Pokémon Go for Radicals

Kate Aranoff Aug 15, 2016

If you happen to have been living under a rock this past month, there’s a good chance someone turned it over looking for Pokémon. Pokémon Go, Nintendo’s free augmented-reality app, has been as ubiquitous in the news as the presidential election.

For the uninformed: Game designers have placed Pokémon and in-game items at specific hot spots around the country, encouraging users to venture out into their neighborhoods or others, and to contest for “gyms,” where they can challenge other players for control of a particular location.

Its number of daily users has surpassed the location-based dating app Tinder, and is close to eclipsing Twitter and Snapchat. It even boasts more active daily users than Facebook. When the game’s servers crashed July 16, it made headlines in some of the world’s biggest news outlets.

Businesses that have offered hot spots (or are lucky enough to be placed near them) have seen profits climb. T-Mobile is offering a year of free mobile data as a game-friendly promotion. Unsurprisingly, Pokémon Go has proven a cash cow for Nintendo, the franchise’s creator, which is raking in an estimated $1.6 million per day off of the Apple iOS market alone. Marketers are scratching their heads at ways to put Pokémon to use. So far, there are no in-ad games, though company spokespeople say the app will soon support “sponsored locations” where players can re-up for items like eggs and Pokéballs.

All this newfound in-real-life interaction isn’t without its complications. Who can wander around unfamiliar neighborhoods unmolested varies widely based on a player’s race and class. A friend in the Israel-occupied West Bank region observed a Palestinian organizer asking a Jewish activist to help him fetch a Pokémon in an area of Hebron that’s been cordoned off from Arabs by the Israeli military.

And — like nearly everything on your smartphone — Nintendo is collecting myriad bits of personal information from every aspiring Pokémaster, especially if they’ve given the company access to a Google account. There’s also the lurking fear that all human interaction in the 21st century is on course to be mediated by screens, as if all of us are suddenly living in an episode of Black Mirror.

The long-term viability of Pokémon-based campaign strategies will depend on whether the game is a passing fad or has a longer shelf life. But so long as rare Pokémons continue to send stampedes into Central Park, can it be used for good?

As Dylan Matthews pointed out in Vox, Pokémon Go one-ups social media’s ability to draw people out, given that it actually gets them moving to a particular location. Rather than retweeting or liking a post, players have to physically flock to lures. It’s why Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been so eager to put it to use registering voters, turning up to Poké Stops and gyms. Anyone can place Pokémon “lures,” which attract creatures to a certain area, up around a city — and even more so if you happen to be working with a budget.

Even before the Clinton campaign started using it, NextGen Climate, an environmentally focused voter-turnout organization, had begun trying to put the app to work. “In each of our states, NextGen Climate will be dropping Pokémon Go lures in strategic locations, which means we’ll release rare Pokémons in a specific location at a specific time,” said Suzanne Henkels, the group’s press secretary. “While they’re there, we engage with them and talk about the importance of being registered to vote and committing to vote for clean energy leaders this November.”

NextGen has held Pokémon-themed events in New Hampshire, Ohio and Iowa, complete with lures and recharging stations. In Nevada, they hosted a “real-life Poké Stop” with refreshments and “organizers there to register attendees to vote and educate them about the importance of electing climate champions in November.”

What makes Pokémon good for voter registration could also make it invaluable in getting people out to the polls come November, when turnout among young voters — now about a third of the electorate — could make or break Donald Trump’s shot at the Oval Office.

But its uses, some say, could go beyond the ballot box as well. Brandon Holmes of the community-organizing outfit VOCAL New York identifies several ways the app could bolster grass-roots movements.

“The more players you have in an area, the more rare Pokémon will show,” he said, suggesting that players “build a large occupancy somewhere like Trump Tower or divestment targets and constantly attach lures to stops.” Organizers, Holmes added, could even plan marches that route through different Poké Stops, though he saw a challenge in “keeping the attendees captivated and not buried in their phones during speeches or chants… You would need some serious marshaling and the world’s best energy team.”

In Florida, the Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward County held an event at a Fort Lauderdale supermarket “looking for new ways to engage the community around the issues surrounding the movement for black lives,” encouraging participants to bring water, friends and lures. Some environmental activists are also looking into how the game might bring people out to protests at fossil-fuel infrastructure sites.

Holmes notes that at the famously bigoted Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, a Clefairy (“fairy-type”) Pokémon named “LOVEISLOVE” beat out the Westboro faithful for control of the gym. “If we could find gyms that are solid targets, we could nickname Pokémon after our campaign messaging and organize enough folks to train the gym to be virtually unstoppable,” he said. “We could also name them after our organizations.”

Pokémon might also come in handy for fundraising efforts. After a Long Island pizzeria paid to have a rare Pokémon sent to its storefront, sales jumped 75 percent by day’s end. “We could host a campaign-specific fundraiser where [a certain percentage] of the funds go directly to Pokémon Go for a rare Pokémon and the rest go to a specific campaign/action,” Holmes said, noting that this could involve lobbying Nintendo and Niantec, the game’s creator, for the ability to purchase rare finds.

Jeremy Gong, of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco chapter, was more skeptical.

“I imagine that one can only do rather shallow organizing with Pokémon Go — like Facebook events, the game could be great for a quick turnout, but there’s no guarantee those Poké-hunters are in it for the long haul,” he warned. “I don’t imagine a lot of people saying, ‘I came for the Snorlax, but stayed for police reform.”

Like any other new app or new technology, Pokémon Go is no replacement for the day-to-day work of community organizing and well-timed mobilization. But it might offer a few more pieces to an activist toolbox that — in 2016 — has never needed to be bigger.

A longer version of this article originally appeared at

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