UPDATED: July 12, 2016
Pokémon Go might be the best thing to happen to archaeology (or at least archaeological tourism) in years. Hear me out, people! First, the basics (although if you don’t know a thing about Pokémon, start here):
Pokémon Go is an augmented reality (AR) app for iOS and Android smartphones. It’s free to play (although in-app purchases are available), and has a small footprint of ca. 160 MB so it doesn’t eat up storage.
The premise of the game is simple: Pokémon are out in the real world, and your phone lets you see and non-violently capture them, adding to your collection. There are plenty of other things to do (train, battle, level up, etc.), but the basic mechanic is a kind of hide-and-seek, merging a fantasy world with the real one.
The game is a three-part collaboration between The Pokémon Company, Nintendo, and Niantic, Inc. (previously known as Niantic Labs, a Google startup ultimately spinning off in 2015). If Niantic sounds familiar to you, it’s because it is the home of Ingress, the 2012 augmented reality MMO. Niantic Labs also created Field Trip, a free, augmented reality travel app.
What does this collaboration do for players? It merges the beloved 20-year-old Pokémon juggernaut with your phone’s internal GPS and then uses Niantic’s landmarks and maps (also developed and used for Ingress) to create a rich environment of creatures and gyms, integrating them with real-world roads, waterways, greenspace, cities, and landmarks.
As an archaeologist-who-games, I immediately wondered if there would be Pokémon to catch at local historical sites. I knew of a couple of sites that were a few minutes’ from home; I had visited one, but not the other. Given the possibility that Pokémon might be nearby, it gave me the excuse to go touring in my own town. As it happens, I was right.
There is a marker near my place (which I had not yet visited even after living here for over five years) commemorating the route of George Washington’s January march-by-night from Trenton to Princeton where the following day, January 3, 1777, he and his army would defeat the British in the Battle of Princeton. “Pidgey” was waiting for me, and I caught it. The image above is a screengrab from my phone (before I realized you could tap the in-game camera icon to take the shot). But Pokémon Go goes one step further.
Because Pokémon Go pulls data from Niantic, players can pause to read about places (called “PokéStops”) where the Pokémon was hiding. You can get basic text, or tap for more (including a larger image pulled from older Ingress uncredited, user-uploaded photos) before dismissing the history lesson to return to the game proper.
As players wander, their in-game map displays animated symbols of other nearby landmarks/PokéStops to explore. Sometimes there is a Pokémon present, other times not. But the landmark’s data remain accessible through a tap on the screen. Better yet: spin the PokéStop’s wheel on-screen to get rewards such as extra Pokémon balls.
It is not too difficult to make the leap from walking around the neighborhood, to actively chasing Pokémon around historic sites. This is where the Public Archaeology angle comes in: imagine hosting Pokémon days for players where they can come to the site, look for creatures, and stay to learn more about where they are in the real world. The game is less invasive than geocaching, namely because there is no “geotrash” left in the woods, and the presence of Pokémon are variable, meaning that there is no danger of ad hoc trails being created to Tupperware or ammo boxes tucked out of sight. Even if there is no formal Pokémon day scheduled, people will visit sites and landmarks and will play along, learning more via Niantic’s augmented reality features. Because the app alerts players of nearby Pokémon, travelers can stop at those roadside signs to learn a bit more about history that they might otherwise have passed by on the highway.
Pokémon has been a massive phenomenon for two decades. The concept is simple, cute, and fun. And if children who increasingly have their heads in their devices all the time are able to play at places their parents drag them to (and vice versa), there might be a little less resistance to those suggestions for educational outings. Site attendance goes up and more people learn about their local history, which is really one of the main goals of public archaeology. Taken on a larger scale, especially after the game debuts for the rest of the world, think about how much fun it would be to chase Pokémon across the Acropolis of Athens or around the ruins of Chichén Itzá, learning a bit more about these places in the process.
UPDATE (July 12, 2016): The Washington Post reported a story today on Pokémon at the Holocaust Museum. If you do play the game, please exercise both tact and common sense. This includes staying out of restricted or sensitive areas of museums and sites, as well as private property such as residences (—ed.).
UPDATE (July 11, 2016): There are real security concerns re: the Google login for iOS players, which you can read about here, and can fix here. NOTE: As of July 12, the newest version of the app for iOS is “safe”, meaning it no longer access all of your Google mail, docs, etc.
UPDATE (July 10, 2016): There is now a “Pokémon Archaeology” Twitter account (not run by me). People have also begun to share photos of Pokémon spotted in the wild at sites such as the Colosseum and Stonehenge (see images below). If you snap a picture at a cultural heritage site, please post to social media with #PokeArch to add to the collection.
Archaeological and historical sites? We’ve gotta catch ’em all!
Released on July 6, 2016 in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, Pokémon Go will ultimately become available in the United Kingdom, Europe, and South America later in the month.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming