Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Pokémon Go: Raids and Rhythms of Urban Life

Pokémon Go has been around since July 2016, yet it remains the most popular and prevalent augmented reality smartphone game around. In that time, its continued popularity owes much to a steady stream of updates and events that have retained the interests of a large group of players. Notably, the second generation of Pokémon from the original Gold/Silver/Crystal games were introduced back in February, adding another 80 species for players to find and catch. Additionally, there has been a series of themed events, including Halloween, Christmas, Easter, Solstice, Equinox, and more, which have enabled players to more readily catch specific types of Pokémon, hatch eggs quicker, and earn more candy and/or stardust to evolve and power up their Pokémon.                                                    
Having continued to play the game on a daily basis since its release, I’ve had ample opportunity to gauge the changes the game has witnessed. While my previous blog post on Pokémon Go discussed it broadly in relation to other, already-existing examples of pervasive games, here I’m going to focus on a major, lasting change that has re-defined the gameplay of Pokémon Go itself: raid battles in gyms.
For those who are unaware, raid battles are opportunities for Pokémon Go players to co-operate with each other to defeat, and ultimately capture, rare Pokémon that usually aren’t found in the wild. Indeed, it was through this element of the gameplay that legendary Pokémon (extremely rare and powerful species) were first introduced for players to catch.
Raid battles have brought about probably the most significant change in the way the game is played since its release. These events have actively brought players together at specific locations and times with the aim of achieving a common goal within the game, creating new realms of interaction with other players and with the environments in which they play. In this post, I’m going to discuss how these changes affect experiences of social life and public space within cities.
 
Timelines
When a raid battle is going to take place, a large egg appears above the gym where the event will be happening, with an hour-long timer counting down to the start of the event. Once the countdown ends, players have an hour to attempt the raid before the event finishes. The timing of raids during the day, though confined roughly to the daylight hours, is otherwise unpredictable. You never know exactly where or when a raid is going to occur, and which Pokémon will appear when the event begins.
This two-hour window of time from when a raid is announced to when it finishes is fairly short, requiring a certain level of organisation and co-operation between players if they are to successfully complete the raid. Participants need to know exactly where a raid is occurring/will occur, when they need to be there, and which Pokémon is up for grabs. When the raid boss is a weaker Pokémon, it can typically be defeated by one or two players, but 4-star or 5-star legendary raids often require at least 4 or 5 players to complete successfully. So the ability to share information quickly among fellow players is crucial.
As a result, many players have set up groups for raids in their local areas on instant messaging services such as Facebook’s Messenger and Discord. Usually, a player will inform the group of a raid that’s happening in the area, people will show their interest (or not), and will then agree on a time to meet and take down the raid boss.
Of course, most people don’t have the luxury of being available any time (or location) to join in a raid. One of the most interesting observations I’ve made of player behaviour during this mode of gameplay is the interaction between raid events and the everyday rhythms of urban life.
Work and school/university commitments are the most common obstacles to participation, often confining players to raiding beforehand or afterwards, or during breaks. It’s this organisation of the working day that has led some players to complain about the fact that raids only occur during the daytime. But even for those who are out and about during the day, hindrances can be caused by anything that makes a demand on a person’s time, such as meeting friends and family; using public transport; the time on a car parking ticket.
The often contradictory relationships between the times and places of a person’s typical day in the city and those of raid events made me think about Pokémon Go in relation to Henri Lefebvre’s concept of rhythmanalysis. Lefebvre describes everyday urban life as ‘polyrhythmic’, consisting of a multiplicity of individual natural and artificial routines and events that come together and interact in the city. When these rhythms unite with one another in a positive, healthy manner, this is known as ‘eurhythmia’. Other times, there is a discordance of the rhythms that leads to suffering, which Lefebvre calls ‘arrhythmia’. This could include, for example, traffic jams, missed connections on public transport, and their associated impacts such as lateness for work.
It’s fascinating to see these different rhythms colliding around raid events, as moments that are haphazardly imposed on the urban ‘schedule’ when announced. As players make plans to attend, whether coming from work, home, school, or another situation, raids interrupt and reshape the patterns of activity taking place in cities. On many occasions, I’ve witnessed the conflict players are faced with when they are late returning to work from their lunch break, but are desperate to catch the Pokémon on offer. Meanwhile, the delay has been caused by another player arriving late due to a bus not turning up, or because they were waiting for their lecture to finish. Individual timelines disconnect from other places and times, converging around the time and location of the raid event, and dispersing again when it is finished.
Ultimately, the variation the timing and location of raid events, and the situations in which players find themselves on any given day, mean that each raid can have completely different mixes and quantities of people attending. Sometimes not enough people take part to beat the raid boss, or the meet-up has to be abandoned altogether. It is part of the unpredictability of raid events that makes them interesting to take part in, and individually unique.
    
