Since a few years ago, it has been common to spot a group of people staring intently into their smartphones on a city street corner or landmark. The Pokémon Go mobile game has sparked broad public discussion on the norms that regulate public places in the city. Less than 400 kilometers separate two European cities, Helsinki and St. Petersburg. Despite the globalization of technologies and youth cultures, the normative production of urban space differs significantly in these two cities.
TEXT Arseniy Svynarenko & Anastasia SablinaPHOTOGRAPHS Patrik Rastenberger
The dominant political and cultural norms find their reflections in how societies, governments and local actors react to players who suddenly became vividly visible on the streets of these cities. This essay discusses the aspects that Pókemon Go players in Helsinki regard as important in playing the game: spending time outside exploring neighbourhoods, personal achievement, effective communication and building communities. In St. Petersburg, players are particularly concerned about the freedom of movement and assembly in public places, building relations between players and those who want to control the city streets: the online and offline spaces and communications.
In July 2016, Niantic Inc. released The Pokémon Go game. Children, young people and older generations started playing the game on the streets of cities. When the hype faded, teenagers were the first to abandon the game. Like many social media platforms and apps, Pókemon Go was not cool anymore because parents, grandparents, younger sisters and brothers started to play it. Nonetheless, in 2018 the game still remains very popular in Helsinki and St. Petersburg albeit in different meanings. Players have formed many communities and regularly meet on the streets to play their favorite game together.
I opened the Pókemon Go app on my smartphone and saw on a game map that a battle was going on at the nearest Gym. In a few moments, I was there. A young man in his 20’s swiftly defeated all Pokémon at the Gym. The Gym turned Red. Player was from Red “Valor” team. Now I could see his avatar, level and the nickname appearing next to a strong Pokémon he assigned to defend the gym. A few hours later, I joined him and a group of his friends (all of whom he had met playing the game) for a three-hour long walk in their neighbourhood. Players knew where to find rare Pókemon, they have planned their route for a project of painting the virtual map of neighbourhood in red color of their team. After 10 PM, we bumped into a group of players from the competing team, a tension could be felt in the air. “Hi!”, they didn’t answer our greetings and silently passed by looking at the screens of their smartphones. Gamers are focused on individual aims, they move a lot, the game is social, and the community is developing its own rules for online and offline encounters. Passage from researcher’s field notes, Helsinki.
As an urban game, Pokémon Go has successfully brought together individual and community, digital mobile gaming and urban mobility, learning the local sights and participating in global events. The biggest disadvantage of the game is that the virtual Pokémon are urban dwellers, and the further the player goes from the city, the less possibility there is to play the game.
The fast development of ICT during the past decade and the falling prices of mobile broadband internet, accompanied with relatively high living standards in Finland and in Russia have brought on a new situation in which the majority of young people have smartphones. This opens up space for using a wide range of applications for chatting, listening to music, playing or navigating in a city, functions that almost all work only when connected to the Internet. The majority of young Finns are constantly connected to the Internet, their everyday life being 'appified’ (they use mobile apps for a constantly increasing range of life activities) and gamified (meaning both playing casual mobile games and interweaving game principles into non-game situations).
I used to play at home on my PC and console, but now I spend a lot of time outside ... I think that the purpose of the game is just to get the kids outside.Ron, 19 years old, interviewed on Suomenlinna island, Helsinki
In the past years, the most popular mobile games were either individual (single player), like Angry Birds, Piano Tiles or Subway Surfers, or social (multiplayer with teams of players and communication between them), like Clash of Clans and Clash Royale. None of these games would require face-to-face interaction between the players or going to the streets to play. There were often companions for players in the city, but not a reason for being in the city. Pokémon Go brought the online and offline activities together. It motivated players to go outside, to explore the city. On the streets and at home players remain connected to gaming communities. Now they also have to deal with real life situations, setting new rules for gaming in mixed reality.
So read a headline in the newspaper Ilta-Sanomat (Ilta-Sanomat, 2016). In 2016 the urban landscape changed as it got new virtual layers and inhabitants.
In different local and national contexts, the city and state have reacted in different ways to Pokémon Go players who suddenly became visible. Playing a mobile game is no longer an exclusively intimate experience to a player, who plays alone or in an online community of often anonymous players. A usually invisible ‘magic circle’ of a Pokémon Go game becomes visible when groups of players suddenly appear on the streets to play in Raids and then disappear blending in to a crowd. The boundaries between virtual and physical spaces are blurred, they are merged into one common playground accessible through an app in a smartphone. The city is a playground and the players are visible and invisible at the same time. The anonymous players hidden behind avatars become de-anonymized when they join groups to play in the city.
