The latest craze in pop culture has just been handed to us from an unlikely source: Pokémon, the decades-old Japanese media franchise, has hit the jackpot with its extraordinarily popular mobile game Pokémon GO. A perfect storm of 90s nostalgia, gimmicky but impressive tech and social media share potential, the game has been hailed for its ability to draw players outside to explore their surroundings through a virtual lens, raising their awareness of local interest points and prompting in-person socialization with other players they encounter along the way. Of note to Architizer readers, this sensation also has the potential to connect everyday people to the architecture around them in ways never before possible.
A pokémon near the Bay Bridge in San Francisco; via DVS Gaming
Relying on augmented reality, the game employs an abstracted form of Google Maps for its interface, tracking the player as they move around to capture fictional creatures with an ingenious use of their mobile phone’s camera, further coopting real places as virtual locations for stocking up on supplies or indirectly battling other players.
The game’s dependence on actual locations is perhaps the source of its brilliance: To make any progress, players are forced to travel to local landmarks in order to access primary features. These locations tend to be photo-worthy elements such as buildings or parts of buildings, and because they’re drawn from the user-submitted database of the publisher’s previous title Ingress, the selection of landmarks can provide a crowdsourced list of favorite architecture for almost any area.
Pokémon GO’s Augmented Reality has got people off their sofas and out to explore the real world; via The Verge
Already-famous structures are heavily cited: The Chrysler Building, for example, is one, though a sprawling edifice like its neighbor Grand Central Terminal can be littered with a dozen or more — one for each noteworthy piece of artwork, ornament or statue present. But beyond the game’s potential to bring a vast user base together near high-profile buildings, it engenders the far more frequent occurrence of discovering previously unknown architectural icons in a player’s own neighborhood.
Houses of worship, little-known historical monuments and bizarre vernacular constructions dominate the list, and their presences in the game are causing players to gather around noteworthy buildings and monuments they might not have cared to notice before (though it also features plenty of jokes — one commentator got a laugh from a virtual battle arena being sited at a humble Peugeot garage, for instance).
People have been tweeting their new architectural discoveries as they play; via Twitter
The game’s potential for educating players on the built environment is substantial, as well, as some landmarks are accompanied by elaborate descriptions highlighting a building’s noteworthy features or individual elements.
In more than one instance, they can be found named according to their architectural vocabulary: “granite corinthian columns” and “beautiful coffers,” for example, are landmarks picked from the façades of a few 19th-century buildings in Midtown Manhattan, with user-submitted detail photos to match. The usefulness of this game as a teaching tool, its popularity having landed it in the hands of many millions of young people, should draw the attention of at least a few savvy architectural history professors.
23 Park Avenue as seen in Pokémon GO; via user SuzeMcGuff
Despite the positives coming out of this cultural moment, it has also incited its fair share of spatial disputes. Virtual stops and battle arenas appear at a large number of active businesses, homes and community centers, and even though players don’t have to venture inside landmark buildings to complete game objectives (they only need to be in a relative vicinity) it’s easy to see how someone might become a bit perturbed over small crowds consistently appearing in their front yard to wage virtual war against each other.
A police force in Australia recently had to remind the public via Facebook that their station’s interior was restricted to authorized personnel only and otherwise off-limits to even the highest-ranked pokémon masters. Claims to another site’s virtual ownership — the controversial Westboro Baptist Church — has gone so far as to spark an ideological battle online using the game’s imagery.
Facebook message from Australian Police; via Aussie Network News
While clashes over territory in digital worlds may seem like a laughable concept today, it could portend a much more complex future if augmented reality becomes a common feature in our society. After all, in the early years of the internet, who could have predicted that URLs would one day be bought, sold and speculated over like real estate?
The intersection of our online and offline worlds has increasingly been pushed into the physical realm, and this trend seems likely to continue. With Pokémon GO entering the fray as one of the first mass-market adoptions of Augmented Reality technology, it offers architects, as stewards of the built environment, a moment to consider the level of involvement they’ll claim over this new frontier. And like pokémon-hunters around the world have been doing feverishly over the last few days, they should catch it before it gets away.