It’s Saturday night and I’m standing in a crowded bar talking to a man dressed as a Pokémon. This isn’t a Tinder date gone wrong; rather, I’m on a Pokémon Go pub crawl. These are now “a thing”, attracting hundreds, sometimes thousands, of participants. They’re just one of the many weird symptoms of Pokéfever: a mania currently afflicting large swaths of society.
If you’re yet to be infected then you may be somewhat sick of the incessant Pokémon headlines and hokey Pokéjokes. You may well feel an urge to stab (or at the very least poké) yourself in the eye when you come across yet another Pokémanteau. Please don’t. Rather, I urge you to join me in an annotated-reality game called “Pokémon Go: the Quest for Sociohistorical Perspective”. Traverse paragraphs and collect points as you uncover the millennia of meaning behind the recent madness! Ready? Let’s go.
The speed with which Pokémon Go has risen from mobile game to cultural phenomenon is a reminder that games both reflect and shape our world in ways we often overlook. The most popular games of an era can act as cultural milestones, indicating shifts in beliefs and behaviour. Twister, for example, was described as “sex in a box” after it was created during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Tetris, released in 1984, was a quite literally a product of Soviet Russia; for many years the state owned the rights to the game. For its American audience, Tetris’s brutalist blocks were both a compelling puzzle and a thrilling dramatisation of cold war tensions. A 1988 review in the Chicago Tribune declared the game so addictive you might wonder if it “isn’t really part of a diabolical plot hatched in the Evil Empire to lower worker productivity in the United States”.
Games aren’t just a reflection of the past; they can provide a glimpse into the future. “If you’re paying attention, games write the first draft of human history,” says Jamin Warren, the founder of videogame arts and culture company Kill Screen. “There have been many examples of games presupposing market adoption. Games were the first time we had a dynamic interaction with a television screen. Games drove the public adoption of virtual reality. Games were an early mover in social networks … [and] regardless of whether Pokémon Go lasts through the summer, it’s now the first global use-case of augmented reality.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that games serve as a catalyst for the wider adoption of new technology; they have always been a way of bridging gaps and diffusing differences. We used them to communicate with each other long before written language. Dr Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum and an authority on ancient games, notes that archaeologists have found evidence that board games have existed since 7,000BC, during the Neolithic period. It’s almost impossible, Finkel says, to find a culture without games. They’re a “universal human activity and a unifier of humanity”.
Games can be particularly useful during difficult times. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, thousands of years ago there was a terrible famine in the land of Lydia. But the Lydians were a resourceful bunch; life didn’t give them any Pokémon lemons so they invented dice games. For several years, they distracted themselves from their hunger by playing the pain away. It’s possible that the bleakness of the news cycle over the last few months has factored into Pokémon Go’s success. At a time when reality seems so dark, it is no wonder that people are welcoming the chance to augment it with a little magic.
But Pokémon Go’s success is not simply a case of millions of millennials fiddling with their iPhones while the world burns. Games can be a form of escapism, but their real power is as a tool of engagement. “Games have always provided a common vocabulary and a shared space for bonding,” says Mary Flanagan, a professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth College. “Early board games gave everyone a role to play, and a time and space to talk. Chess was used as a medium of courtship in the middle ages.”
Flanagan is director of the Tiltfactor lab, which makes games for social change. Harnessing the interactive and immersive qualities of games to change minds and behaviour is a rapidly growing area of research interest; however it’s also ingrained in the history of play. Monopoly, for example, was initially called the Landlord’s Game and was invented at the turn of the 20th century to teach people about social inequality. “It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing, with all its usual outcomes and consequences,” wrote Elizabeth Magie, its inventor, in a political magazine. “In a short time, I hope … men and women will discover that they are poor because Carnegie and Rockefeller, maybe, have more than they know what to do with,” she added.
The Landlord’s Game was popular with leftwing intellectuals. However, over the next few decades less pedagogical versions of the game popped up. It seems that during the economic depression of the 1930s, people were more interested in playing at being a tycoon than interrogating tycoonism. In 1935, Parker Brothers (now a subsidiary of Hasbro) purchased the rights to a version of the game created by Charles Darrow, and this became the one we know today: a training ground for tiny Trumps. Ironically, and perhaps inevitably, the Landlord’s Game was subsumed by the very power structures it was criticising. As the game went on to sell more than 250 million copies worldwide, its female inventor was forgotten, while a man monopolised the glory and the profit. Monopoly is a practical demonstration of the way in which capitalism doesn’t just grab land but minds; appropriating its critics and turning counter-culture into consumer culture.