Society responded to Pokémon Go gamers in different ways, and these responses reflected the dominant political and cultural norms in given regional or national contexts. The case of Pokémon Go game illustrates how globalized media and gaming cultures set in very diverse national political contexts. Society and players had to rethink the norms and rules for urban public places. Was it safe for children online and offline to talk to unknown adults who are also playing the game? Was it acceptable that crowds of people with smartphones in their hands would suddenly appear in urban public places and then suddenly disappear? Normally a cemetery or church wasn’t a place for playful activities but was it now acceptable to play in restricted places if a mixed reality mobile game did not fit into the definition of classical outdoor games? Finland’s open society and democratic political system makes way for players and citizens to find their own answers to these questions and negotiate the rules for the new phenomenon. Russia’s less open society and non-democratic system portrays attitudes shaped by dominating conservative narratives. These conservative narratives mix both religious traditionalism and soviet totalitarianism that strive towards control of the public sphere.
Young people whom we interviewed in Helsinki told us that one of their main concerns when they are in public places was informal control by adults, who often complained of young people being too noisy. Adults, however, reacted positively to young people who were silently staring at their smartphone screens. Young people said that they often use smartphones to build a “bubble” of privacy around themselves in public places. Playing Pokémon Go may look like a person is just silently staring at the smartphone screen in a public place, a practice generally acceptable by all generations, it presumes privacy and at the same time the sociality of the gamer.
Institutions like the police and church took part in public discussions about rules for the new phenomenon. The police issued a statement that there were no obstacles to playing in public places like shops, graveyards, bars, and in the courtyards of an apartment buildings (YLEX, 2016). The Finnish Lutheran church also voiced its views on the game. For instance, pastor of local parish in the Kallio district of Helsinki Visa Viljamaa said in his interview “And first of all we can at least welcome the players. When passing by we can pay attention to the players, maybe chat with them, let them know that we know what they are doing and that they are welcome” (Kirkko ja Kaupunki, 2016). Furthermore, Pokestops and Gyms could be found around most churches and cemeteries. For instance, in the Old Church park in central Helsinki, Gyms are located at the entrances of the functioning church building. Also the church is surrounded by numerous pokestops. Therefore, playing there requires that a player walks in the churchyard or stands next to the entrance of the church or walks around it.
We conducted one of our interviews with players at the entrance to the Old Church in central Helsinki, where a group of players were competing for the control of a Gym. Neither the interviewees, nor the church visitors were concerned that players could somehow interfere with the wedding ceremony that was taking place there at the time of the interviews:
Interviewer: “What kinds of attitudes towards players have you noticed?”
Tomas: “No one has ever approached me with any negative intentions. Someone, not a player, would come and ask: ‘Are you playing Pokémon?’ - ‘Yes!’, - ‘Is this place intended for playing?’ – this person has probably seen people playing here. No one ever approached me asking me to leave or questioned what I was doing there.”
Mikko: “Or just like when there are Raids at the same places, they might bring together several dozen players, they stand there and then they go. Sometimes someone would come and wonder what was going on.”
Tomas and Mikko, both aged 30, interviewed at the Old Church Park, Helsinki
In spring 2018, a news stories discussed a case where a priest in Lappeenranta complained that players had showed lack of respect towards the funeral guests during a funeral ceremony as they played on the steps of the church (YLE Uutiset, 2018). Players in Helsinki were aware of this incident and discussed it in social media channels.
Nonetheless, in one of the interviews in Helsinki, an informant told us that there was some kind of a ‘grey area’ in the norms of conduct in the city. There were situations when players thought about the boundaries of appropriate behaviour in the city. For instance, players told us that they were concerned about whether it was acceptable to climb over the fence of a closed botanic garden in the winter, to follow an employee to restricted premises of a private company, or to walk into a yard of a private estate, which previously served as a railway station but where a Pokémon Gym was now located.
