On Pokemon Go and "Consensus Reality"

A Spearow at the entrance to Powhatan State Park in Virginia. Credit: Virginia State Parks on Flickr.

A Spearow at the entrance to Powhatan State Park in Virginia. Credit: Virginia State Parks on Flickr.

Back when I was a science fiction scholar (okay, I sort of still am... yes, Gerry, I'll have my Cambridge chapter in on time!), I spent a lot of time thinking about different kinds of reality. Diegetic reality - the "reality" within a work of art or literature or media - versus non-diegetic reality, the world in which we all live. The future or alternate realities in science fiction, which Darko Suvin calls "cognitive estrangement" from our own reality, versus the world in which we all live. 

The world in which we all live. It's what Suvin calls "zero world", or what Katheryn Hume calls "consensus reality". I like that second one, consensus reality. It's a term that understands that we all create reality around us as we live: we create systems of government, theories of art, traditions and ways of living and being human. And at the bottom of it all, despite our disagreements, there is some kind of deep consensus among humans: that there is something called "reality" and we are all living in it.

(This is, by the way, one of the reasons why Western culture in particular is so anxious about what we call "delusion": people who believe that the TV is talking to them, or that they are the Chosen One, or somesuch. They haven't bought into the consensus about reality.)

Now, this consensus is a lot more fragile than we often think it is, "we" being those of us raised in generally-Western cultures ruled by principles of rationality; I want to acknowledge here that the concept of reality itself is much more open-ended in many non-Western cultures, though I don't want to belabour it in this post. For more on indigenous scientific literacies, for instance, see Grace Dillon's work or anything written by Nnedi Okorafor.

This consensus is also fragile because, with the increasing popularity of location-based social media as a method not just of communication but as augmentation of our daily lives, what we think of as "reality" is changing rapidly.

Why Do We Want a Pikachu?

Why do Pokemon matter? They're just bits of information on a server. Why do we care if we catch them all, or some, or any? 

This is not a new question, of course. The gaming-inclined among us have been derided for valuing in-game objects since there were in-game objects to value. But why do the proverbial "purpz" (for those of you who didn't play World of Warcraft, that's hard-to-achieve legendary items) matter to us? Because there is a consensus around what they mean. They have become semiotic objects, signifiers of status and expertise in-game. They have also become, due only to consensus, economically significant objects in their own right, available for purchase or sale, and "farmed" by teams of bleary-eyed professional gamers in the same parts of the world to which we also outsource production of other things we buy and throw away. 

They, like Pokemon, are just bits of information on a server, but they hold real value to those who participate in the consensus that they are valuable.

Pokemon Go is a little bit different, though: it represents, I would say, an advancement of consensus-based gaming, a step towards merging "zero world" with the digital one. In World of Warcraft or KOTR, even if you're playing in a team with others, the game-world is separate from the non-game world. You sit down at a computer and put on your headphones and you're in.

But with Pokemon Go, the game world is layered onto the real world in a Baudrillardian simulacrum of the planet. Pokestops and gyms, where you can get items and battle your Pokemon against others', are stationary and generally map onto places of significance; the Pokemon themselves are mobile. The "AR camera" allows Pokemon to layer themselves on top of whatever part of the world you're in: they're on your street, in your bedroom, bouncing on your dog's nose. You throw a ball and catch them. And they're everywhere. They're even in places like Auschwitz and the Holocaust Museum and a children's hospital

Pokemon as Invasive Species

There's been a lot of ink spilled about the inappropriateness of Pokemon being in places like these; I wouldn't disagree. But the problem isn't so much that the game developers are insensitive; rather, in the game, locations have different meanings than in zero-world. Pokestops and gyms are the only locations of difference: that is, the only locations that have any material significance within the Pokemon Go layer of reality. This isn't so much insensitivity as what I might call imperfect semiotic mapping. Because these spaces in-game do often map onto places of significance in zero-world, like churches and schools; it's just that "significance" and "appropriateness" are two very different things, and the consensus that we have about the kind of significance these places hold in our sociocultural memory - the pillars of what Benedict Anderson called our "imagined communities", to borrow a concept - doesn't map very well onto the kind of significance that these places hold in Pokemon Go.

Pokemon themselves... well, they might even be called invasive, in a multivalent way: they have invaded both our sense of consensus reality and the spaces that are collectively important to us. Of course, you as an individual always have the choice not to play. But while Pokemon themselves don't interact directly with zero-world reality, the people who play it do. And if the consensus is that there's a Pokemon in Central Park, then you end up with a crowd gathered around, abandoning their cars, to catch it. If the consensus is that there are rare Pokemon that live at Harbourfront in Toronto, then you end up with crowds of people milling around trying to catch them.

The Impact of Consensus

These consensuses (consenses?), like the consensus of WoW gold being worth real money, have material real-world effects, too. Business Insider reports that because of Pokemon Go, food carts have become permanent fixtures in Central Park, peddling rations to aspiring Ash Ketchums. The game has also been lauded as a way to improve mental health: people experiencing depression and anxiety are finding helpful the game's incentives to leave their homes and walk to hatch eggs, and to go to different biomes to catch different Pokemon. 

Of course, as with most trends, there are naysayers: the Vancouver superintendent who encouraged players to "think about their life choices", for one. As with most trends, there will be those who choose not to follow it, or who think it's silly. But why does the Vancouver signwriter care in the first place? Because they, indirectly, also participate in the consensus-reality of Pokemon in our midst: they are directly affected by players of the game. 

As a marketer, I understand that many kinds of value exist only by consensus. Status symbols, for instance, are only such because there is a social consensus about their significance. As a social/digital communications professional, I understand that the value of a social network's functionality is only valuable inasmuch as it provides that network's users an optimal way to create, share and consume the kind of content that those users - and the companies that would market to them - find valuable. (This includes MMORPGs.) Even when there is little functional value, there is social value, because and only because of a social consensus to find value.

Pokemon Go is perhaps, then, the apothesis of this concept. It is a layer of reality that has zero inherent functional value, and is imperfectly mapped onto our reality, and is significant only because we have collectively decided it is so. 

Pokemon Go is, in other words, the closest thing we've seen yet to a purely consensus-based reality.