The Hunt for the Familiar: The Nostalgia of Pokémon GO

Pokémon GO brings players familiarity in an increasingly uncertain world

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Pokemon GO has swept the globe in the past few weeks. Lest you doubt it’s success, it’s now even more popular than porn. And, of course, with the popularity comes the raging criticisms and impassioned defenses: Pokémon GO either turns us into zombies, or it is the perfect nostalgia. It brings happiness and familiarity in these dark and unpredictable times, or it is the armageddon.

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As an avid player, I lean towards the impassioned defense. It’s not surprising to me that many would embrace Pokémon GO as a realm of safety and entertainment. With mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and politics run amok across the globe, Pokémon GO gives players a portal back into our childhoods. It fulfills our desire to be like Red, the silent protagonist of the original Pokémon games. We can finally be Pokémon trainers in real life (or at least, in augmented reality). The sheer joy and giddiness I felt in seeing and capturing my first Pokémon in GO was undeniable. Now, like Red, I can finally wander the streets and countrysides rediscovering the Pokémon that are now hiding in plain sight.

But on second thought, is the world that Pokémon GO revives that reassuring? In her book, Updating to Remain the Same, new media scholar Wendy Hui Kyong Chun argues that, in the time since its inception, the dominant perception of the Internet has shifted from a focus on anonymity to a focus on authenticity. In the 1990s, cyberspace emerged as a space characterized by freedom through anonymity. But today, the Internet is seen as a place where the authentic self is revealed through transparency and practices of authenticity. Far from being a symbol of freedom and security, anonymity is now seen as a danger that abuses trust and endangers security. In this new vision, practices of authentication, such as using real names and linked accounts to link together offline and offline personas, are seen as methods to foster responsibility in Internet users. Chun goes on to argue that the desire for authenticity, authenticating practices, and authentic intimacy makes the Internet more dangerous as we assume that danger lies only on the outside and from those whom we don’t know.

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If we take into account Chun’s argument, we might posit that the popularity of the Pokémon GO revives the original dream of the Internet as a cyberspace of anonymous freedom only to place it inside the newer vision of the net as a place of authentic engagement. Only with this critical difference: Pokémon GO functions by making the landscape, not the player, anonymous. In this new “augmented reality,” the landscape itself is uniform, with few textures that suggest differences between architecture. Pokémon Stops can be practically any landmark or even just someone’s home. While the appearance of the player character is customizable, the customizations are limited, so trainers generally look the same.

Despite this generic landscape and player character, the player can never be completely anonymous: you are identified by a unique name and you must login to play using a Google or Pokémon Club account. This is a change from the original Pokémon games, which were not network games. Gameplay was primarily single player and you could only interact with other players directly using cables to connect devices. With the advent of network technology in handheld consoles and the jump to the mobile phone, Pokémon has transitioned to a networked game where play is now seemingly global. It brings back the feeling of anonymous connectivity that characterized the perception of the Internet in the 1990s. Yet paradoxically, it is transparency and authenticity, not anonymity, that characterizes today’s perception of the net.

We see this in the public debates and discussions. Players are not arguing for their desire to play Pokémon GO anonymously, but for their desire to play Pokémon authentically and enthusiastically.  It is not enough to simply play, after all: one must defend one’s desire to play in troubling times. It makes us feel sane in a world seemingly gone mad. It revives the original Pokémon games vision of the world as completely mappable and knowable and the dangers obvious and catalogued. As the world seems to become more and more unpredictable, Pokémon GO taps into our desires for authentic engagements with the present and the past. It is a beacon of safe haven where everything is familiar once again. And, it is this enthusiastic desire for the familiar in the form of little familiars, for an authentic form of nostalgia, that players defend.

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But, as Chun observes, this desire for authenticity can actually be a site of danger. Chun observes two assumptions that underlie this desire: that the worst dangers online come from strangers and that transparency breeds responsible and acceptable behavior. As we place our trust in the familiar, friendly monsters of the past and when we search for genuine and authentic social relationships along with them, we might not realize the risk we place ourselves in.

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In Updating to Remain the Same, Chun observes that the present is characterized by constant crises to which we constantly habituate ourselves. Crisis is the new normal and adjustment to crisis a form of survival. Chun doesn’t argue for enhanced privacy and security in the face of insecurity, but for embracing the revealing nature of the networked life and the right to be vulnerable. Similarly, in Network Aesthetics, Patrick Jagoda argues for a politics of ambivalence in which we inhabit the contradictory and ambiguous feelings that accompany networks. I agree with their approach of inhabiting these ambivalent technologies in order to work through the strange and contradictory feelings they bring.

As Pokémon GO slowly fades into ubiquity, becoming just another daily habit, we should take seriously the nostalgic call it sounds. Everyday life now becomes a Pokémon journey, augmented with layers of green that make the world brighter and more familiar. As AR games continue to blur the already blurry distinction between offline and online, the virtual and the real, we should pay close attention to the ways in which we habituate them into everyday life. We should pay close attention to the feeling of nostalgia Pokémon induces and the ambivalence that may accompany it.  Pokémon GO sounds the call of the safe and the familiar in a world punctuated by crisis after crisis. Yet, Pokémon GO will not bring clarity to the future. It only revives the past to cope with an unclear present.

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Author: Dan Rosen

"What would it mean to have that thought?"

3 thoughts on “The Hunt for the Familiar: The Nostalgia of Pokémon GO”

  1. This was really well written and thought out. Pokemon Go has become a phenomenon that has transcended borders and cultures. Sure, one day we’ll all look back the time when mobile battery pack producers saw record sales, but in this moment right now, I don’t want it to end. 😀

    Like

    1. Thank you! It’s certainly a phenomenon. I read stories about the camaraderie of sharing battery packs with strangers! I’m interested to see how Pokemon GO plays out as time passes.

      Like

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