Surely you’ve heard about it by now. Around the world, people are walking down streets with smartphones in hand, flicking at their screens. They’re pointing excitedly into thin air, exclaiming about rare creatures that they will capture and evolve. They’re congregating in special places to do battle and claim territory.
These people aren’t members of an ancient secret society. They’re playing Pokémon Go, a new kind of game that uses the technology of mobile communications devices to create an augmented reality, in which ordinary landscapes become the field of play. Pokémon Go has has been available for only a few days now, but has already become the most popular mobile app on Google Play and the Apple Store, reversing what had been the dwindling fortunes of Nintendo.
What sets this game apart? Pokémon Go is technologically based, but it isn’t the technology of the game that has people enraptured. Rather, it’s the psychological experience enabled by its technology that has made Pokémon Go a cultural phenomenon.
Pokémon Go has established a new kind of ritual, and those playing the game are exploring a new pathway into transcendence.
Rituals are transcendent experiences through which people temporarily escape the ordinary restrictions that define their lives. Rituals are also transformative, enabling people to shift between social identities by taking them through a series of symbolic actions and displays.
Ritual is an ancient form of human behavior. In fact, its roots predate humanity itself. Animals exhibit ritual behavior in their social interactions, but humans give ritual an additional layer of cultural meaning.
A common presumption is that rituals are relics of the past. However, those who know what to look for see that our commercial culture is rife with ritual behavior, though we’re not accustomed to thinking of it in that way. Among these commercial rituals are the games that we download to play.
Game theorist Johan Huizinga argued that all of human culture can be thought of as a system of play, with each social role constituted as a kind of game, linking with the games of others. Huizinga also taught that games are nothing less than rituals, enabling players to enter into a state of psychological flow as they are liberated from the ordinary rules that tie them down.
The appeal of Pokémon Go doesn’t come from intricate game play. It’s rules are fairly simple, as video games go. What sets Pokémon Go apart is its ritual character, involving people as physical beings in a transcendent act of play.
For generations, young people have been waiting for an invitation from Hogwarts, for a door to open up into Narnia, or for a space in the entrance exam at Brakebills. With Pokémon Go, the wait is over.
The Elements of Ritual
Rituals have an aura of mystery, but they are also carefully stage managed events, constructed through the combination of just a few core experiential elements. Not all rituals include all of these elements, but the more elements a ritual incorporates, the more effective it becomes.
Pokémon Go exhibits most of the classic elements of ritual behavior. Though they are not yet fully developed, these elements are experienced much more powerfully within Pokémon Go than has been possible in other digital games to date.
In the 20th century, anthropologists Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner envisioned ritual as a three-part process, bringing participants into thresholds of transcendence where they could be transformed. The first stage in this process was separation.
In ritual separation, people are removed from the familiar settings to which they have become accustomed. They aren’t taken directly to another destination, however. Instead, they enter a strange zone in between where they have been and where they are going. Anthropologists refer to this zone as the threshold, or the liminal space.
The most obvious way to separate people from their mundane, pre-ritual lives is to move them physically, and launch them into a quest, sending them on a pilgrimage out into the world. The similarity of Pokémon Go to a classic pilgrimage is striking. Consider the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, a trail established in medieval times along which pilgrims travel by foot, stopping at stations along the route to pick up objects of significance and to have their pilgrimage book stamped to record their progress. In Pokémon Go, the path of pilgrimage is not linear and predetermined, but it does have established meeting points, stations of significance where walking players register their presence and engage each other, virtually and physically.
Playing Pokémon Go, the real point isn’t getting points or raising levels. The point is to move, to enter the world in a spirit of quest, seeking magical creatures. For the young generation, this requires separation from their mundane habits of sedentary games, requiring separation from the seat of a chair and from the home, to emerge at long last back into the sunlight.
Clicks are cheap. Walking through the world requires more exertion. By requiring this sacrifice of effort, Pokémon Go accomplishes something remarkable for a video game. It literally moves people.