If games really can write the first draft of history, then the sort of greed-is-good capitalism of which Monopoly is a microcosm may have seen its final days. Over the past 10 years, a German game called The Settlers of Catan has been encroaching on Monopoly’s turf. The objective of Catan – which gained a cult following on release in 1995 but whose popularity really started to rise in 2008 – is to build settlements on a fictional island; it’s Monopoly for an Airbnb generation. The gameplay requires and rewards collaboration; the goal isn’t a mad grab for resources but strategic trading with other players. It’s the sharing economy in a box; capitalism dressed up as cooperation in an increasingly interconnected world. No wonder it is a favourite amongthe tech set; one Silicon Valley exec has called it the new golf.
Catan’s success – it has sold 23m copies worldwide – comes amid a broader resurgence of board games. The world may be increasingly digital, but it’s clear we still crave tangible interactions. “Catan [was] poised to be the ying to video games’ yang,” says board game designer Gil Hava. Catan, he notes, isn’t just a physical game, it’s a game you physically build; assembling the board anew each time out of 19 pieces. Further, it’s inherently social; you don’t play it passively, waiting your turn, you have to interact with the other players throughout.
Another pop culture phenomenon that speaks to our enduring need for real-world interaction is Cards Against Humanity. Launched in 2011, this self-described “party game for horrible people” has grown from a niche obsession to a mainstream success. It is now a bestseller on Amazon.
The game involves answering fill-in-the-blank statements with beyond-the-pale combinations of the crass and politically incorrect words and phrases printed on the cards. Rotating players then choose the funniest combinations; this means it’s best played with people you know well, as winning is a matter of figuring out which of your friends will laugh at a paedophile joke.
Cards Against Humanity holds up a middle finger to the system. Max Temkin, one of the game’s founders, told me over the phone that he started working on the game with seven of his childhood friends as they were finishing high school around 2006, during the Bush administration. “The political climate in [the US] was dark. It felt like the world was going crazy. So, in a time when politically we felt as though there was misuse of authority and nothing made any sense, it felt empowering and subversive to poke fun at the whole construction of language itself.”
As politics has changed, so has Cards Against Humanity. It has become more knowing – although some would argue that it is not knowing enough. Whether the game is subversive or just stupid is a matter of opinion. However there is no denying that it has struck a chord. The game reflects a modern impulse to mock rather than to mend; reflected in the way that millennials increasingly get their news from satirical comedians such as John Oliver or The Daily Show. Since we can’t seem to stop the world burning, we live-tweet it instead. “It will be amazing for our business if Donald Trump gets elected,” Temkin muses. “It will be a great four years for comedy but a terrible four years for democracy.”
While Cards Against Humanity demonstrates millennial disillusionment in the guise of cynicism, Pokémon Go represents a sentimental grasp for the past. The game’s success owes much to an outpouring of nostalgia among millennials who associate Pokémon with their childhood.
Patrick, for instance, the man in the Pokémon costume at the pub crawl, is 22. Just one year older than the Pokémon franchise itself, which launched in 1995 with a Gameboy game and then branched out into trading cards, TV shows, movies, toys and books – building an army of loyal fans as it went. These loyal fans now have smartphones, credit cards and probably early-onset ennui.
The game has also attracted a whole new set of Pokémon fans – providing a case study in modern-day viral appeal. Augmented reality technology means that the imaginary Pokémon you’re trying to catch in the mobile game look, through the lens of your phone, like they are actually there in real life – perched on a pint at the bar or sitting on your friend’s shoulder. These make super-shareable pictures that have spawned a slew of Pokémemes. Because the game mechanics also require you to go outside and explore, as well as congregate around certain landmarks, the game has spread across the real world. Indeed, it’s this convergence of the real and virtual worlds that marks the game out out as a first draft of history. Over time, we can expect the digital and the physical worlds to become ever more indistinguishable.
Ultimately, however, Pokémon Go is less a sign that augmented reality will change our future than a reminder that games are constantly changing the world. Whether they’re providing analog escapism or digital distraction, games have been augmenting our reality for thousands of years.