I was standing on the pavement outside the pub the other night, chatting to my sister-in-law. My brother-in-law interrupted to show us a photograph on his phone. He had taken it 20 seconds previously. It showed her talking to me with a cartoon crab on her lap.
“It’s a Krabby!” she said, leaping to her feet, pulling her phone out and pointing it at where she had been sitting. My brother-in-law did likewise. But then—realising that I might think he had gone quite mad—he raised his head to explain what was going on… but I wasn’t listening because I, too, was peering through my phone at the cartoon crab. My brother emerged from the pub with a handful of drinks and said something that sounded like: “Good grief…”
For those Prospect readers who have spent the last couple of months isolated in a polar research station or a level four biohazard quarantine unit, let me explain. The crab (Krabby—see right) is a character from Pokémon, the Japanese anime franchise that started in the 1990s. Pokémon Go is an augmented reality videogame, which lets you use your smartphone to “collect” these virtual monsters that appear in real-world locations by, um, lobbing virtual basketballs at them.
So absorbing has this digital safari proved that it now features in daily news reports for having caused people to crash their cars, stumble over the edges of cliffs and in many other respects pay tribute to the laws of natural selection.
It’s a proper craze. And because it has a real-world impact—people stopping mid-flow on a pavement to capture a Jigglypuff, for instance—it’s getting a lot of attention.
Gamers used to refer to the outside world, jokingly, as the “big room” (a place best avoided; known to have no screens and a perplexingly high ceiling). Cyberspace used to be seen as a retreat from the outside world. Now it’s launching what looks like an imperialist adventure: a takeover attempt. The analogue world has become a game-board.
Some people take the sour view that the world only starts properly noticing gaming when it’s out there on the street in front of them, blocking the pedestrian crossing. That exaggerates. But some sort of tipping point seems to have been reached.
I think we should be interested in the way in which gaming now intertwines with the “real” world. Pokémon Go may be the most visible current example, it’s not the first and won’t be the last. Videogames are not only recasting public spaces: they are complicating the distinction between the real and the virtual and between work and play.
We all know there’s big money in play. But more suggestively, virtual currencies and real currencies have actual exchange rates. I fondly remember the days, for instance, when a World of Warcraft gold piece was worth about the same as a Russian rouble. “Gold farmers”—people in the developing world grinding for goodies in virtual environments to sell to cash-rich, time-poor western players—have existed for about 20 years.
The visual style of videogames bleeds into the world. When Disney’s 1992 film Aladdin came out, it contained a magic-carpet sequence whose pacing and visual style came from gaming. Hollywood franchises (and merchandising) are hand-in-glove with video- games. Films of games, games of films, toys of games of films about toys. Where Lego Batman ends and Batman Lego begins you’d be hard pressed to say.
The United States military uses videogames as a training tool—and drone pilots might as well be playing videogames. We could add—cautiously—the sometimes alarmist reports that young Islamic State recruits or school shooters have been inspired by their Xboxes.
An epithet that’s sometimes used is “gamification”—the way in which the hooks of video- games can be applied to everything from business management to fitness.
The whole world is being gamified, and the process is accelerating. How does that make analogue people feel? Krabby, sometimes. But we’ll have to get used to it.