The main difference comparing predecessor game Ingress is that Pokemon Go immediately became very anarchistic, players had no rules. In the Ingress community it was very important that nobody was cheating… cheaters were quickly excluded from the community. When Pokemon Go came it was immediately out of control… there were so many players that there was no one to take care about players. … there was a lot of negative situations in Pokémon Go because some of the pokestops and gyms are on construction sites or other restricted areas. ... in Pokémon Go it was very anarchistic, players would climb over the fence, or spoof (their GPS location).Ilkka, 32, interviewed at the Huopalahti Church, Helsinki
Pokémon Go is played by a wide range of players: old, young, children, experienced gamers and casual players. Most of them use the same social media platforms. WhatsApp and Facebook rapidly became the most popular channels for communication between players in Helsinki especially because this messenger is popular among children, young and old players. Probably every neighbourhood in Helsinki has its own WhatsApp or Facebook Raid-group (Finnish, English speaking or mixed).
When local Pokémon Go communities appeared in Whatsapp and Facebook, players began to negotiate and set their own norms for playing in the city. There are now online groups and communities dedicated to various aspects of playing: public groups about Raids, reporting rare Pókemon spawns or research task locations, game news. There are also closed local groups of players of the same team. Online groups usually have a set of unwritten rules and strict control from those who volunteer as moderators. Fair play and keeping up a positive atmosphere are important inside the groups, as well as resolving rare conflicts and supporting players.
When players meet in parks and streets for a Raid or an event, it has become common practice for often unknown people to share power banks and cables, give advice to new players, share experiences and show off one’s own achievements (100IV or Shiny Pokémons). In these offline discussions players also talk about the norms of the community. For instance, about the punctuality of players during raids, spoofing GPS or playing with multiple accounts. Discussions continue in open and closed groups in social media.
Several players we interviewed were very concerned about the absence of anonymity in WhatsApp or Facebook groups. Usually the real name and a phone number (in case of WhatsApp) were visible to all members of a group. There were cases of inappropriate content or contacts with other players online. In spring 2018, moderators of Pokémon Go social media groups in Helsinki joined together to move all groups of Pokémon Go community to Discord – a communication platform that can ensure anonymity, security and more control over content but is usually used by PC gamers. In the interviews players also saw it as a somewhat problematic move that may strengthen a digital divide between generations. Discord is a flexible and secure platform. Most importantly, the unified platform may unify rules and norms for the Pokémon Go community and make the informal control more effective.
I could never have imagined that this research case would be difficult to conduct in the conditions of modern Russia – I didn’t expect that the Pokémon Go theme would be tied to politics and security.Passage from researcher’s field notes, St Petersburg
Since the first mobile games became available for phones and smartphones, playing has always been associated with inequalities between those who own mobile phones of different brands and operating systems, between those with powerful and expensive smartphones and those with basic smartphones, between those who are always online and those who have limited or expensive internet connections, between those who can spend money for in-game purchases and those who can't. The era of Pokémon Go has added a few new lines of divisions and tensions to this already long list. For economic and political reasons such as government surveillance, censorship, control over online mapping apps, some games are not released in certain countries. In these countries, millions of players have to learn how to overcome these institutional obstacles. Two years after its worldwide launch, Pokémon Go was officially launched in Russia without any announcement in mid-September, 2018. In other countries like China, Iran the game is prohibited or not available yet.
In Russia, a cautious attitude towards players has spread widely. Among the broadly disseminated narratives that appeared in the Russian mass media in summer 2016, one was titled “Major General of FSB: Western special services can spy on Pokémon Go players” (KP.RU, 2016). In the southern cities the local cossacs (a conservative traditionalist community) that patrol the cities along with police also announced that they will try to convince Pokémon Go players not to play this game. Because strict regulations are imposed on gatherings in public places in St. Petersburg and in all other cities in Russia, many Pokémon Go players said that they were concerned about whether their group of 15–20 players would trigger a negative reaction from the police and other fellow citizens on the street. Some players raised the question of whether they should continue or stop playing the game in an increasingly hostile political environment.
During the past few years, the government has also intensified its control over the Internet and made significant progress (a so-called “Yarovaya law package”) on diminishing online privacy by setting up a massive system of internet traffic surveillance and demanding that messaging services (VKontakte, WhatsApp, Telegram) must hand over full access to users’ messages. A popular social network VKontakte (VK) hosts thousands of Pokémon Go communities. There is a growing number of court sentences given to VK users for commenting, liking and re-posting even non-public posts. These posts may be political commentaries, historical photos or caricatures. Privacy is almost non-existent in VK. During the spring of 2018, the Russian government in an attempt to close a half a dozen Islamist channels banned the entire Telegram messenger – perhaps the most popular messaging service among Pokémon Go players. Further legal restrictions on the use of social media and messengers are discussed in the Russian Duma and Government.
