Pokéwalking while black: Pokémon GO and America’s ‘e-quality’ of life

Pokémon Go may be a silly diversion, but it’s still one in which the dynamics of systemic racism and spaces of colour come into play.

Anna Everett Corrigan E. Vaughan
5 May 2017
Fotoarena/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Fotoarena/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.On 6 July 2016, San Francisco-based software developers Niantic, Inc. released the unexpected smash-hit game of the summer, Pokémon GO (PoGo). Its success was instant, even as its unexpectedly overburdened servers made gameplay lag, became unpredictable, and, often, frustrating. Since its inception in 1996, the Pokémon franchise of games, television shows, movies, and manga had counted children as its primary demographic, but this new PoGo app was met with surprising intergenerational appeal, drawing into the streets everyone from school-age kids on summer break to gen-Xers and millennials looking for a post-work activity.

On the one hand, it is easy to reduce PoGo’s phenomenal success to its high brand visibility and the game’s ability to connect people’s favourite mobile devices (smartphones) to a favourite multi-platform franchise (Pokémon) through a timely and fun killer app. But any view of the game’s impact that takes into consideration aspects of race and space in American civil society raises a number of serious concerns that we should not ignore. We cannot celebrate PoGo’s success without also examining its limitations – the ways in which the app itself both inherently excludes poor communities of colour and reinforces racial discourses that contrast ‘safe’, white spaces with ‘dangerous’, minority ghettos.

Throughout the summer of 2016, discussions of PoGo dominated social media platforms (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Twitch, and Periscope, for instance), with fans and foes of the phenomenon weighing in from utopian and dystopian perspectives. For some, the PoGo app offered: a unique opportunity for exploration of one’s hometown, a practical solution to obesity among gamers, a means of alleviating mental illness symptoms like depression and agoraphobia, or simply an entertaining diversion. For others, the game represented the worst elements of American culture: phone-obsessed zombies wandering into busy traffic without looking up, friends staring at their phones in lieu of talking to each other, or a mass hive mind of followers more interested in silly distractions than in facing the real world.

It was not long before urban legends began to arise, and fake news and satire sites began circulating stories of multi-car pileups caused by distracted PoGo players, murders sparked by game-rage, accusations of drug dealers luring children through the app, and so on.

These rumours were compounded by the existence of a few shocking true stories: a man shot and killed in San Francisco while playing the game, players in California, Wyoming, and New Hampshire reportedly finding corpses during Pokéwalks, and a player stabbed in an Anaheim, CA park. That last story is among the most telling examples of the fraught racial component of Pokémon GO. A man wanders into a park after dark in a city known for its minority population and is stabbed. What else could he expect? It is a cautionary tale. Police urged people to use discernment and be aware of their surroundings. Like a teenager wandering into traffic, he allowed the game to lead him into the perilous space of a neighbourhood inhabited by people of colour – something he presumably would not have done had he not been mesmerised by the game.

The problem of hapless white folk stumbling into ‘bad’ neighbourhoods while playing is almost a moot point, of course, as predominately poor, minority communities are hardly hubs of Pokémon activity. This is a relic of the app’s origins in a previous augmented reality game from Niantic called Ingress. In Pokémon GO, players rely on specified locations called “Pokéstops” and “gyms” to replenish their in-game supplies, to battle other players, and to place “lures”, which attract Pokémon to the immediate area. These Pokéstops correlate to what are called “portals” in the Ingress game. Portals are generally comprised of spaces of large gatherings or social significance such as museums, monuments, parks, churches, and tourist attractions. The portal locations were largely crowdsourced by Ingress players and users of the online Historical Marker Database, rather than generated by the game’s developers.

When the Miami Herald examined the locations of the Ingress portals, they found what black people had noticed anecdotally to be empirically true: the number of portals and Pokéstops tended to be sparser in predominately black neighbourhoods. And while neither Ingress nor the Historical Marker Database takes detailed demographic information from its crowdsourcing volunteers, informal surveys showed them to “skew male, young, and English-speaking,” further possessing the expendable income to spend an average of about 80 dollars on in-app purchases.

Player Jack Thompson told the Miami Herald, “[Ingress’s] players weren’t diverse and crowdsourcing is only as representative as the crowd doing the sourcing. So instead of a representative map, you get a map drawn, basically, by people with smartphones, tech knowledge, and spare time – high school kids, college students, nerds, and people with desk jobs.”

In addition, for those outside the privileged male demographic wanting to get in on the PoGo craze, there is the YouTube channel GameXplain’s tutorial “How to Play Pokémon Go-Tips and & Tricks (Guide)”, which garnered 3,119,104 views. It explains on a basic level that: “Pokémon Go is a free, augmented reality mobile game on IOS and Android where the main goal is to catch Pokémon in your neighbourhood…However, what’s available to catch is dependent on their location. While catching Pokémon is the main focus there are other goals as well, such as visiting Pokéstops and gyms, strengthening and evolving your Pokémon, and hatching eggs.” The concept seems fun and straightforward enough. In GameXplain’s section entitled, “How do I find Pokémon?,” the tutorial clarifies, “…Pokémon will appear on the game’s GPS map, and your phone will buzz to indicate when a new Pokémon is nearby…and increase the chances of a Pokémon appearance while walking.”

