Three multi-millionaires. A father of four. A PhD in agricultural science. An Oscar winner. A crowd of twelve-year-olds outside a custard joint in St. Louis. A retiree. A CTO. A teen who hadn’t seen the sun in months. Professional artists — a filmmaker, a novelist, a painter, a stylist, a musician.
All of these people are friends of mine, friends I respect, and all of them have recently posted pictures — or celebrated pictures — of imaginary monsters they or their friends had “caught” while playing Pokémon Go.
And in the wake of the 7.5 million US downloads and $2 million in daily revenue, the inner hipster of everyone too cool to play has pushed back with some fairly violent rhetoric. I won’t revisit the fallacy of the hipster here, but I’ve heard everything from bewilderment to mockery to slander to “That game is seriously evil.”
The game launched a week ago. That seems a bit much.
But let’s assume for a second these attacks are real. Let’s assume that the people spitting vitriol over a one-week-old smartphone app mean what they say. Then I will take up the standard Chesterton set down: the defender of the common.
I will do my best to channel his spirit and offer a defense for Pokémon Go.
Before we can get at the why and for whom, we first need to talk about what it is. Pokémon — the universe — is an imaginary world created for children wherein you wander about with little balls similar to the muon traps of Ghostbusters fame and use them to catch monsters. Eventually you battle the monsters of other trainers. The game has always emphasized taxonomy, geography, and the economy of a barter system propped up by the assets (collections) of fellow trainers.
This most recent rendition includes several of these pieces, but the major shift enabled Pokémon Go, in one hammerfell, to do what Google Glass could not: it superimposed pieces of a fantasy world upon the real world by way of camera and screen. The in-game stores from which you buy items exist at actual locations out in the world. If you want free supplies in-game, you’ll need to visit monuments. And then the Pokémon themselves live in places where you expect to find them: you won’t find a water type in the desert. That means for a rare water type, you may potentially need to go deep-sea fishing or take a cruise.
All of this has the effect of forcing many people typically relegated indoors out into the real world to see it through new eyes. It’s forcing exploration onto a generation of introverts. And that’s a great thing — even saved one guy from suicide who had stayed inside for two months.
Are there risks?
Sure. There are risks you’re not paying attention to your phone and will get it stolen right out of your hands — but as someone who lives in New York and rides the subway, I must ask: how is this any different from the average gawking tourist reading a map while meandering down the middle of my city’s sidewalks? Perhaps it’s simply that the rest of the country had no public representation for how distracted it really was until their nerds came out to play. Apparently it’s fine for the auto insurance industry to lose half of its income due to distracted driving (according to Buffett’s assessment of Geico’s performance), it’s okay for tourists to run into me on a daily business as they use my morning commute for aimless — and obstructive — wandering, it’s dandy that half of the crowd at Yankee Stadium keeps track of the score and posts to social media from their MLB at Bat app more than they watch the game unfolding right in front of them.
But God forbid the nerds emerge from all their hobbit holes. No, no. They’re outcasts. They’re supposed to stay inside. Even the children of Presbyterians should be at least seen, though not heard. But the nerd? The nerd must continue both unseen and unheard in the eyes and ears of the average American.
Perhaps it’s not so malicious as catching all the nerds and hiding them away in our vest pocket until we can let them fight other nerds on our behalf. Perhaps these detractors at whom I aim my defense of Pokémon Go don’t hate the players, they hate the game. Perhaps they find it childish and annoying. For that to make sense, however, we first need to take note of three things:
- How major technological leaps feel to people living in a given civilization
- The difference between childish and childlike.
- And the base idea behind augmented reality.
First, the tech:
What you are witnessing rarely happens in human history. It happened the first time someone forged iron ore into a blade. It happened when someone realized that you could add a bit of flint to steel and do what lightning does to sticks and dying grass. It happened when someone rounded out the edges on a hexagon and stumbled on the wheel. It happened with the advent of the Model T, which people protested because it didn’t come in any color other than black. It happened with the telephone, which people protested because it wasn’t a letter. It happened with the lightbulb, which people protested because it would bring about more nightshifts, longer hours, and less work-Sabbath balance. It happened with the Internet, which copyright barons worried would cripple the concept of intellectual property.
