I have to admit, I was mostly ignoring the emergence of Pokémon Go, as I have probably the most gorgeous baby girl in the world to attend to these days. But after my favorite co-conspirator Stu Eve wrote a rather grumpy piece about augmented reality and Pokémon Go, I couldn’t resist.
Stu implores people to go outside, to use augmented reality to enhance and enchant heritage sites or even to ditch technology altogether and preserve and observe the wildlife that is already there instead of cartoon creatures. Stu then goes on to demonstrate that Pokémon Go distracts from heritage, citing a girl on Twitter catching a Pokémon at Stonehenge.
I contend that people playing Pokémon Go at heritage sites are simply extending their performance of identity on social media. It is not enough now to have an Instgram-filtered photo of you and your bestie at Stonehenge. There is a rather interesting one-upmanship in the attempt to capture unique content in the digital visual morass. When everyone has a photograph of Stonehenge, how can yours be the most unique, the most quirky or authentic performance of self in respect to the backdrop?
An interesting example–in the Volte Face series of photographs, Oliver Curtis deliberately turns away from the heritage focal point to capture the reverse view. This is provocative and compelling in its simplicity; the photographs reveal a blind side, a kind of back-stage for heritage at the same time as anthropomorphizing the heritage site–this is what the heritage “sees.”
Adding a Pokémon Go overlay adds a new element of interest, an unexpected juxtaposition of cartoon characters in a solemn (potentially boring) place. I, for one, welcome the Charizard on top of the Vatican–though I certainly share Stu’s concern for the complete monetization of experience.
The first lesson from Pokémon Go for archaeologists and heritage managers is that people are looking for novel, collective ways to experience and perform heritage. I think it is particularly important to note that Pokémon Go is obviously not a bespoke heritage application. It corresponds with my digital archaeological practice in that instead of attempting to build wholly new heritage-based applications and such, I try to use what people are already using as a form of interventionism, or even, at a stretch, détournement.
It is a hacky approach and everything breaks all the time–though bespoke heritage applications might actually have a worse track record–but surprising people by putting archaeology where they are not expecting it is its own reward. Be reactive, try to place archaeology in unexpected places, and don’t be too surprised when it blows up or it is ignored and it slowly fades away.
Perhaps the second lesson from Pokémon Go is that there is a corresponding retreat from digital media in archaeology from some of the most forward thinking digital archaeologists. It may be that the next challenge is to create interpretation so compelling, or so self-actualized that they put aside their phones and completely immerse themselves in experiencing heritage sites. Right? Devil’s advocate though–even if we managed such a monumental post-digital interpretive experience, we’d have to take photos of people engaged with it for the eventual publication. After all, pics or it didn’t happen.