Through the looking glass of his smartphone, Chris Perguidi spied an imaginary monster. He pointed his phone at the purple and googly-eyed Tangela, a vine-tangled critter that lurked just beyond his reach in the digital realm of Pokémon Go.
The 31-year-old Gilroy-based comic book artist had taken the bus from South County to San Jose to bring his girlfriend lunch, as usual, and hunt for Pokémon along the way. As he turned the corner from South First to San Carlos, he says, a sun-weathered man and bottle-blonde woman across the street began shouting at him to stop recording them.
“I’m not,” he recalls telling them that late-afternoon of July 27. “I’m playing Pokémon Go. It’s a video game.”
Perguidi kept walking toward the Tech Shop, hoping to dispel their anger by minding his own business. But the couple followed, he says. The woman, still yelling, jaywalked to his side of the street and hurled a water bottle at his head.
Angry, yet still trying to defuse the situation, Perguidi says he turned to leave. But the man—a head-shaven, tatted-up, ropy-armed roustabout—grabbed his shoulder, spun him around and swiped at him with a knife.
Perguidi, a trained boxer and wrestler, says the adrenaline triggered his fighter’s instinct. He slapped the blade out of the bald man’s hand as the woman scratched, bit and pummeled his back. The bald man, furtively re-armed with a knife, cocked a closed fist in what looked like a punch that swung in a leftward arc just as Perguidi tucked his chin.
Blood began pouring out of Perguidi’s face, which had been sliced into what looked like a second mouth. Had he kept his head up, he says, the blade would have slashed his throat. The knife tore through his American flag tank top and sternum.
Police came, the attackers bolted and an ambulance rushed Perguidi to the hospital, where a doctor sutured his chin gash with 15 stitches.
Perguidi says he wasn’t engrossed to distraction by the game. But the attack became another cautionary tale about the physical dangers of the latest fad keeping people glued to their smartphones.
For all the horror stories, however, it would be unfair to call Pokémon Go—the wildly popular offshoot of the 21-year-old anime franchise—a death trap. Perguidi, who plans to keep playing despite his scrape, will be the first to say as much. Marika Krause, spokeswoman for San Jose’s Tech Museum of Innovation, says she was thrilled to find out that people flocked to a space just outside the downtown institution to stalk pretend “pocket monsters,” or Pokémon. In her view, the game arrived at an auspicious time.
“By using augmented reality, the game makes it look like Pokémon are right in front of you,” Tech Museum spokeswoman Marika Krause says. “That’s exciting for us because we’re working on bringing an augmented reality exhibit in the coming year or so. It gets people acquainted with the technology, which is great because our whole mission is about technology as a way to better humanity.”
San Jose has played host to augmented-reality gamers before. A few years before Pokémon Go, the game’s developer, Niantic Labs, launched a massively multiplayer smartphone game called Ingress, whose virtual adventures required players to get off the couch and hoof it to local landmarks. In 2013, Ingress players flocked to the Martin Luther King Jr. Library and City Hall to wage battle in an overlapping alternate reality.
“Pokémon Go players aren’t the first to encounter augmented reality at City Hall, but I’m glad we’re hip enough to attract our fair share of Squirtles, Venemoths and Rhydons,” Mayor Sam Liccardo says, referring to turtle, moth and rhino Pokémon, respectively.
Like Ingress, Pokémon Go uses geolocation to track players as they move about on a cyber-scavenger hunt for imaginary creatures to catch and train for battle. Google Maps transforms physical locations into a virtual playing field, with “PokéStops” allowing users to buy in-game goodies such as critter-catching red-and-white orbs called Poké Balls or duke it out with other players at Pokémon Gyms.
Also like Ingress, Pokémon Go uses phone cameras to superimpose game elements over a real-world backdrop. Prompts on the map turn public parks, museums, churches, cemeteries, sidewalks and university campuses into terrestrial hunting grounds for digital prey, which range in rarity. The sparrow-like Pidgey and purple rodent Rattata seem to appear around every corner while the reptilian Dratini is a prized conquest.
Time and topography matter, too. Aquatic Pokémon like Horsea and Goldeen linger by bodies of water, including the Guadalupe River. Ghostly Pokémon, like Gastly and Gengar, emerge after nightfall at downtown San Jose’s César Chavez Park, to name one of many local haunts. When I installed the app Sunday, I found a Bulbasaur, a mini dinosaur with a bulbous poison plant affixed to its back, creeping around my bedroom. After a few clumsy attempts to catch it with my Poké Ball, he became the first (and probably last) addition to my collection, called a Pokédex.
This fictional domain has clashed with reality in a host of bizarre, amusing and occasionally horrifying ways. The sudden appearance of people roaming around with their phones held before them like a digital dowsing rod initially drew puzzled or derisive looks. Shortly after the game launched the first week of July, groups of people began exploring places they would never otherwise go and often at odd hours. Before playing, a warning screen cautions users against playing the game in dangerous areas.
“At first we worried about people’s safety,” says Stacey Hendler-Ross, spokeswoman for the Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). “We didn’t want people falling off platforms or wandering onto the train tracks.”
The San Jose Police Department, which already grapples with cellphone-wielding motorists and pedestrians enthralled by their tiny pocket computers, began offering Pokémon Go-related safety presentations at local grade schools. It also circulated a U.S. Department of Justice flier that warned of the app’s potential to intensify problems of distracted driving and walking, or children getting lost. “Technological change also provides criminals with new ways to commit traditional crimes,” the notice cautioned. “[Namely] kidnapping, assault, sexual assault and armed robbery.”
This past weekend, someone fatally shot a 20-year-old college student from San Mateo who was playing the game at a park in San Francisco. Preceding weeks saw more than a few players stumble upon dead bodies in their quest for new pocket-monsters. Two brothers in Washington found a .32 Magnum handgun. Ne’er-do-wells have dropped digital Pokémon lures to isolate players and rob them. A budding Pokémon trainer in New York state inspired the no-duh hashtag #DontPokemonAndDrive when he ploughed his brother’s car into a tree in pursuit of a plesiosaur-like Lapras.
“Trying to catch a Pokémon while behind the wheel is a major distraction and increases your risk of causing a crash,” the American Automobile Association warned in a press release that would have seemed laughably inconceivable before Pokémon Go. California Attorney General Kamala Harris issued her own reminder to stay alert. “If possible, only go to a PokéStop with a friend or partner,” she wrote.
Collaborative apps have for some time influenced the human landscape, but, as evidenced by Pokémon Go, they’re increasingly inserting themselves into the physical world. Waze, an app that alerts drivers to speed traps and traffic jams, reroutes cars to disrupt formerly quiet neighborhoods. Airbnb turns homes into waystations for travelers, bringing tourists into residential enclaves.
PokéStops have similarly drawn stampedes of players to not only notable landmarks, but also random and, occasionally, inappropriate places. Niantic somehow marked the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., as a PokéStop, which drew hordes of players to a memorial for victims of Nazi genocide. On July 29, a New Jersey man filed a lawsuit in California federal court against Niantic and Nintendo for leading strangers to trespass by making his yard a hotspot for mythical mini monsters. San Jose’s Oak Hill Memorial Park and other cemeteries have had to shoo away players for invading what families of those buried there consider a sacred space.
Exploring the lush, labyrinthine grounds of the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum has become an after-work ritual for Julie Scott, the museum’s executive director of 16 years. After Pokémon Go’s debut last month, she noticed an influx of visitors enjoying the Rose Garden property guided by their smartphones.
“At first we were like, ‘Wait, what is going on?’” Scott says. “It was very noticeable because it looked like a parade of people walking around in search of something. But they were engaging with each other, and were all so congenial, coming through at all times of day and in the evening. We were so intrigued.”
Rosicrucian staff discovered that the property turned into a Pokémon hotspot overnight. A rare Hitmonchan, a skirt-clad boxer, hovered within the gardens and drew a number of intrepid trainers, Scott says. One night last week, she says, a girl who must have been about seven years old and knew everything about Pokémon, brought her dad to the park.
“He says, ‘We had no idea you had this labyrinth here,’” Scott says. “We see a lot of that. People come here for a rare Pokémon, but fall in love with the place.”
For businesses or public spaces that depend on walk-in visitors, the sudden surge in foot traffic of gamers trying to fulfill the Pokémon trainer’s edict to “catch ‘em all” has been a welcome trend. Santa Clara County’s animal shelter invited people to snatch up Pokémon during a recent push to adopt flesh-and-blood animals. South Bay libraries, which have a longstanding history of programmatically reflecting community interests, have hosted Pokémon-themed craft times, reading challenges and contests.
“We lucked out,” says Allison Lew, a librarian for the Santa Clara County Library District. “Every one of our libraries has a PokéStop. We’re really celebrating that, not only to lure people in but also that we saw so many folks enjoying our libraries. It’s a neat thing that the community is enjoying, and we’re enjoying it with them.”
Once VTA addressed safety concerns along light rail and bus stops, the agency’s marketing team incorporated the game into its “Car-free is carefree” summer campaign. The agency posted blogs about Pokémon sightings, created a map of Pokémon sightings and set out in-game lures to attract Pokémon to certain stations.
“We realized that this could actually help build ridership,” Hendler-Ross says. “We want people playing the game to ride the train or take the bus. And while they’re at it, we want to make sure that they’re safe.”
San Jose’s Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA), a small gallery in the SoFA art district, welcomes Pokémon Go players.
“The game provides several unexpected and fun surprise encounters, and offers an opportunity for folks to meander into new community spaces,” ICA curator Patricia Cariño says. “I’m interested in seeing how this technology could be leveraged by art spaces to provide a different level of interaction with art and the spaces themselves.”
