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Pokémon Go Users Flock to Museums, Passing Picasso in Search of Pikachu

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Screenshots of Pokémon Go when played at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photos by @jeanettehayes/Instagram and @museummammy/Twitter)

If you’ve visited a museum in the last few days and spotted larger-than-average groups of people wandering around and looking a tad lost, their eyes glued to their phones, you were likely witnessing the phenomenon of Pokémon Go. Since the game’s launch last week, many museums have actually witnessed increased foot traffic as players have swarmed to them in hopes of catching some Pokémon, as the institutions are integrated with the game.

For those unfamiliar with Pokémon Go (have you been living underneath a Geodude?), a brief primer: in what is now the most downloaded smartphone app in the US, with its daily active users expected to surpass Twitter’s, users roam the real world to discover and virtually catch Pokémon. It’s a location-based, augmented reality game, and like it or not, it’s now infiltrated a cultural spot near you. Besides being filled with Pokémon, many of these places house “gyms,” where you train Pokémon, and Pokéstops — areas, marked by blue pins on the virtual map, where you may find free supplies, from Pokéballs to potions.

It turns out that a huge number of Pokéstops, as described in the game’s release, are museums, historic buildings and markers, and even public artworks. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s “Ugolino and His Sons” is a Pokéstop — although it is labeled in the interface simply as “Dante’s Inferno.” Meanwhile, Pikachu seems to be drawn to the electricity of a Dan Flavin at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and Charmander’s been spotted hanging around the British Museum’s Parthenon Marbles galleries as well as Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Also, the Art Institute of Chicago is lit, featuring a whopping 14 Pokéstops.

This bizarre meeting of art and gaming is happening partly because these places are freely accessible to all, but also because Pokémon Go draws its points of interest from the Historical Marker Database, which catalogs permanent and outdoor monuments, plaques, and other markers. If you’re a history buff, this means this is a pretty neat, inadvertent tool to discover local heritage — but really, most gamers are walking into museums with the firm intention of amassing Spearows and Zubats (it probably helps that some institutions offer free wifi).

However, like any app, Pokémon Go has major bugs concerning its integration with the real world — like the very terrible fact that it’s sending people to find Staryu and Magikarp at the 9/11 Memorial and hunt for Doduos in Washington, DC’s Holocaust Museum. As Andrea Peterson at the Washington Post reported, there are apparently three different Pokéstops scattered around the museum, and on Monday, she found players there “who seemed to be distracted from its haunting exhibits as they tried to ‘catch ’em all.'” The museum’s communications director, Andrew Hollinger, is now attempting to “get the museum excluded from the game”; developer Niantic did not immediately respond to the Post‘s inquiries. An online petition calling on Niantic to remove the Holocaust Museum from Pokémon Go has already over 2,000 signatures.

Museums with less sensitive holdings, unsurprisingly, are largely embracing this increased visitorship and are working hard to fire off relevant social media and blog posts, like Cloyster equipped with Icicle Spear. As PhD student Blaire Moskowitz writes for Museum Hack, many players have said the game has actually brought them to their local museum for the first very time. Although, as she notes, “there are also museums where people are just sitting in the parking lot and not venturing inside. At one small museum, nine people were observed sitting in the parking lot playing PokémonGo, none of whom entered the museum.”

Who knows if Pokémon Go will really result in visitors’ increased interest in or engagement with art or historic objects, but here’s hoping that players with their eyes on their devices don’t accidentally back into a work of art and become our next target of shaming.

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