Mosques, Churches and Temples – the religious landscape of Pokemon 24 July 2016
Pokemon Go is taking over. Its devotees travel in pilgrimage to its sacred sites (Pokestops), attend to their divine beings (Pokemon), congregate at its places of worship (Pokegyms), and proselytise to others about the merits of the new movement. Adherents can recognise each other, head bowed, walking slowly, attentive only to their sacred book, the smartphone.
The new game has all the outward genuflections of a religion. But it certainly doesn’t stop there. Religion, among other things, is about how we view the world in which we live and how we impart meaning into the space we inhabit. Technological convergence has allowed Pokemon Go to place new meanings and establish new relationships with our physical world through the digital app. Players use the map (accurate enough, as it is based on Google Maps) to walk around their city, but it is no longer a dull map of distances and street names. Instead the map tells the player where there are Pokestops to replenish supplies, where there are Pokegyms to play with other users, and identifies Pokemon, walking alongside the user but invisible without the game. It transforms the space and places we inhabit into a new world entirely. The success of the game is also that it knows its target market, not just children and teenagers, but also adults for whom the game holds a special appeal. They played Pokemon as children, walking around a 32-bit map of plain pixels. Now that world has been transposed onto their own.
The attitude of the game thus has a particularly religious approach. Religions are often sensitive to space. Orientation matters, the places we walk aren’t empty but full of significance, there sites of blessing and places of spiritual importance. Hidden behind the physical veil, many religions teach, is a world of demons and angels, spirits and jinns. Pokemon Go appeals right to the heart of religious ideas. It was Edward Tylor who claimed animism; the belief in a spirit more than the physical, was at the heart of religious ideas, a primitive origin of all religious notions. Pokemon capture that same imagination in a game where these spirits wander to be caught, trained and fought, but only accessible through the game itself.
There is also the way in which the game has requisitioned churches, temples and mosques as Pokestops and Pokegyms. The success of the game in attracting members of the public to religious sites has led to churches capitalising on the game, offering places to recharge phones and encouraging priests and pastors to engage with players. There are some obvious problems with playing the game in sacred spaces however. In Japan, the game caused an international incident when Chinese players took over the Yasukuni Shrine in an act of provocational ‘patriotism’. I have to admit I had a similar crisis of conscious when I was visiting a Hindu temple as part of an interfaith trip, and ended up beating the current gym owners and taking it over. I wondered whether a Muslim “conquering” a Pokegym at a Hindu Temple might have had a few unwanted connotations. Some Shrines have gone as far as banning the game, such as Shinto Izumo-Taisha Shrine, while others adopted a more conciliatory attitude, asking Pokemon players to refrain from catching the Pokemon within the vicinity of the shrine since they are paying their respects to the gods. A similar question of appropriateness was raised when Auschwitz Holocaust Museum was forced to remind players it was disrespectful to play the game on the site of the concentration camps.
It’s noteworthy that in an age in which religion is often (incorrectly) considered to be diminishing, why religious places of worship are so prominent in the game. The answer is straightforward enough, they still maintain about them a sense of public ownership. The game could not safely send users to private properties and homes as Pokestops, and there are complex issues in using commercial properties (with the exception of historic pubs, I’ve noticed), and so it is the public and semi-public landmarks which are offered to the user. Statues, iconic buildings, universities and schools, and most commonly, churches, temples and mosques. The ubiquity of this system of categorising landmarks in the game whether in Britain, America or Australia is surprising. In all these countries, places of worship – no matter the denomination or religion – are accessible to members of public. It echoes Emile Durkheim, the sociologist and religious studies scholar, and his view on what makes sacred spaces’ sacred – it isn’t that they belong to the priest, shaman or Imam, but that they belong to all in the village, and so it is the social that makes it sacred.
Pokemon’s appeal is tied to its religious ideas, and it seems that like religion, it’ll be here to stay for some time.