Pokémon Go, an extremely popular mobile game released last month, uses the GPS and camera on players’ phones to turn the real world into an adventure land filled with cartoon creatures, called Pokémon, which can be found and caught by exploring real-world places and throwing Pokéballs at them before other players do the same.
The most common varieties of Pokémon (Rattatas, Pidgeys, Jigglypuffs, etc.) turn up everywhere and in great abundance, and so seldom lead to dust-ups between ambitious Pokémon trainers. Anyone who downloads the app is likely to find these so-called normal-type Pokémon inside their own homes, ready to be caught from the comfort of the couch.
Rare Pokémon necessarily require more work to catch. The real world has been divided up into biomes by the game’s creators, meaning different types of Pokémon tend to stay in specific areas. For example, grass-type Pokémon are usually found in verdant places, like parks, farms, and forests.
Video Games as Pain Relief
Pokémon Go upsets the narrative, advanced by critics of capitalism, that video games are an “opiate of the masses.” Playing video games, taking drugs, and overeating are all seen from this perspective as slow motion self-immolations in protest of individualist society. Video games are played in dark rooms by dejected man-children who have been chewed up and spat out by dastardly markets.
But Pokémon Go does not fit that bill. Players must go on Pokéwalks if they want to play the game properly, which bring them into contact with other players, fresh air and historical landmarks (re-branded as gyms and Pokéstops by the game’s GPS).
A broody, disaffected dissident would not find this level of unironic engagement enjoyable. If video games are primarily about escape, shouldn't the most popular ones be those which insulate us most thoroughly from the outside world? With Pokémon Go sitting pretty at number one on the Google Play chart, we might be pardoned for doubting the supposed centrality of escapism.
Unearned Inequality in Pokémon Go
In fact, far from being a respite from the economic system of present, Pokémon Go contains many elements of capitalism, even those which its critics most revile.
For example, the game imposes a degree of non-meritocratic inequality on its players. Certain people’s homes are richer catching and training grounds, simply because of their differential proximities to parks, areas of historical interest, and cities.
But players accept this, because it is an inevitable consequence of a world with geographic heterogeneity. The alternative would be bland uniformity, without much room for individualized player experiences and with no incentive at all to explore.
Interestingly, a great proportion of inequality in the real world is also born of mother nature's womb. Jared Diamond, a well-renowned economic historian, famously argued in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel that modern day differences in incomes of countries are partly attributable to differences in geographic endowments. For example, sub-Saharan Africa has no native animals suitable for domestication, which hobbled its early transport capacities and slowed its development.
The Role of Randomness
Pokémon Go replicates real-world capitalism in another respect by making success partly dependent on blind luck. The most intrepid trainer, with a portable phone battery and unlimited phone data, can still be undone by happenstance because the exact locations in which Pokémon appear is random.
Fixing this “problem” with the game would make things fairer. Losing a prospective Pokémon to an unworthy foe feels unjust; indeed, according to a report from the BBC, one player in England felt so slighted by such an incident they reported it to the police.
But would anyone really prefer a game in which Pokémon appeared like clockwork in certain locations, to be captured exclusively by the most punctual trainers? Anybody who has played the game knows that much of the excitement is in the unpredictability with which the digital creatures appear.
Pokémon Go’s meteoric rise undermines the dreary “opiate of the masses” hypothesis; in addition, it presents us with an opportunity to reconsider the appeal of video games more generally. Any explanation which can account only for games of the past and not for the Pokémon phenomenon must be downplayed.
Meanwhile, though millennials have tended to explicitly reject capitalism at ballot boxes around the world, their embrace with Pokémon Go betrays an unexpected acceptance of inequality as well as a penchant for playing the odds in red-in-tooth-and-claw competition.