Besides government and some nationwide or local conservative associations also parents often impose strict control over children’s activities online. This is probably a result of the above mentioned measures, a low IT literacy level and a neo-conservative turnaround followed by the growing influence of clerics and communities representing the official religions. In 2017, the media broadly publicized a sensational case against Roman Sokolovsky, a video-blogger who was eventually sentenced to three and a half years probation for insulting the religious feelings of believers. Sokolovsky is now also on the government’s ‘list of individuals involved in extremist activity or terrorism’. This happened after he played Pokémon Go in a church in Yekaterinburg and openly expressed his atheistic views in his vlog.
In interviews in St. Petersburg, players noted that the presentation of the Pokémon Go game in the media was biased from the very beginning. Even the reports made by Russian national TV channels in other countries were very straightforward: “First victims”, “Five minutes of common sense”, “Unexpected threats”, etc. Most of the moral panic about the game was disguised as “concern about the safety of children and young people” as a Pokémon may appear in a dangerous place (abandoned buildings), and the distraction caused by playing can result in a traumatic or life threatening situation.
This reputation was built up from scratch by the media. Well, here's the thing, we had a place where in the first weeks, months, all the players just gathered. There were thousands of people in that area. Both the grass and the foliage of trees were destroyed. And then journalists came to all this “triumph” ... they did not hesitate to speak with all the players, well, to discuss what they would be reporting on next. And there, for example, journalists of the TV channel "*****" were like: "Damn! Yesterday a guy ran after the Pokémon and a car almost hit him. Wish something like this would happen again!” And people who were near heard it, all this discussion, and looked at them [journalists] erratically. Oleg, 22, active player and owner of the Telegram channel for Pokémon Go.
Additional risks were presented concerning unauthorized public events, rallies, to which ‘people (with the help of the game) will be lured to protest actions or to take part in other illegal events’. Pokémon Go was seen as a technology to organize a revolution, a coup. It was interesting that most of the moral panic was over ‘using’ young people and their enthusiasm for playing the game in order to involve them in unauthorized public events.
Other risks mentioned were the use of the game to collect personal information about the players and potential harm to children – “if people can generate [Pokémon], they can lure children anywhere”. Moreover, there was an attempt to ban the game through legislation – the Federation Council tried to approve a law banning the game at least on the premises of religious institutions, prisons, hospitals, cemeteries and monuments. The author of the law, Deputy Chairman of the Defense Committee, Franz Klintsevich, commented on the game as follows: “There is a sense that the devil came through this mechanism and is simply trying to break us spiritually from the inside... It seems that this is imposed from the outside by people who know exactly that after a couple of years the consequences will be irreversible.” The law was not adopted, but Pokémon Go was now discussed in the context of already existing articles of criminal and administrative code.
Besides intense institutional control that seems ever-present with the prohibition of Telegram and the Sokolovskiy case, Pokémon-catchers face more “individualized” control in public spaces. A somber reason for why players may be getting more attention on the streets is more related to the last terrorist act in the St. Petersburg subway (3 April, 2017) and other acts of terrorism in several European cities that increase anxiety about personal safety in city spaces. These events can be seen to have significantly influenced general intenseness in urban public spaces. The Raid hunts of coveted Pokémons requires the participation of groups of players who stand together on the streets playing. This may cause increased attention of passers-by.
Also we stood in a crowd, probably, there were 15 people. The man was walking, he asked what you were doing. After knowing that we were playing Pokémon Go, he began to capture us on video … Another time it was a woman who was walking with two children, she walked and looked, walked and looked. She asked: "And what are you doing?". I said ‘nothing, please, do not pay attention’. She was like - no, I saw that you are poking into your phones!Olga, 45, active player
Particular attention is paid to players when they use above-ground public transport, so Pokémon Go players try to avoid the game in any transport except their own cars. One of the interviewed players had to explain in detail to the conductor that he was just playing Pokémon Go and that is why he had to use the tram for more than two hours to improve his game level. The player had to emphasize that he was no threat to anybody’s security or the tram’s work: “I’m sorry, I’m just playing, please calm down … I am not a terrorist and I will not blow anything up”, he convinced. Strangely, Pokémon Go players who encountered employees of high security facilities while playing around these facilities went much better.
Even if we come to the high security facilities, people with dogs [employees] walk around in the middle of the night, they come up to us and ask: "What are you doing?" - "We are playing Pokémon Go" - "Good". And the man with the dog goes away. Egor, 27, active player and Pokémon Go chat manager [in Telegram].
