August 11, 2016

Pokémoning While Black

Angie harris WynnBy Angelique Harris and Jonathan Wynn

Harris is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Marquette University

Have you been swept up in the Pokémon Go phenomenon? For those of you who haven’t: Pokémon Go is a virtual reality game that uses real places and a cellphone’s GPS, and the goal of the (mostly) free game is to search for and collect different Pokémon characters: Doduos, Tentacools, Onixes, Smeargles, Drowzees, and over a hundred others. (We have absolutely no idea what these names actually mean.)

We didn’t know it was coming, but all the sudden people were out on the streets with their phones, pointing to street corners and talking with strangers.

On the one hand, this seems to be a fantastic way for people to get out and in the streets, interacting with strangers: There have been stories in the media of people meeting in uncommon places at uncommon times. This is what urban sociologist William H. Whyte called “triangulation:” when some external third thing, like a mime or a public statue gets two strangers to interact.

There have been some interesting uses of the game. There is a social media campaign that posts pictures of Syrian refugee children with Pokémon Go characters to help bring attention to the over 11.3 million Syrian refugees who have been displaced thus far in the civil war. A Michigan Children’s Hospital quickly realized that they could use the game as a form of physical therapy for patients. (Other hospitals are less keen about the game.) TechCrunch offers another example of an animal shelter in Muncie, Indiana, that tries to get people to take a sheltered dog out for a walk while playing Pokémon Go.

Conde Nast Traveler notes that the game is pushing people to explore their cities, communities, and public facilities, and to interact with strangers. (Although the Holocaust Museum wasn’t thrilled with the use of the game in their building.) A game that getspeople out of the house and using public spaces, is likely a good thing too: almost 1/3 of the U.S. population is obese and only 27% of high school students get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day. It is clear that Pokémon Go creators intended for their game to be used to encourage players to interact with their physical environment as opposed to simply in a virtual one. Yet, a latent, or unintended consequence, of this game is that it makes us acknowledge that all gamers are not the same.

There are many things that were likely not taken into consideration during the conception of Pokémon Go. It appears that creators seem to take for granted that we all have the same access to and experiences within public spaces. We know that social experiences are shaped by everything from race, gender, and sexual identity, and they intersect with body shape/size and physical ability as well. And recent news has brought attention to the video game industry’s rampant racism and sexism. The controversy has been called “Gamergate.”

Let's take a moment and think of those more traditional video games. Think of games like Mario Brothers and the Legend of Zelda to more recent ones like the Grant Theft Auto franchise, God of War, and World of Warcraft. Most of these games feature male lead characters with women playing either sex objects, victims in need of rescuing, or are basically ignored. (This isn’t even saying anything about the increased violence found in video games.) Although recent research argues that more people of color and women agree that there is ample racial and gender representation in video games, critics argue that games are created for and by the White male gaze, by that we mean that they were created for and from the perspectives and experiences of men, and mostly White men – what they like, what they have experienced, and what they might have access to. This is an example of what sociologists mean by structural racism. (Click here for more information.) Although not always intentional, the privileging and normalizing of White experiences further oppresses and marginalizes people of color.

This brings us back to Pokémon Go, which gets us thinking about how these virtual concerns spillover into the lived domain, and how concerns about the offline world shape augmented reality. Anyone with access of Facebook and other forms of social media has seen that Blacks have routinely been assaulted or apprehended by simply entering public spaces such as playing at a pool party, riding a bicycle through parking lot, playing in park, or even holding a toy gun in Walmart. The Pokémon Go phenomenon illustrates how Black and Brown youth and adults do not have the same access to public spaces as their non-Black and Brown peers. As such, Pokémon Go should make us reconsider access to public spaces and our experiences within them.

However, access to public space isn’t just racialized. One of us (Wynn) has a forthcoming book chapter about how geocaching, another technology-meets-reality game wherein players hide secret “caches” of miscellany in public places, was deeply problematic in the post-9/11 New York City. People, including the Department of the Interior, were highly suspicious of men and women hiding small packages around the city at the time as in NYC, people are often told, “If you see something, say something.”

However, public spaces are not only policed by police officers, but also by everyday people. For instance, in the UK, police have asked people to stop calling them about their Black neighbors because they feel they look “suspicious” even if those people are either doing nothing or walking through their own neighborhoods. And there are a number of incidents of people of color being mistaken for criminals and assaulted for walking around their own neighborhoods.

Unsurprisingly, this fear of Blacks, and in particular fear of Black men, takes on new meaning when a game encourages players to wander in public spaces. If you Google “Pokémon Go While Black” you will see the scores of pages either cautioning Black men to not play the game or warning them to be safe while they played the game. There is, for example, the story of the Iowa football player who was stopped by police while playing Pokémon Go because he matched the description of a robbery suspect. He described his experience in a lengthy Facebook post, which later went viral, and warned people to pay attention to their surroundings.

