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Pokémon Go and the Need to Critically Consider Augmented Realities

Published on
13 Jul 2016
Written by
Mark Graham

Pokémon Go is currently taking the world by storm. The game uses smartphones to overlay the material world with digital elements, encouraging users to travel around to different places in order to progress in the game.


The addictive gameplay has led to police departments warning people that they should be more careful about revealing their locations, players injuring themselves, finding dead bodies, and even the Holocaust Museum tellingpeople to play elsewhere!

But I think the game is also worth noting because it offers a nice illustration of some of the themes that Matt Zook, Andrew Boulton, and I wrote about a few years ago in the following piece.

Graham, M., M. Zook., and A. Boulton. 2013. Augmented Reality in Urban Places: contested content and the duplicity of code. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 38(3), 464-479. (pre-publication version here)

In the piece we note that there are four kinds of power that manifest in the coming together of material and virtual spatialities:

Distributed Power: The power of a distributed group of actors to influence what is and isn’t present in our augmented world. In other words, the augmented world is created in the way that it is not because of the decisions of a single actor, but from a network of people (often in opaque and untraceable ways).

Communication Power: The fact that some actors have more power than others to control and use the digital layers of place. A street takes on very different meanings for those with and without access to digital content.

Code Power: The ability for code and algorithms to impact how our augmented world are produced and brought into being.

Timeless Power: The flattening of time. Because of the ways that many augmented digital layers are constructed, time in augmented spaces takes on different temporalities. Some digital layers are relatively static and timeless; others are live.

These ways of thinking about power and augmented realities are important because digital augmentations are never imposed onto any sort of socially neutral space. There are existing social, economic, and political contexts that influence how people use these augmented spaces. Think for instance, of whether minorities might feel safe in all areas the game leads them to, or – for similar reasons – whether women can augmented their worlds in the same ways men can.

As ever more of the world becomes augmented, and as ever more people augment their lives with digital content, I hope that we can use (and improve) these ways of thinking about the power-laden practices we bring our augmented worlds into being with.

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