Every time something like this comes along, there are three responses. The first is unquestioning adoption: that a given technological advance is good simply because it’s change and change, in and of itself, is good. The second is unquestioning rejection: it’s evil because I’ve never heard of it before, because change, in and of itself, is bad. But the third is measured reflection and temperate use: it’s good because of the simple fact of its existence and the good intent in those who made it, can be used for evil or good, changed into an evil or a good, and therefore its virtues or vices depend upon the users. We see all three in the spectrum of reactions to Pokémon Go — even in this, my defense of Pokémon Go — and to understand all three, we need to look at the technological advance called the nail.
What Chesterton first observed of the knife could be said of the nail. Certainly the day the nail came along, those who profited off of sailor’s knots would have called it an infinite evil because they thought it was the beginning of the end for non-metallic fasteners. And some would have called it an infinite good because they thought it the end of the beginning for carpentry. Both were right and both were wrong. The end of the nail is fastening and things that hold fast are good things: locks protect from intruders, ropes keep the swell in the sail, rings bind marriage vows. The nail is only ever a good that could be twisted by the hands of wicked men, and that will make it both. For there is no such thing as a bad nail. My father Steve or my grandfather Jerry, if either reads this, may disagree for the thousands of nails they’ve cursed over the years whether they’ve broken or bent or turned aside hammers towards the nail of the thumb (another good fastener). But a “bad nail” is not a bad nail. Consider the most rusted, bent, unreliable nail you’ve ever known. That one bad nail in a world without nails would look like the rod of God, the axis welding hemispheres once separate, the very hook in heaven upon which hangs the moon. The only time a nail is a bad nail is when a bad man takes that good nail and hangs not signs but men. And hangs scoffing signs above the man it hangs. In this way a nail was once an infinite good and an infinite bad: that a Roman guard once drove a Jewish nail into a human hand and hung the Son of God. To add a cosmic insult unto his cosmic injury, he drove his nail into the son of a carpenter. But even at his intersection of cosmic irony, Jesus never blamed the nail. Men made it bad and God made it good. And so it is with every technological advance before or since which envisions any good end such as that end of holding fast and holding steady. For the joy set before him, Christ held fast to the cross. And for the joy set before it as fastener of fasteners arriving on a world that had come unhinged, that nail held him there. Whatever it bound on Earth was bound in Heaven.
Our mystical minimum — we know that anything is long before we ask what anything is — makes us all optimists whether we like it or not. If I took every nail ever created, fletched their flights, loaded them into a nail gun, and shot them into British soldiers on the Somme, those nails would still be a gift despite my heinous crime because they would help detectives find me and try to bring about good from my wrong, good that starts with the existence of nails in the first place, nails meant for building houses, nails meant for holding walls, nails meant for binding losses, heeling soles, and shutting stalls. It’s a good thing to be anything at all no matter what evil we try, but it’s even better for those things to have good intents, good ends to which we design them, and therefore good for a nail to be a nail no matter what men bind.
That also applies to augmented reality games like Pokémon Go: it’s good for Pokémon Go to exist and to aspire to be nothing other than Pokémon Go. For Pokémon Go was made by a company that delights in the fantasy world they’ve created and wanted to add some more wonder to our lives — to make it possible for us to augment reality in an imaginative way. Will men use the tool for evil? As sure as they hang men with nails. But the end of their game is not first to make money, is not first to collect metadata, but rather is first to augment our reality with wonder.
What also might make the game bad is a man who uses the game as a means to steal or a means to miss out on moments with his kids. What might make the game bad is a woman who tries to catch ‘em all while road tripping across the country — you cannot be a good Pokémon trainer and car driver at the same time: you might kill both your fellow man and your chance at being a Pokémon master in one fell swoop. But if that happens, it’s not the game’s fault, but the fault of the man or the woman who cannot admit his or her weaknesses and does not carry him or herself with sobriety. And if that happens, it’s also true that there exists the other end of the spectrum: a man who uses the game to connect to his kids, a woman who uses the game as the very excuse to take that road trip, and even autistic kids who have used the game to socialize for the first time (see embedded pictures in the postscript). If one of the millionaires playing this game loses everything they’ve built because they spent a disproportionate amount of time upon it, make no mistake: the existence of Augmented Reality is not a necessary and sufficient cause for his downfall. Necessary, in this example, but insufficient.
