Chilling out over Pokemon Go

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Pokemon Go, an ingenious adaptation of a much-loved game to modern mobile technology, is the latest entry into modern pop culture. Indeed, we might well look back on 2016 as the year of Trump and Pokemon Go.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/07/2016 (2205 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Pokemon Go, an ingenious adaptation of a much-loved game to modern mobile technology, is the latest entry into modern pop culture. Indeed, we might well look back on 2016 as the year of Trump and Pokemon Go.

The game has attracted a massive fan base but also detractors. The spectacle of gamers wandering through neighbourhoods while staring at their mobile phones in order to capture cartoon animals provides ideal fodder for mockery. The technology magazine Wired published a story shortly after the game launch claiming, “It’s now officially cool to hate Pokemon Go.”

This backlash culminated in a widely circulated homemade sign posted by a Vancouver landlord instructing Pokemon Go players to “Get a life and stay out of my yard.” He went on to compare the game to other “stupid” phenomena he’d observed in his lifetime, including hammer pants, Crystal Pepsi and the Macarena.

THOMAS CYTRYNOWICZ / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES A Pokemon Go player attempts to catch Charmander, one of Pokemon’s most iconic creatures.

The backlash against Pokemon Go is reminiscent of opposition to video games that seems to have existed since Atari released Pong in 1972. The advent of games that were both highly violent and increasingly lifelike in the 2000s increased the volume of criticism. Lawyer and Christian activist Jack Thompson, for example, campaigned against lifelike violence in video games throughout the 1990s and 2000s, arguing fictionalized violence can lead to real-life violent behaviour.

Thompson’s provocative critique is borne out to a limited degree by research that links violence in video games to aggression on the part of players. In 2015, a task force established by the American Psychological Association conducted a summary and re-evaluation of previous research exploring this link. The taskforce reported, “The link between violence in video games and increased aggression in players is one of the most studied and best established in the field.”

Of course, these studies focus on violent — often first-person shooter — games. And increased aggression, the task force report acknowledges, does not necessarily lead to real-life violent behaviours.

Concerned parents should also balance this finding with numerous other studies that identify games’ enduring positive benefits for kids. One recent peer-reviewed article, for example, found substantial evidence that moderate and appropriate gaming (including action games) can enhance kids’ most basic mental processes, including perception, attention and memory. Given this, gaming is increasingly being used as a teaching tool.

In recent years, video games have also come under fire from critics on the left, particularly feminists. The substance of this critique is that video games are designed in such a way as to objectify and exclude women and girls. By catering to a pre-existing young male audience through its depiction of female characters such as Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, game developers effectively alienate girls from gaming.

Of course, these critiques hardly apply to Pokemon Go, which is so innocuous and cute I can delight my toddler by showing her the Pokemon we’ve just captured together.

If the game is harmless, then why do some disapprove of Pokemon Go so strongly?

It comes down to a matter of taste. The critique of Pokemon Go reminds us some people feel entitled to dictate to others what they should think, what they should do and, perhaps most perniciously, what pastimes they should enjoy. This is reflected in the makeshift sign posted by the angry Vancouver landlord, who advised Pokemon trainers to visit a neighbourhood watering hole to “Have a beer, and seriously think about your life choices.”

Small-l liberalism, the dominant ideology of Canadian politics, rejects this view, instead maintaining individuals should be free to make choices for themselves about what makes them happy and fulfils them. The liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill famously argued individuals’ free will should only be limited if their actions harm others.

What harm does Pokemon Go cause? Besides the rare but well-publicized instances of trainers walking into traffic while enraptured by their phones, the game clearly does not violate what is known as the harm principle.

A second consideration relates to the distinction between the public and private spheres of life. Liberals tend to think we should generally be free to do what we like within the context of settings such as the home and family.

Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau gave voice to this sentiment when he memorably remarked that “The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.”

Video games have traditionally been experienced within gamers’ homes. But not Pokemon Go, which takes gamers out into the real world where they may occasionally wander into cranky homeowners’ yards.

Its engagement with the public sphere is one reason why Pokemon Go — and the response to it — is fascinating.

Royce Koop is an associate professor and head of the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba.

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