To this plain, straightforward and banal observation, we want to address the often under-acknowledged and unanticipated complexities of the PoGo phenomenon – in particular, where it intersects with race and tech access in America. Any search on YouTube makes the point with numerous hits related to the game. In fact, PoGo videos on YouTube can garner such staggering numbers of views as 9,226,842 (“How to Play Pokémon Go”) and 8,195,084 (“Creative Ways People Are Cheating in Pokémon Go”), among others. This is a clear testament to the popular game’s remarkable scope and reach. At the same time, another side of this socially significant story gets marginalised in large measure because of what it says and reveals about racial injustice that persists in America, and throughout the globe. We ignore its lessons at our peril.

Nothing makes the case more powerfully and convincingly than Omari Akil’s blog post “Pokémon No: Warning – Pokémon Go is a Death Sentence if you are a Black Man”. Akil reminds us of the crucial temporal connection between the game and the newsworthy hashtag activism in the social media community that drives the Black Lives Matter Movement. Akil begins his heartfelt reflections on his own Pokémon Go fandom and play by invoking the tragic and unjust murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile within 24 hours of each other by white police officers. The bottom line for Akil is attempting to reconcile the incommensurability of his avowed ‘geekish’ humanity and inexplicable excitement over the game “even in the wake of such sadness” as the Sterling and Castile murders. 

Akil discusses being distracted by painful thoughts or racial scripts about the dangers of trespassing appropriate space, place and belonging for a black man, while roaming the streets in a state of PoGo gameplay euphoria. “When my brain started combining the complexity of being Black in America with the real world proposal of wandering and exploration that is designed into the gameplay of Pokémon Go, there was only one conclusion. I might die if I keep playing” (original emphasis). Akil concludes: “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, while Black people have to realistically be wary. Honestly, I wish this was a joke or a satire of some sort. It isn’t (original emphasis). Something needs to change . . . like yesterday.”  

At the root of Akil’s honest and palpable vulnerability is an important testament to the primal socializing activity that white people can avoid that black people dare not. And as Akil’s own self-disclosure makes plain, the magic circle of gameplay is apparently deactivated for gamers of colour in some spaces.  Moreover, it is as a result of black people’s necessary internalisation of the nation’s racialization of spaces in most ‘desirable’ neighbourhoods and communities that motivate some to find strategic (even poignant) ways to play PoGo while black. For example, in the aftermath of the high-profile shootings of black people by predominately white police officers and other armed civilian white citizens (including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, and too many others to name here), Americans across the racial divides have become familiar with what ‘the Talk’ means in African American communities. ‘The Talk’, of course, means preparing to survive deadly encounters with police as a unique but necessary rite of passage experienced between African American youths and their anxious parents.

To further illustrate the disparate experience of playing Pokémon Go while black, let us turn to how a young African American woman conveyed her negotiation of PoGo play. In her own inimitable style, the YouTuber posting as allofdestiny gives us another first person account of PoGo playing while black. Its significance is both its strategic tactical move and the fact that it is recorded in real time for her YouTube channel. And like Akil, her recent post entitled “Summer Vlog 2016 #4: Pokémon Go Trespassing, Getting THE RING Sized!” is striking for its ability to reveal yet another instance of social spatialisation of race and access, even as it proceeds in such a mundane way. Captured in the familiar car-cam video frame, allofdestiny and her sister/passenger are driving on an errand to resize allofdestiny’s new ring when her sister, in the passenger seat, receives a Pokéstop buzz. The PoGo alert takes them slightly off course. Attempting to navigate through traffic to catch the Pokémon, allofdestiny remarks offhandedly and with deadly humour:

“I’m stopping with my sister at this place because it’s a Pokéstop. Where does it want you to pull to? This is crazy! This was not in the plans! Where am I ‘posed to go? This crazy! When you make detours, folks gonna be extra late getting everywhere – ‘Hey, sorry I’m late. I had to make a stop at the Pokéstop’ – I’m still too far away? . . . folks gonna get arrested for going places they’re not supposed to go (emphasis added). That’s what I’m saying. These folks having an event, y’all!! And she got me pullin’ up here because it’s a Pokéstop…You are gonna have to get out and walk to it (the Pokéstop). We are all on these folks’ property. It’s a church, so…”

Her sister chimes in: “It’s gonna be okay. They have a lot of Pokémon over here, though.” Adjusting her rear-view mirror, allofdestiny ends this segment of the 30-minute vlog stating: “She’s got a Pokémon. That’s why we’re stopping over here. The whole time we’ve been on the E-way (expressway) she’s been lookin’ for Pokémons. I think she got it. She’s going to show y’all.” (The sister holds up her phone to the car-cam, exposing their Pokémon-hunting strategy: driving as opposed to walking around the game’s magic circle, with PoGo monsters appearing in Portal places and spaces.) On the video, we hear the PoGo jingle indicating success. At that point, allofdestiny fades out of the segment with, “Ok. We’re leaving now, she’s got her Pokémon . . . Ok, bye, bye!”