Especially since augmented reality has always existed as long as we’ve played pretend.
If I tell you, “Sip this cup of coffee and a sea on Neptune will drain dry,” your mind accepts the image before you can pick it apart. If I say, “Every key on this keyboard prompts a musician in the New York Philharmonic to stop what they’re doing and play a summer song,” you hear the music before you wonder if it’s true. Our imaginations dictate our future reality, the realm of the soul pierces into the realm of the body, and so we play pretend from cradle to the grave and our pretending makes us who we are.
Someone trying very hard to be a grown-up will say to me at this point, “Oh no, I do not play pretend anymore. I am immune from imagination. I never augment my reality: that’s child’s play.” I won’t belabor points that I’ve already made in Contra Graham: How Our War Against YA Literature Betrays Our Immaturity and Insecurities. However, assuming the arguments I made in that piece are sound, I will repeat what C.S. Lewis said:
Those who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adults themselves. To be concerned about being a grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be a grown up.
Yes, you do play pretend, my friend: you pretend to be a grown-up.
I know a grown man — a good and an honorable man — who hides his toy model of the Starship Excelsior behind a shelf of Harvard Classics or some such series of books. That man has augmented his reality of toys with the garb of learning so that his fantasy of scholarship can be superimposed upon his real-life nostalgia and imagination. I don’t mention that to insult him, but merely to call the action what it is: playing pretend. I know of another who took out hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt in order to be seen driving around town in high-end sports cars. He has augmented his reality by superimposing flaming decals and horsepower upon his lukewarm and torqueless life. The man in the pinstripe on Madison Avenue superimposes success on himself and often fears to be found a fraud. And rightly so: for all clothed men are frauds because we came naked into the world and will leave naked as well. We wear as many costumes as the clowns and jesters of the King’s court.
Frauds are tricksters and tricksters show up in every play and every king’s court and every mythology in order to play pretend with the other players. Why? Through their play they bring us wisdom. Puck shows up to play pretend with the King and Queen of the Fae. Nietzsche showed up to play pretend with the institutions of the world. Chesterton showed up to play pretend with the aphorisms, clichés, and truisms of the world — a lighter fraternal twin to both the darkness of Nietzsche and the bleakness of Kafka. Fools as we were in motley, all jangling and absurd, / when all church bells were silent our caps and beds were heard. There are always two pretenders in the court. Two fools. One plays the fool in order to bring wit and wisdom to bear upon the king’s court. The other plays the know-it-all king when really he is a fool. The proof is there in the story The Emperor’s New Clothes. The jester plays pretend to get at wisdom. The king plays at wisdom to get pretentious. Both are frauds because both have augmented reality.
In the case of Pokémon Go and other iPhone apps, the pretending is a bit more lateral. Other iPhone apps — whether Facebook or Clash of the Clans or Google Maps — pretend to connect you when they really drive you deeper into your self. They pretend to be human in hopes of making men machines. You see this online where the primary point of any social medium is not what is said but who is saying it. Pokémon Go, on the other hand, pretends to isolate you when it really connects you. As its world stands now, you can see no one else on the screen and can share nothing directly to any social medium. I like that. I like it because coupled with the geocaching element, it forces people out into the real world to have conversations and discover local landmarks as if for the first time — I first interacted with friends about the game face-to-face. It encourages that behavior, has even brought commerce to once-abandoned downtown districts in smaller towns. Whatever the case, you cannot deny that Facebook and MLB at Bat and Dark Sky and Google Maps is all a kind of pretending. Unlike those forms of pretend, Pokémon Go is the first to augment reality in a community-forming way — not one that merely pays lip service to connectivity through some fabricated digital space. Facebook made machines out of Pokémon Red’s generation of boys. Pokémon Go might yet make men out of Facebook’s generation of machines. The motives are as separate as Weston in Perelandra and the animals of Narnia whom Aslan sang from stone. One aims to make beasts of men. One aims to make men of beasts. One aims to make consumers out of producers. The other has made producers out of its consumers. The end of imagination makes all the difference in the world. News stations spend all their days cycling fear and death and destruction before us in our news feeds and on our televisions, trying to get us to imagine the negative in every stone and summer. And in one stroke, a game intended for children destroyed all of that and gave us back our backyards and frontyards and common spaces — destroyed the fear of the last month for the presidential election, fear of terrorism, fear of our neighbor’s brutality.