The ICA’s three PokéStops, placed there without a heads-up from Niantic, has led to sightings of Mankey and Golduck. Thankfully, Cariño says, many visitors who came for the hunt lingered to enjoy the summer exhibitions exploring paper as art.
“We’ve had a very pleasant experience with the game,” adds Sarah Dragovich, spokeswoman for the modern art nonprofit. “There are actually quite a few Pokémon in our gallery, and we’ve caught some ourselves.”
Jigglypuff, a round cotton candy-pink Pokémon that disarms prey with its big blue eyes, has taken a liking to an installment by artist Weston Teruya. The saucer-eyed Kirby doppelganger often materializes on Teruya’s recycled paper sculpture of a gate called “Extracting Gold in New York City.”
“People walk right up to the gate and grab it,” says Dragovich, who snapped a screenshot of herself posing by a Rattata, another gallery regular. “It looks like it’s made of steel, but it’s actually made out of paper that the artist found in the trash. So we’ll see people kind of stop in surprise and interact and enjoy the art.”
At last week’s First Friday art walk in downtown San Jose, the ICA paid a buck to set a digital lure for high-point Pokémon to attract people to a collaborative performance involving an artist, a poet and a robot.
Not a week from its July 6 launch, Pokémon Go garnered more active daily users than Twitter and more than $1.6 million a day of in-app purchases in the United States alone. A month out, the game surpassed $200 million in global revenue. Nintendo, which claims a 33 percent stake in the franchise and had been grappling with declining game sales, saw its stock double in value since the app stormed into the mobile marketplace. Conceived by Stanford University student Ivan Lee in 2011, and cultivated by Niantic Labs into a $3.7 billion phenomenon, Pokémon Go stands to become the most popular video game ever.
By overlaying the physical world with a vast digital dimension, Pokémon Go has added a new class of drifters, pulled into a psychogeographical thrall not by inborn curiosity but by competitive incentive. The game’s design pushes users to notice landmarks they might otherwise drive right past, all to re-up on supplies or battle other trainers. Perguidi’s weekday routine now hews to a game route that brings him to notable murals in San Jose’s SoFA district. As an illustrator, he says he appreciates the attention to local color.
But the enticing digital interface that encourages people to venture outside and explore their surroundings highlights some very real inequities of race, class and gender. Not everyone gets to move around as safely as others. While virtual reality has raised concerns about the way it leaves one’s body vulnerable while immersing the mind in a digital fiction, augmented reality actually draws those bodies outside where the dangers range from traffic to theft and violence from other people.
“The premise of Pokémon Go asks me to put my life in danger if I choose to play it as it is intended and with enthusiasm,” Omari Akil observed in an article titled “Pokémon Go Could be a Death Sentence for a Black Man,” which has since gone viral. “Let’s just go ahead and add Pokémon Go to the extremely long list of things white people can do without fear of being killed.”
A black man exploring places he would otherwise not go, holding his phone ahead of him the way the game requires, could arouse suspicion in residential neighborhoods or provoke police violence, he wrote. A similar problem arises for women, whose mere presence in public spaces exposes them to harassment and abuse.
“One guy followed me for several feet, and as he looked over my shoulder to check if I was looking at Pokémon, I tabbed over to my email and pretended to be looking at that so he would go away,” Maddy Myers wrote for Mary Sue, a website that covers the intersection of feminism and geek culture. “He did, but not before making my heart-rate skyrocket so that he would go away. … Pokémon Go has been reminding all of us, instantly, who does and doesn’t feel safe going outside.”
Pokémon Go’s reliance on users’ personal information has aroused suspicion from civil rights groups, which point out that Niantic CEO John Hanke is beset by privacy scandals dating back to his tenure at Google Maps. The game also raises questions about the ethics of converting public spaces into private profit centers. Video games have existed for more than four decades, but augmented-reality iterations take things a step further.
“By overlaying a game interface onto real-world sites and landmarks, it collapses the distinction between the physical and the virtual,” Alexander Ross, a video game commentator, wrote in a column for Jacobin quarterly. “And through the game’s transactional nature, it abolishes the old boundaries of the marketplace. The public park, the community church, the sprawling college campus, and the open square are all commodified with Pokémon Go’s in-game virtual item economy, which supports a very real, corporate one.”
There’s also an element of erasure in the Pokémon Go universe, which remaps reality based on an abstracted fantasy with no regard for the subjective limitations of the here and now. The imagined world ignores cultural context, which is perhaps why Niantic rendered hallowed ground such as New York City’s 9/11 memorial and Arlington National Cemetery into PokéStops.
At pediatric hospitals, administrators have implored people to resist gaming around sick kids who may want to play but can’t go outside to catch Pokémon. The California Hospital Association urges members to ask Niantic Labs to remove clinical facilities as in-game destinations.
“While the game encourages positive activities such as walking and family togetherness,” the association wrote in an advisory last month, “hospitals are not the place to search for fictional characters.”