Relationships
In this way, raids bring you into contact with a wide group of people and – most significantly – segments of the local community with which you may not normally interact. I’ve taken part in raids with children as a young as 4 or 5 and adults in their 60s, at the same time. I’ve met players with serious speech impediments, mental problems, and other disabilities unrelated to mobility, simply due to a shared interest in the game. There aren’t many other situations where you could realistically find a lecturer, a toddler, a grandmother, a shop assistant, and a student, all communicating and working together to achieve a common goal. Everyone wants the same thing, which, to some degree, helps smooth over social differences by creating a framework of interaction that is equal, at least during the events.
Of course, this isn’t to say that raids are a utopian paradise of equal participation. Aside from the pre-given necessity to own a smartphone to play the game, Pokémon Go – and particularly the movement and accessibility needed to reach different raid locations – remains difficult for those with physical disabilities. There are also financial barriers to participation in raids. Some players can afford to regularly buy premium raid passes (79p of in-game coins), which allow them to participate in more raids per day than the standard one available through the daily free raid pass given to players. It can be disheartening when a raid group agrees to move together to another nearby raid event, yet you feel unable to participate because of money limitations.
Nonetheless, you don’t have to attend every local raid to feel part of a distinct Pokémon Go community. After only a short time raiding, I began noticing the same faces at raid events, and got to know people I would happily talk to outside of a raid scenario. Each raid event leaves a distinct trace in your mind – a specific time, place, group of people, and series of occurrences. This shared memory forged by raiding can then provide a focal point for lasting relationships, or at least talking points that allow you to continue conversations into the future. Furthermore, the shared premise of convening to play Pokémon Go means that there are always easy topics of conversation: the game itself and news about the game, as well as technology, video games, and urban life more generally.
While we’re talking about relationships, though, it is important to remember that not everyone you interact with during raids is necessarily a fellow player. This has always already been the case when playing the game by yourself, but during raids the effect of this interaction is usually more pronounced, as you establish more of a presence within the public space you are occupying by standing in a group.
At one gym in Canterbury, the Three Tuns Pub, the pavements are very narrow, meaning that the raid group often takes up the whole pavement and sometimes spills out into the road. On one occasion, this led to an angry altercation with a passing motorist. In the same location on a different day, one older gentleman – who seemed a little inebriated at the time – was so startled by a group of people all looking at their smartphones that he felt the need to moan about what digital technology is doing to the world, and to keep telling us that we should be communicating face-to-face.
This man missed the key point about the relationships cultivated by Pokémon Go - that, if it weren’t for the game, none of us would have had any reason to meet in person. In fact, raids are a prime example of how digital technology and games can bring people together in the corporeal world, whether they are players or passersby, acquaintances or strangers.
 