As ritual separates people from their ordinary physical setting, it loosens them from their ordinary experience of time and space. Rituals typically disorient people, leading them to feel lost, or out of place. The threshold experience also slows the perception of time, creating the feeling of eternity within frozen moments.
Pokémon Go isn’t the first system for providing an all-enveloping augmented reality, of course. In their book, The Power of Ritual, anthropologists Robbie Davis Floyd and Charles Laughlin explain the long tradition of crafting alternative realities without the assistance of digital technology. Using the native cultures of Australia as an example, they write, “Thousands of years ago, the Australian aborigines imagined that when their bodies die, their spirits go to live in the Dreamtime, an alternate reality that surrounds and sometimes links with ordinary reality. Since that time, they have lived in the reality they imagined — their experience of life is permeated with experiences of entering Dreamtime in dreaming and in trance. And the landscape they traverse is dotted with sacred sites that serve as portals between this reality and Dreamtime.”
Other anthropologists explain that the term “Dreamtime” could be translated as “eternal time”. It’s a time outside of time, and a place outside of place. Dreamtime is an ever-present, always existing, alternative reality that defies the linear measurements that we can apply to the physical dimensions of time and space as we ordinarily experience them.
The world of Pokémon Go lacks the sophisticated cultural context of Australian Dreamtime, but is similar in some other respects. It isn’t imagined as a world that people go to when they die, but it is an alternative reality that is mapped over the familiar mundane landscape, appearing to us through handheld portals, with sacred sites linked to statues, houses of worship, and other well-established landmarks in our communities. As players gaze at the maps of this alternative world, they are entranced, and even when they look up from their screens, the images of the Pokémon world persist, and are confirmed when they see fellow players experiencing the same alternative reality alongside them.
Disoriented by this experience of dual reality, Pokémon Go players become flaneurs, wandering with an ever-changing sense of purpose, without any single destination. To play Pokémon Go is not to engage in a problem-solving formula, but rather to emerge from one’s own safe, inside world into the out of doors, not knowing what or who may be experienced. Players see their surroundings with new eyes, with an odd sort of attention that is simultaneously in and out of focus.
Taboo and Transgression
Along with the surge in popularity of Pokémon Go, there has risen a counter-narrative, warning that the game is leading to a surge of crime. Computerworld reports that Pokémon Go is being used by thieves who set up electronic beacons in the Pokémon world, bringing players who are distracted by looking at their screens to places where the thieves are waiting for an easy mugging.
As bad as the stories of criminal victimization of Pokémon Go players have been, police also warn that players may be slipping into criminal activity themselves. In Virginia, the Goochland County Sheriff has warned that Pokémon is transforming children into little lawbreakers, issuing the following statement:
“Deputies have located numerous individuals on business, church, and government properties at all hours of the night, when these places are closed to the public. The participants are using their phones to find the location of ‘Pokemons’ in order to play the game. These actions are considered trespassing and put the individual and Deputies in a position of unnecessary risk. Please refrain from going onto property without proper permission or after appropriate times. Parents should encourage their children to avoid these actions for their own safety and enjoy the game responsibly.”
As Elisabeth Garber-Paul of Rolling Stone has explained, most of the stories about crimes provoked by Pokémon Go have turned out not to be true. They’re exaggerations, or urban legends, our society’s equivalent of mythology.
Mythology, of course, is never arbitrary. People tell stories, whether they’re true or false, because those stories support their values. People tell stories about things that they want to be true. So, what is there about the idea of criminal Pokémon culture that people want to be true?
Part of the motivation behind these stories of lawless interactions with Pokémon hunters seems to be an desire to depict Pokémon Go as a threat to decent society. As such, these stories are similar to earlier reactions to the emergence of other new media.
In the 1980s, for example, heavy metal bands on the MTV network were accused of using the video format to seduce young Americans into suicide and devil worship. The paper and pencil role playing game Dungeons and Dragons was also depicted as a Satanist recruitment tool. The lack of evidence for either accusation didn’t stop mainstream media from reporting widely on the supposed threat.