In addition to the dangers faced by Black men who play the game, we also find reports that Pokémon Go characters seem to be less common in African American communities and spaces where Blacks would likely feel more comfortable. (There was a game called Ingress that predated Pokémon Go, and the Miami Herald points out how there are fewer stops in Black neighborhoods in Detroit, Washington D.C., and New York City.)

It is a phenomenon even more surprising and disturbing considering the obvious overrepresentation of Pokémon Go in urban areas. (Washington D.C. is an interesting case because, the Miami Herald notes, the downtown is minority-majority, but has more Pokémon Go locations than most cities because of the abundance of historical sites and monuments.)

Some have argued that this could be because of the lack of monuments and central sites in these communities where players can capture Pokémon Go characters. (This, in a way, means that Pokémon Go only indicates an even more serious concern: a lack of public resources in African American neighborhoods!) Others have simply noted that White players might not feel as comfortable going into these spaces, again, reinforcing the notion that these games are designed for White players.

It is certainly likely that the creators of Pokémon Go had no intention of the game igniting so many discussions concerning race and access to public space. However, the designers of a game that uses the real world ought to consider the non-virtual implications of these non-trivial social dynamics. Any sociology student could have told them: Society is so much more complex than any video game!

Perhaps this is why tech companies are starting to hire social scientists!

Have you played Pokémon Go? What have your experiences been? Let us know in the comments!


1. this is not a racial issue. we've seen non-black people harmed, harassed or killed - mostly because they were not paying attention to their surroundings. Danger within the public spere is not exclusive to POC - taking measures to protect yourself is everyone's concern.

2. the game is not racist. pokestops or "locations" you mention were pulled directly from Niantic's (the company) previous game Ingress, which let people place "portals" anywhere in the world. those portals were then imported directly to Pokemon Go as pokestops. if you live in an area with few or none pokestops, this simply means that little to no people were playing Ingress there.

3. If a cop stops you for looking like an alleged crimial, he has every right to do so. a cop stopping you on the street simply does not indicate racism.

4. number of pokemon is generated by cellular data transfered from an area - this means more players in an area = more pokemon (along with placed spawns). Saying that this is due to racism is just stupid. Niantc wold have to know exacly in which areas of every city around the world minorities reside and manually decrease the spawns there. which is simply preposterous.

5. *these* games are not designed for white people *rolls eyes*. beside the option of choosing your skin color, what wold be the point of releasing in South America and Asia then?

Peter: Thanks for reading the piece. Please take a look at our link on what structural racism means. Cheers ~Jon

Jon, i know exacly what structural racism means.

It seems to me that you are trying really hard to see racim where there simply is none. I simply highlighted the parts of your post with misleading or incorrect information about the game - which lead to you assuming the game is racist. Or that it highlights some deep rooted structural racism.

Regarding the "police stopping a guy for playing a game" i have to clarify - you only put forward one incident. Solely one incident does not equate racism (tho i admit i didn't read the player's post that was linked)

Most issues you described affect everyone. reducing them to only a certain demographic is, atleast in my opinion, wrong.

Instead of pointing me to a page with a description of something, you could instead try answering my comment.

I play the game. I am a black adult female. For the most part I am left alone, but once a police officer followed me into a park, watched me and left when I left.

Wow....people get so testy when the issue of race is brought up. Like it or not, it IS relevant in ALL aspects of every day life. WE don't get to ignore it, turn it off, or not think about it...WE have no choice in the matter. The issues brought up in this blog are very real and very relevant. Thanks for your perspective about this new phenomenon.

This article was very enlightening. The fact that structural racism is brought into something an harmless as Pokemon GO is appalling. I'll admit, I've played almost every pokemon game that has come out. While playing Pokemon GO, there has been instances where people get weary about who is playing around them. My parents tried convincing me to delete the game all together, due to safety concerns. If someone wants to play a video game, they should've the same access and be categorized the same no matter ethnicity. A gamer is a gamer, period. There shouldn't be any other way to categorize people.

The article was interesting, especially with this being such a topic in our community. I se a lot of my cousins playing the game, although I have not played it. I feel the game brings people to interact with others. Some may be total strangers. Pokémon, I feel can also cause conflicts and puts people in bad situations. A black person playing the game might end up in a predominately white neighborhood and it might alarm them. My question is did they think that it would cause a conflict.

So what is the best way to combat racism?

Pokemon Go game is very interesting and a virtual reality game because of its real places and a cellphone’s GPS. The main aim of this Pokemon Game to catch Pokemon.Pokemon Go is really a fantastic game to interact with strangers.This article very useful for Pokemon players and providing good content.

Pokemon go is an amazing game and when we take the facts of a virtual game, its really stunning even though in the core gaming features

I do agree that Pokemon go is a great game and is very enjoyable, I used to play it but then I got busy so I stopped. If I ever had the time to play it again I would.

Good information share thanks Buddy

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