Suggested listening: “Grief” — Earl Sweatshirt
I’m not playing Pokémon Go, and I don’t think you should play it either.
Sheesh, what a hipster. I mean, honestly, who does this guy think he is? Some cultural prophet peddling his personal brand of holier-than-thou posturing? Puh-lease, haven’t we had enough of that? After all, it’s just a game! Playing Pokémon Go is fun! It lets me feel like I’ve accomplished something even on days that otherwise feel wasted. I can say: Whatever else happened today, whatever new misery the world rained on me, at least I caught that Psyduck! Today I even gained a level! 🎉🎉🎉!
Niantic has, to date, made $200 million from Pokémon Go, and that’s only about a month after its launch. Some estimates place Niantic’s daily revenue from the game at $1.6 million, and that’s from Apple iOS-based downloads alone. Businesses have already concocted elaborate strategies to lure customers by doubling as Gyms or PokéStops (don’t ask me what exactly that entails—I’m blissfully unaware). What’s more, beyond its in-app purchases, the game also includes native advertising in the form of “sponsored locations.” The marketing gurus over at AdWeek are already diabolically twiddling their fingers about how mass participation in the game will revolutionize marketing by enabling a “generic” or “agnostic” approach to consumer-targeting. AdWeek writer Marie Goldstein is all breathless praise for the “pan-generational” combination of a well-known, nostalgic brand with new gaming technology. If you listen closely, you can hear the saliva dripping. It’s the same old story: They want your money.
So, at the risk of sounding paranoid: If Pokémon Go represents a virtual or augmented reality, that reality is, at best, a consumerist dystopia in which businesses and advertisers can access and control your literal, physical behavior—down to the very steps you take—through behind-the-scenes partnerships with the game-makers.
Of course, if you make enough money that spending a few dollars here and there on Pokémon-driven impulse purchases is no big deal to you, this kind of capitalist-wet-dream VR might seem totally benign (or at least harmless). But for working- and middle-class people—those for whom the marginal dollar really matters—the time, energy, and money spent trying to catch ‘em all represent a very real loss. Regardless of your social status, my point is: Be aware that they (“they”) can and will manipulate you. In my opinion, you shouldn’t surrender your consumer autonomy so lightly, even for a funny screen-cap of your bestie standing next to a Mewtwo on top of the Empire State Building (sure to rack up the Instagram likes!). In our late-capitalist, non-virtual reality, it’s one of the few powers you still have.
Furthermore, although part of me admires the evil genius on display with this whole built-in advertising conspiracy-thing, as a gamer, I find Pokémon Go extremely disappointing. Those who’ve seen me at Magic: The Gathering tournaments know that I thoroughly enjoy competitive strategy games. And I’m a fan of the art and creative work behind the Pokémon universe. I watched the TV show and even played the Pokémon collectible card game as a kid (I was pretty good at it). But I’m also something of a purist: For me, the game itself should be the product, and the only cross-merchandising allowed should be for accessories that make the game easier or more enjoyable to play. That’s the kind of integrity I expect from a game-maker interested in large chunks of my time and attention, and I won’t settle for less out of boredom or to appear trendy. On this (somewhat) traditionalist view, in fact, Pokémon Go isn’t even really a game—corporate mind control is closer to it. Be afraid.
At the end of the day, you’re free to do what you want, and I don’t fault anyone who’s having fun catching Pokémon with their friends. But if you’re going to play, be aware of the ad man behind the curtain. At level 12 or level 40, you’re still just a game-piece in a marketing executive’s fantasy. Who’s catching who?