Tensions
In any interaction between strangers in public, there is the potential for negative outcomes as well as positive ones. While such problems are mitigated by shared interest in the game and Pokémon franchise, the potential for tension is heightened by the necessity for some level of organisation between players attending raids. These group decisions typically include when to begin a raid, how long to wait for other possible attendees, and whether to move onto another raid once the current one finishes. Though these choices may seem uncontroversial, raid groups are organic, makeshift communities, meaning that clear rules and boundaries of social etiquette often haven’t been established. This can create friction when one person’s idea of acceptable behaviour fails to match another participant’s.
Indeed, in my local raid group, I recently witnessed a very heated argument on the Messenger chat over a decision to begin a raid before one player had arrived. It may seem courteous to always wait until every person who agrees to participate has arrived, and generally this is what happens. Yet it is also a valid argument that if you have set a designated time in advance to meet, and the other participants are ready and have other commitments they need to fulfil afterwards, then it’s justifiable to begin a raid without the one person who fails to turn up on time.
Negotiating these decisions is ultimately circumstantial, depending upon the players there, their time limitations and other restricting factors, alongside elements of urban life that are harder for individuals to control, such as untimely public transport, traffic (pedestrian or vehicular), emergencies, and weather conditions. The process of taking these varying factors into account serves to illustrate the messy relationships between different human and non-human agents that influence the rhythms of our everyday lives.           
The significance of infrastructure is especially acute in Pokémon Go, as a game that is strongly dependent on its constituent technologies being fully-functioning (as opposed to Geocaching, for example, where the imprecision of GPS technology actively encourages players to hunt for treasure in the physical environment). When just one of the requisite systems fails in Pokémon Go - such as mobile internet, GPS, the app, or the phone’s system itself – the game experience deteriorates significantly.
As an example of this, at one location in Canterbury, where I have regularly raided without too many issues, my raid group and I once experienced exceptionally slow mobile internet. It was the University of Kent’s graduation day, and the bus station was crammed with students and their families arriving at midday for their ceremonies at the cathedral. Clearly, many of this crowd were connected to the various mobile networks, which reduced the network capacity available and made everyone’s connections extremely slow. In the end, it took us about 25 minutes – when the human traffic started to dwindle – to complete the raid without connection issues.     
Niantic are no strangers to the crippling impact of network problems, which manifested most famously with the spectacular failure of Pokémon Go’s first official real-world event in July, Pokémon Go Fest in Chicago’s Grant Park, when the network capacity was unable to cope with the volume of players (roughly 20,000) who turned up. It demonstrates the importance of these very material factors that enable our electronic devices to function properly, which we often take for granted in day-to-day life.
As the overlapping socio-material rhythms of urban life intersect around raid events, it is evident that they can interact in ways that can tend towards dissonance as well as resonance.          

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At a time when digital technology is becoming an increasingly prevalent part of everyday life, signalled by growing use of terms such as ‘smart city’ and ‘media city’, we can more readily detect the importance of both human and non-human actors to how we experience cities. Augmented reality games such as Pokémon Go actively rely on these diverse human and material agents to operate, which makes us more aware of and reliant on them throughout our everyday lives. The downside of this heightened interaction between urban stakeholders is the potential for antagonistic relationships to develop, as well as amiable ones. Cities by definition are sites of difference, where one user’s uses and expectations of public space do not necessarily align with another user’s, or with the material attributes of the spaces themselves. Events are particularly problematic because they create concentrated nodes of both human activity and emotional expectation that infringe upon people’s everyday routines and behaviours, voluntarily if you’re a player, or involuntarily if you’re an unwitting passerby.
Ultimately, these observations demonstrate what is distinctive about pervasive gaming, as opposed to other game genres and even other types of urban activity. That is, that these media implicate people and systems that are not necessarily stakeholders in the game. This has its rewards. It can bring those who play the game closer to the environments and communities in which they live, fostering knowledge of, attachment to, and participation in social relationships that would not have developed otherwise. At the same time, it presents complications for urban social life, for which there are often no clear guidelines on how to proceed. This explains the brief moral panic that dominated the media when the game first released, when it was assumed that everyone would be mindlessly walking off cliffs and trespassing en masse onto private property, smartphone in hand.       
With regard to the aim of fostering positive, engaging relationships with people and places, raids are by far the most innovative feature of Pokémon Go so far. It has taken to a whole new level the game’s remarkable capacity to bring people together by forging lasting relationships based on shared, memorable experiences in a place. Given their success, it is unsurprising that we are already seeing experimentation with the format of raids. Niantic have begun trialling ‘EX Raids’ in the UK and elsewhere for the powerful legendary Pokémon from Generation I, Mewtwo. Unlike the unpredictability of regular raids, EX-raids are invite-only, distributed days in advance, where the event is set for a designated time, date, and location. So far there have been relatively few EX Raids – I’ve only heard of one happening in Canterbury. But as these events become more widespread, it will be revealing to gauge how the experience compares to regular raids.
In December players can also look forward to the release of Pokémon from Generation III, though this is not going to have lasting consequences for how the game is played. What I’m particularly excited about is the next substantial change in the mechanics of how the game operates, where a whole new style of gameplay is introduced, because this is where innovation is more likely to happen. In the wider context of pervasive games, Pokémon Go’s popularity makes it a valuable case study for investigating the functioning and impact of different forms of play and creativity in cities, especially that which uses digital technology. And it is important to note that, if the game is to retain its popularity, it will have to continue to break new ground in the experiences it offers players. Simply adding new Pokémon and repeating the same events won’t suffice for keeping players engaged, amidst the array of other commitments that everyday urban life presents to them.

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