“The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”
― C.S. Lewis ‘On Living in An Atomic Age’ (1948)
It is common and sensible and human to play pretend. We can do it well or do it poorly. And that’s the deepest question: for what reason do we augment our reality? Why do we play pretend?
We augment reality in general because we know, deep down, that each tree stands not by root and soil and stock, but by a mystic call to stretch heavenward, that it’s fed not merely by water and nitrogen and light which keep its essence alive but by a deeper mystic lifeblood that keeps its raw and total existence ever before us, moment by moment: the being donated to every contingent thing, as Hart would have it. We augment reality because what we call “real” is incompletely real. Every waystone opens its doors to The Fae, every star speaks of how it could have been empty space, and space itself speaks of its own capacity to be filled. Even our nothings are not nothing for they have something inside of them: the chance to become something — anything — at all. Potential is not nothing. Without potential to become what we are now, none of us could have come to be anything at all. You might say “there’s nothing in my coffee cup,” but there is something in your coffee cup: the potential for coffee. You might say this nail is fastening nothing, but it is fastening something: it’s fastening the idea of fastening to your mind. In every nail hides the grand idea that two boards may be bonded and one man might hang for another, binding life to life and bridging us to God, spikes fused into an anchor that holds beyond the veil, setting the fast and keeping the feast.
Therefore in every augmented reality lies the idea that reality as we know it is not all of it. There’s more. There’s always more. The Latin augmentare — auguere — to increase — speaks to this. It’s adding. Now we might add bad things or good things. We might increase genocides or the births of ten thousand bright-eyed generations of children, we might increase profit for the posh or alms for the poor, we might increase ministration or oppression, pain or pleasure, but addition — in and of itself — is not bad for the plan and simple fact that two babies are better than one (more life), two friends are better than one (more love), and two satisfied desires are better than one (more pursuit of happiness).
It’s hiding that’s the real fraud and the children have come out of hiding. It remains to be seen whether the educated man will reveal his spaceship behind the books, whether the banker will reveal his childhood abacus tucked into the vault, whether the copywriter will pull that novel out of the bottom drawer, or if the tyrant will lay down arms and share his toys alongside the tyke. I praise the man who is what he is and no more: a man. That he stands as tall as a man can stand out in the public square and does no more. Well in today’s climate, it takes courage for a fifty-two-year old man to stand in a public square and play Pokémon with kids, but I praise him for it.
Make fun of the game all you want, but the tech itself is intended for good. And make fun of people for acting childish all you want, but I’d rather augment my reality with dreams of heaven and play games with the Fae than than to feast my eyes on visions of a grown-up hell filled with very serious books, very serious suits, very serious stories, and very serious music. To deny that we all augment reality, in other words, is a very serious problem.
For the rest, thank you for seeing more and for catching all you see. I’ll let Dostoevsky have the last word:
“Much on earth is hidden from us, but to make up for that we have been given a precious mystic sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why the philosophers say that we cannot apprehend the reality of things on earth. God took seeds from different worlds and sowed them on this earth, and His garden grew up and everything came up that could come up, but what grows lives and is alive only through the feeling of its contact with other mysterious worlds. If that feeling grows weak or is destroyed in you, the heavenly growth will die away with you. Then you will be indifferent to life and even grow to hate it. That is what I think.”
cover image by Kentaro IEMOTO
Here’s a gallery of good stories from Pokémon Go users: