power play

Centuries ago, explorers like Columbus and Vasco da Gama played a real-life version of Pokémon Go

Besides being a source of joy for many, the virtual reality game is also about those who have, or don’t have, power over space.

Amidst the flood of Pokémon Go stories that have dominated the news in the last week or so (to whatever extent a single story can be said to have dominated this week's news) one recurring theme has been that of the game's straying into the real world in unfortunate ways.

This is unsurprising. The very aspect of the game that is newsworthy is the relationship between its virtual space and the tangible, material space that we all exist in. Exhorting its users to "step outside and explore the world", the game turns travelling through mundane urban landscapes (more rural areas haven't been quite as well catered for) into an adventure, making you the protagonist of your own fantastic quest.

The colonialism game

There is both joy and genuine radical potential in this sort of transformation of space – as anyone who has ever been a child ought to recognise. Children turn environments made for adults into different spaces all the time, layering fiction over fact to create a space for play. Other groups also perform versions of this re-imagining of space. Practitioners of Parkour, for example, describe the practice as a subversive way of reclaiming urban spaces by using them in unconventional and disruptive ways.

In a sense, Pokémon Go might be said to be performing the sort of “re-enchantment” of the world that Michael Saler describes in As If, his study of fantasy and virtual reality as responses to modernity.

Yet the subversive potential of re-imagining the world depends largely on who is doing this re-imagining.

Keisha E. McKenzie, an academic, technical communicator and consultant, compares Pokémon Go's overlaying of real and virtual terrain to the mapping of the world by European explorers centuries ago.

McKenzie writes:

"Wherever their maps showed the fountain of youth or the city of gold, even if those locations overlaid entire nations and peoples, they claimed the right to go, explore, discover, and capture, and people’s lives became their gamespace.”

It's hardly surprising that much of modern fantasy, and its associated virtual reality, grows directly out of the literary genre sometimes called imperial romance.

In these adventure stories, the strange terrain through which our heroes must travel in order to complete the quest is that of Asia, or Africa, or South America. They return home wiser, better (and often richer) men. Considered through this literature, the vast majority of the globe sometimes appears to exist purely so that British men will have somewhere to have adventures. This would all be very charming, but obviously it's no coincidence that the genre's heyday coincided with that of European imperialism.

Explorers were romanticised in popular culture, with accounts of their doings proving as popular as adventure novels, and there was an open understanding that the readers of these stories, both real and fictional, would grow up to participate in the protection and governance of the empire.

As the 19th century drew to a close, however, explorers were running out of “blank space[s] of delightful mystery” (as Conrad describes them in Heart of Darkness) to map, explore and claim. Again, it's no coincidence that the beginning of the 20th century saw a flowering of fantasy and science fiction, providing heroes with new worlds (and planets) to go questing in.

The colonisers had had a vested interest in ridding the land, as far as possible, of competing histories and significance, discounting existing cultural and geographical understandings of the space. The effect of this in narrative was to rid the territory of any purpose other than the protagonist's personal or material quest.

In fantasy, of course, this is literally true – the fantasy world only exists for the purposes of the quest narrative.

Questions of power

Diana Wynne Jones begins her brilliant Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a tourist's guidebook that takes on practically every cliché of the genre, with the injunction to "find the MAP… if you take this Tour, you are going to have to visit every single place on this Map, whether it is marked or not. This is a Rule.”

Local landmarks, where they appear, figure as stages of a sort of obstacle course on the protagonist's journey to collect (or destroy) the magical object. The local population is similarly mostly absent, though sometimes presents another obstacle in the form of a faceless barbarian horde.

To be able to treat a space as something inherently designed for one's own material or spiritual benefit is to be in a position of power, and these particular spatial power relations continue into the real world and into other genres of writing. At one level, King Solomon's Mines, Eat, Pray, Love and The Hobbit are all versions of the same story.

That this power, this assumption of one's own welcome within the landscape, is not available to everyone is clear. See, for example, Omari Akil's piece on the potential danger of playing Pokémon Go as a black man in America, or the conversation around the difficulties of playing the game for people with physical disabilities.

The fantasy cannot re-enchant the world without being fundamentally connected to the world, and in the past few days we've been reminded of this several times when the demands of the real and virtual spaces have collided – such as the appearance of Pokémon at Auschwitz, at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and at the 9/11 memorial in New York, spaces with too much cultural significance (and specifically, places of mourning) to be subsumed into the landscape of the quest. There have also been gruesome stories of people coming across corpses while playing the game.

The possibility of stumbling across a (real) dead body is remote, but there are plenty of good reasons to be wary of Pokémon Go, and other people have already articulated them. It is unlikely that it will make much of a difference (and sources of joy are few enough at the moment that it's hard to judge anyone who chooses to ignore the dire warnings). But many of those who play the game will find themselves inevitably negotiating the obstacles that are part of the real world – constant reminders of who does, or does not, have power over the space, and for whom fantasy quests are really for.

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