A couple of brief points need to be made here. In the case of allofdestiny’s support of her sister’s PoGo playing while black, we learn that the two young women are Pokémon hunting while en route to the shopping center to resize the ring.  Based upon many of her posts, we assume the shopping center is adjacent to the young women’s black neighbourhood. This is important because, evidently it squares with the research on the game’s so-called “pokéstop redlining” discussed by Shiva Kooragayala and Tanaya Srini in their study “Pokémon Go is changing how cities public space, but could it be more inclusive?”  While Kooragayala and Srini, Christian Sandvig, and Kashmir Hill and Daniel McLaughlin, among others, call attention to Christopher Huffaker’s charge that gaming companies’ practice of redlining neighbourhoods in minority and lower-income communities, not all researchers and observers agree that hard-to-find Pokéstops are racially determined. 

Still, Huffaker’s eye-opening study of where Pokestops are located across the nation is convincing in its findings that the game’s “Portals are densest in majority white and Asian neighborhoods.” In fact, allofdestiny’s PoGo experience is similar to one of Huffaker’s sources, Kendra James, a PoGo-playing black blogger who tweeted out, “Given how much of a mental bump Pokémon Go has been to so many of us, it REALLY SUCKS to know that kids in Irvington…Can’t really participate as easily as the rest of us” (quoted in Huffaker). With this clear mapping of PoGo portals and its racial dimensions pointed out by Huffaker, and others, allofdestiny’s sister’s comment, “They have a lot of Pokémon over here, though,” betrays both her own resignation to this disparate reality of PoGo play, and the potential risks involved when blacks from certain urban areas decide to play Pokémon Go while black.

Furthermore, in terms of Niantic’s de facto redlining of black neighbourhoods, it is particularly telling when a forum such as GameXplain takes for granted that by simply strolling through one’s neighbourhood, one will be able to, as the Pokémon television series theme song put it, “catch ‘em all.” As the Miami Herald demonstrated, this race-neutral view is less true of people living outside of the areas frequented by the app’s reportedly young, white, middle-class, male crowdsourcers. In fact, in areas without nearby Pokéstops and gyms, it is not unusual to find that there are no Pokémon ‘spawning’ (appearing) in the vicinity at all for long periods of time. And as allofdestiny and her sister discover, this forces anyone who wants to play the game anyway to venture further from their home than typical users. Or it requires them to make in-app purchases like incenses, which attract Pokémon to the player’s location, or eggs, which hatch Pokémon after the player has walked distances of two, five, or ten kilometers. This renders the ostensibly ‘free’ app cost-prohibitive in practice for those outside of the area determined by its privileged crowdsourcers.

The exclusion of black communities from standard gameplay is emblematic of a larger problem of access in technology, and points to the ways in which the tech industry suffers from a myopia rooted in a lack of diversity within its ranks. It was less than five years ago that Microsoft faced accusations of redlining communities of colour through a GPS app that would provide walking instructions that avoided supposedly ‘unsafe’ areas. While at the surface level, the app’s aim to keep people safe was laudable, its developers failed to take into account the effect that stopping people from walking through areas seen as ghettos would actually have on those ghettos. No traffic through such areas means economic depression for businesses located in them, as well as fewer people on the streets to prevent criminal activity, which thrives where it goes unseen.

Furthermore, “unsafe” being code for “black” or “minority” reinforces perceptions of black inferiority and criminality, resulting in the maintenance of structural inequalities and de facto segregation. While it might seem hyperbolic to attribute redlining practices to an app essentially made for children and college students, it is important to acknowledge how the dearth of landmarks considered socially significant or safe to travel to in minority areas perpetuates the idea that “the ghetto” is no place for children. One must be cautious in chasing pocket monsters, or one might run into a real one on the unsafe streets of the inner city.

The problem extends beyond the disparity of access in minority and urban communities, however, and takes a similar but different shape as players of colour weigh the risks of venturing into predominately white areas to participate – even if those areas are their actual home neighbourhoods. For black Americans, the limitations of the summer game are ones of which they are acutely aware. Neighbourhoods in which they are the majority are Pokéstop deserts, regarded as socially insignificant to the people designing these programmes. For blacks living in predominately white areas, or who ventured beyond their minority communities in order to play, an extra level of caution unnecessary for their white gamer counterparts was immediately obvious. As Akil and allofdestiny know, it is dangerous to be a black person – especially a black male – aimlessly circling parks and residential areas and shopping centers without a clear purpose. Even in a silly diversion, the dangerous dynamics of institutional and systemic racism are alive and well.

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