People identified MTV and Dungeons and Dragons as arenas of dangerous violation of mainstream societal norms because conspicuous rulebreaking is a typical part of ritual behavior. In Hopi sacred dances, ritual clowns mock the holy rites. In the rituals of Saturnalia and Boxing Day, nobles and their servants switched places. On Halloween, parents encourage their young children to adopt monstrous roles, and go running around town long after their bedtimes, threatening neighbors with nasty tricks if they aren’t given outrageous amounts of unhealthy candy.
Conservatives recognized the ritualistic character of D&D and MTV, and made the conceptual leap into accusations of diabolical wickedness. After all, in the anti-Catholic Puritanism that influenced the formation of American culture, ritual is synonymous with evil. The same anti-ritual reflex is in play with this week’s warnings from journalists about a crime wave linked to the release of Pokémon Go.
Despite the association that many people make between ritual and rote behavior, rituals are typically packed full of meaning, even if that meaning isn’t obvious at first glance. Significance in ritual usually wears a disguise. Rituals refuse to express themselves in the mundane level of literal speech. They are richly symbolic, mythology in action.
What’s more, the symbols of ritual don’t play alone. Rather, they work with each other to create a complex matrix of meaning that often can only be understood by those who actually go through the ritual experience themselves.
At the peak of ritual experiences, participants’ cultural experiences are broken down into the core symbols that represent fundamental beliefs and values. The symbols don’t remain at this level of atomized simplicity, however, but are recombined with each other to create new expressions of cultural significance. As anthropologist Victor Turner explained, “It is the analysis of culture into factors and their free recombination in any and every possible pattern, however weird, that is most characteristic of liminality.”
Just as genetic recombination enables biological adaptation from generation to generation, the process of symbolic recombination of ritual provokes epiphanies in the minds of individual ritual participants and enables innovation in the culture as a whole. Profound insights come during ritual because its free-flowing nature allows for people to playfully take apart even the most sacred ideas, and then put them back together in combinations that may be absurd, but could also end up being useful outside of the ritual sphere.
Pokémon Go engages its players in the rudiments of symbolic recombination by superimposing the symbolic representation of an imaginary world on top of the familiar physical world we are all used to seeing. This juxtaposition provokes players to reconsider their surroundings, taking a second look at the streets and buildings around them. The appeal of symbolic recombination also motivates the most popular activity on Pokémon Go: The creation of screen captures showing Pokémon creatures appearing in mundane settings.
To be sure, this kind of symbolic play can’t be counted as profoundly innovative. Pokémon Go’s creatures are cute to look at, but they don’t carry deep meaning.
The markers for significant local landmarks in the Pokémon Go maps also lack connection to the places’ most significant symbolism. This morning, I wandered by a landmark that was labeled in Pokémon Go only as “Miami Circle”. The location was actually a significant archaeological site of the native Tequesta people, created thousands of years ago, and dubbed more recently “The Stonehenge of Miami”. Nonetheless, the fact that Pokémon Go players are enchanted with the opportunity to experiment even with the game’s relatively impoverished symbolic repertoire shows the potential for a more sophisticated system of augmented reality to provide an arena for significant cultural innovation.
The next stage in the augmented reality revolution sparked by Pokémon Go will be enabled by the genius of Silicon Valley, but won’t be controlled by it. What Niantic and its competitors need most desperately right now isn’t more kids who know how to code. If they want to keep players engaged, they’ll need culturally savvy designers who understand how to apply the ritual code in commercial contexts, imbuing experiences with emotional intensity and a larger sense of meaning.
In the end, all expertise will need to bow before the experience itself, and the collective culture that it will spawn. It will be the human inhabitants of ritual worlds such as Pokémon Go who enrich their play with meaning, building communities with initiations into deeper mysteries and pilgrimages into landscapes of esoteric insight. They won’t be content to play by someone else’s rules.