Essays

Pokémon Go Is a Massive Art Happening and You’re All Invited

The warning screen that greets though who log into the Pokémon Go app. (screenshot by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
The warning screen that greets though who log into the Pokémon Go app. (screenshot by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

It’s been two weeks and there are 35 million search results for Pokémon Go on Google and 9.5 million daily active players in the United States — which means, in terms of users, the augmented reality game has already surpassed its closest competitor, Candy Crush. There are Pokémon Go memes galore and a number of reports of weird groups of people with their phones out, looking for special markers and cute creatures, in 35 countries and counting. The app’s number of daily users is set to surpass Twitter’s, somewhere around 140 million people, and they’re spending at least 43 minutes a day in-app. It’s a cultural phenomenon to say the least, and it’s also an art happening.

The author's avatar walking a block away from Grand Central Terminal (seen as the darker square) (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
The author’s avatar walking a block away from Grand Central Terminal (seen as the darker square) (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

A ‘happening,’ coined by Allan Kaprow in the late 50s, is all about having a group of people interact with their environment, and eliminating any organizational boundaries between the viewer and his or her environment. On your phone, you can see the simple Pokémon Go world as a map of bright blues and greens and purple squares you can tap with your finger. These purple squares correspond to things in the real world you can visit and experience for yourself. It’s extremely personal, but also universal, as you witness others standing next to you, having similar experiences.

The small creatures you catch make you look silly, sure — you’re flicking your finger on your phone and standing in the middle of a sidewalk interrupting foot traffic. But, if we borrow a quote from Kaprow, “happenings invite us to cast aside for a moment these proper manners and partake wholly in the real nature of the art and life. It is a rough and sudden act, where one often feels ‘dirty,’ and dirt, we might begin to realize, is also organic and fertile, and everything including the visitors can grow a little into such circumstances.” There is no rhyme or reason other than the sheer joy of the moment and feeling as though the random occurrence can change everything, and inspires hope in the person capturing the Pokémon.

Tydence Davis's photo of a "Pokémon Gym" at the peak of Zion Observation Point, Utah. (via flickr.com/tydence)
Tydence Davis’s photo of a “Pokémon Gym” at the peak of Zion Observation Point, Utah. (via flickr.com/tydence)

Along those lines, attn: recently reported that Pokémon Go was helping people with depression step outside of their social comfort zone, and go out in the real world to join the crowds, despite any uncomfortable feelings it might stir up. One user mentioned that they took their dog for a walk while playing the game, and that was their first time outside all summer. Another claimed that, even though they wanted to puke, they were enjoying how “awesome” the game was.

As another example, the Chicago Tribune reported that Pokémon Go has sparked a number of Craigslist missed connections. One such posting reads:

The lure of Pokemon could not have been as strong as the attraction we both felt between us. It must have been fate, because just as I was struck through the heart with Cupid’s Pokeball, the servers froze.

Even the poor quality of the game’s servers and buggy coding can’t stop true affection or a sense of togetherness.

If Virginia Heffernan’s recent book, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, has anything to add, thanks to satellites and being able to connect with others instantaneously both online and now online and in the real world at the same time, we’ve created possibly the biggest piece of art in human history, one that can’t be owned or controlled, at least not easily. Again, from Kaprow: “The whole situation is corrosive, neither patrons nor artists comprehend their role … and out of this hidden discomfort comes a stillborn art, tight or merely repetitive and at worst, chic,” which will probably mean that once advertisers figure out how to harness the world of Pokémon Go, it’ll be dead. But until then, the societal impact of such a fascinating place that’s merging both the online and physical realms at an alarming rate is enormous, and despite its early awkwardness, is a benefit to us all.

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