to make games like it. And I suppose it won’t be long before somebody builds an app for VR goggles that does the same thing.

I bet they’ll be popular. Must finish now, I’m off to buy stocks in Oculus Rift.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


6 thoughts on “What I’ve learned about human imagination from PokemonGo

  1. My love is quite interested in Pokemon Go, although we haven’t got the smart phones needed to play it. But the sort of hidden-secrets universe that it suggests are quite appealing to us. We’re letterboxers, which is much like geocaching — and so Pokemon Go — and it’s fun knowing there are playful secrets in the world available to the person who’s alert enough.

    (The American style of letterboxing, in which strings of clues lead one to the cache. The original British style of letterboxing I understand is just to let people go looking and if you find enough then secret people will give you the book of clues. In ways to distinguish American from British culture that’s got to be right up top.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I never got into geocaching – it’s a thing in NZ too, but it sounds kind of fun. Yeah, Brit culture (which is essentially NZ) has some hilarious (= peculiar) differences. Years ago I had a flatmate (roommate) who’d arrived direct from Brattleboro VA, who got right into exploiting the differences with witty results – ‘Hi, have you got a rubber (eraser)?’, ‘I need a hottie (hot water bottle)’, etc. The puncher came when we had a flat (apartment) evening out at the movies and I spotted the Governor-General, apparently accompanied only by a friend, ascending a crowded escalator in the movieplex with every intention of joining the hoipolloi in the cinema. I pointed. ‘See that woman?’ I said. ‘She’s our constitutional equivalent of your President.’ I suppose there would have been a detective-constable somewhere around, but it wasn’t obvious. That was NZ culture for you in 1991 – the statutory head of state could wander around in public, and nobody noticed or cared.

      Apropos PokemonGo, I have a smartphone but have been reluctant to load the app because (a) I don’t have the time to play it, and even if I did, I wouldn’t, because PokemonGo just isn’t my kind of game; and (b) the phone is close to choking now, so I’d end up with a useless app that I didn’t use dealing the death blow to whatever stray bytes of RAM are left after 1024 Facebook app updates that I didn’t want or ask for.


Comments are closed.