Pokemon GO is an exciting app that encourages people to explore the world around them: This is the popular narrative about the augmented reality game that in just one week had daily users approaching Twitter numbers in the US, according to SimilarWeb.
But this narrative ignores some serious limitations of who gets to do this exploration and where they choose to do it.
Though Pokemon GO seems to create a fantasy world around us, it exists within our very real world, filled with very real problems.
In the article Warning: Pokemon GO Is a Death Sentence If You Are a Black Man, writer Omari Akil describes having to keep his excitement in check while playing the game: “There is a statistically disproportionate chance that someone could call the police to investigate me for walking around in circles in the complex.”
Writer Selena Larson also points out, in How Pokémon Go Is Creating a Barrier for Gamers With Disabilities, that the locations where many pokemon are found (e.g. at the top of a rocky hill) are not always accessible to people in wheelchairs and the egg-hatching feature requires people to walk long distances.
Not everyone has equal, safe access to exploration.
For people who do have access, they may still choose to remain in areas that are familiar.
What the narrative about Pokemon GO ignores is that our world is already full of invisible boundaries that people draw, because of real-world considerations like safety, ability and prejudice. Before giving Pokemon GO too much credit for bringing people out and interacting with the world, it’s important to remember the limitations of that exploration.
There are some geolocation apps seeking to encourage exploration that could break some of those boundaries, like the app Vamonde. Vamonde users download location-based “adventures” (i.e. walking tours) that unlock stories as the user travels through them. Anyone can create a story, which has exciting implications for neighborhoods that do not always have control over the stories told about them. Vamonde encourages people to visit different parts of Chicagoland and learn about those areas from the people who are local to the area.
For example, the tour “Hell No, We Won’t Go,” created by University of Chicago student and activist Cosette Hampton, brings users on a tour of the Pullman neighborhood starting at the Carter G. Woodson Library. There, the tour explains the library’s history ending with recent YouTube footage of community members rallying to keep the library open. The tour continues to Chicago State University, the Pullman Porter Museum, Harold’s Chicken Shack #27 and more. Along the way, there is history, quotes from residents and photos.
Vamonde and Pokemon both push users to interact with the world in new ways. As people increasingly wonder how Pokemon GO can also be used as a tool for storytelling, and even journalism, we need to ask: who will those stories be for and who will they be about?
We need to be having a broader discussion about the limitations of “exploration.”
We need to consider who is left out and we need to consider the boundaries of where people choose to explore. After all, it will take more than just technology and a quest to “Catch ‘em All” to recode bias.