Pokemon Placemaking

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George Murray explores what Pokemon Go means for placemaking, heritage and urban regeneration

Few would disagree that 2016 has been a strange year. International terrorism, Donald Trump, Brexit, Leicester City FC, and now perhaps the strangest occurrence of them all: earth being taken over by small animated creatures.

Pokemon Go is a phenomenon. People who really should know better can be seen charging around London in full suit and tie chasing a rumour that a rare Electrabuzz was seen skulking around Tate Modern.

With the year we’ve had, Pokemon Go is possibly symptomatic of the times.  It is a collective burying-heads-in-the-sand, sticking-fingers-in-ears and yelling ‘la la la I can’t hear you’ reaction to every news bulletin that we get in this post-Brexit world.

For the millennials generation, Pokemon Go is a regression to childhood and the comforts and certainties of the 1990’s.  It was a simpler time when everything made sense.  A time when your Pokemon card collection dictated your popularity on the playground.  Success or failure meant whether or not your new Pokemon deck contained that elusive shiny card.  It was a time when we didn’t have to think about anything outside our immediate sphere because we were still basking in Tony Blair’s New Labour feel-good factor which led us to believe that everything was fine (and besides, who read the news when they were 9?).  It’s no wonder then that everyone I was at school with is now either getting married or playing Pokemon Go.

Sure, Pokemon Go is a fad.  It will come and go as quickly as Pokemon cards, only to be played ironically by tomorrow’s hipsters.  But for now, Pokemon Go represents one of the greatest opportunities for placemaking and public engagement since someone had the bright idea of doing a Pop-Up ________ (Insert your favourite pop-up placemaking gimmick here.  It’s probably something from Detroit).

I was walking to London Bridge station yesterday and passed, as I always do, a small garden. On the garden fence are hundreds of ribbons, and I’ve always vaguely wondered why they’re there. I also happened to be playing Pokemon Go at the time, and it turns out the garden is a Pokestop (a point of interest where you can collect in-game goodies). I clicked on the Pokestop icon and was surprised to find a picture and a few paragraphs explaining that the garden is the Cross Bones Graveyard, a post-medieval unconsecrated burial ground for prostitutes and paupers. What better way to engage children (not to mention the 30-something man-child hybrid that Pokemon Go seems to have created) in learning about what’s around them?

This principle can be applied to pretty much any setting. In the museums sector, the onus is now on organisations like the National Trust, Historic Royal Palaces, English Heritage and the big National Museums to stay on top of this trend, and to fully realise its potential for learning and engagement. It is easy to imagine how children might find, for example, a particular country house to be a bit staid and boring.  Now it is teeming with cartoon critters hiding behind every statue and flowerpot.  We spoke to a client the other day who was still bemused by the surreal experience of being hounded by his children to visit their local country house estate because word was out about the number of Pokemons to be found there.  Gotta catch’em all.

For disaggregated urban destinations like the South Bank, Soho and Kings Cross, Pokestops present an interesting way of disseminating information to tourists, punters and passers-by; hand-held interpretation to reach those challenging demographics that wouldn’t be caught dead with a guide book in their hand.  You have to now wonder what would generate more traffic through Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall: the latest Anish Kapoor sculpture or that damned, elusive Charizard?

It’s tempting to think that we have the power to choose whether or not to jump on this particular bandwagon.  I’d love to say that this is one fad I’m sitting out – somebody wake me when it’s over.  But it is clearly not something that the destination business can ignore.  What we’re really tapping into here is not the game itself, but a new form of urban exploration and engagement that Pokemon Go has blasted in to the mainstream. It will pave the way for other, similar apps using Augmented Reality and GPS navigation to act as an interface between the user and their surroundings. Some may stay true to the formula of collect-them-all treasure hunting games popularised by Pokemon Go, and others might take a more serious or cerebral approach, becoming hand-held tour guides offering routing and digital interpretation.

There’s no question, however, that this is a game changer.  AR and VR is no longer something for museum directors to discuss twice a year at conferences, in sessions about gamification that always end up in the same soul-searching debate about the organisation’s responsibility to educate as well as entertain.  They can’t sit and ponder their ‘digital strategy’ for 18 months while the digital world races past them. Augmented Reality is here.  And very soon it will be expected.  Pokemon Go has simply demonstrated the scope of the technology and how captivating it can be in its simplicity.  It is now up to those involved in the heritage, placemaking and urban regeneration industries to identify how this massive potential can be harnessed.