Pokémon Go players face not only increased attention from bypassers but also attention from the players’ immediate environment. Family members and coworkers actively react to and influence the Pokémon cathers’ playing behavior and patterns. Besides the intensifying parental control over underage and young players, adult players also face non-reciprocity of their interest in Pokémon Go from their coworkers, partners and children. It is quite similar to reactions people get who are “ageing inside subculture”. In public discourse passion for games is defined as something inherent more likely to young people and their leisure activities in post-Soviet countries. For this reason adult players face reactions that playing Pokémon Go does not “suit” their age, marital status or professional status.
Well, he was telling his wife for a long time that he has gone with a friend to drink beer after work [while he was participating in Raids], but he has come home sober, therefore, his wife got carried away. I persuaded him to tell her the truth for a long time while he said that he could not do it and his wife would not understand. Elena, 30, active player and owner of the Telegram channel for Pokémon Go.
The above-mentioned cases significantly influence playing behavior and patterns of Russian Pokémon Go players, both their online and offline communication and how they are trying to set their own norms of playing and just being in the city. Being in such securitized and controlled space(s) – both online and offline – means that Pokémon Go players only have a limited amount of resistance tactics and practices available to them. Most of the players come together within the self-regulation and self-censorship mechanisms of online communication to reduce communication in real urban spaces. Members of the community create bots in chat rooms on Telegram to determine the number of players, where the gatherings take place and who will take part in the raids, essentially reducing all communication to its online form. However, communication within the framework of Telegram nowadays fits into the general format of so-called ‘digital resistance’ (organized by Telegram’s owner Pavel Durov), which began with the blocking of Telegram and also as a reaction to the laws concerning the collection of private information by mobile operators and messengers for security services. We are, thus, witnessing an ‘exile’ from real urban spaces into virtual ones, the disintegration of the community into small mobile groups, which are characterized by a high degree of self-coordination. In addition, administrators of online communities send out notifications to players with guidelines about the safety of players and information on (non)dangerous zones and possible offenses in connection with the game. This contributes to the legal literacy of players and helps them to avoid possible conflict situations. We see how the Pokémon Go players in St. Petersburg are ‘inside’ the securitized and forbidding discourse(s), but they continue to play, participate in the actions of the ‘digital resistance’ and temporarily ‘discover themselves’ in the physical public spaces of the city. Such tactics help accumulate the resources of the community, to avoid possible conflicts with the non-gaming city and to move away from public supervision. This in turn leads to strict internal regulation of the community and the establishment of rules, where a violation causes exclusion from the Pokémon Go community in St. Petersburg.
While looking for interviewees, our Russian researcher team faced a situation in which the researcher sent a message on social media to a player whose age was not indicated, and consequently the young man's father answered this message saying that he had filed a complaint to the police because strangers were trying to talk to his son online. Perhaps this is due to the strong parental control of adolescents – both online and offline – or concerns about the criminal prosecution of Sokolovsky. It is interesting that not only parents, but also the players themselves are very concerned about their safety. One of the potential informants was very worried about the possibility of meeting the researcher for an interview near his home – he was afraid that he could “wake up somewhere without a kidney”. In a closed chat on the social networking service Vkontakte, the players discussed how to refuse being interviewed and speculated that the researcher might actually be working for the FSB [Federal Security Bureau] – “the FSB agents are even here [in a closed chat]”. In this regard, we can say that the players develop mechanisms for individual self-control and group self-censorship because they fear for their own safety, due to the possibility of criminal prosecution.
The case of Pokémon Go vividly illustrates the contemporary trend towards gamification, mediatization and digitalization of everyday urban life where the virtual realm is inseparable from the nonvirtual realm, online and offline are mixed and continuations of each other. A mobile game can foster the formation of communities, and encourage both online and offline public activities. Pokémon Go, in particular, triggered broader discussions on the regulation of relations between growing numbers of gamers and the rest of society. Communities of players faced the challenges of re-defining the norms of conduct in urban space and norms of interaction between the players. On the one hand, the game facilitates mobility and communication between players. On the other hand, players face the issues of normative regulation and parental and government control. The study of Pokémon Go communities in two different political and cultural contexts opens up a view on the broader issues of control in a city, attitudes towards young people and digitalization and young people’s rights to the city. In one given context, the mobile urban game may look like it is mostly just joyful play. In another context, society may perceive it as a threat that will trigger repression and condemnation.
Names of interviewees are changed for anonymity.
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