Don’t get me wrong, I love Pokémon Go. As the screenshots show, I have played a lot. But as someone who works on how games model (and often misrepresent) real ecologies, I find the blatant “urban bias” ironic, given the game’s premise of finding and catching wild animals. Yet this isn’t a screed against taming virtual pets (for that, we have PETA’s parody Pokémon Black & Blue—tagline “Gotta free ‘em all!”). This is disappointment with the game’s ongoing neglect of rural environments. Despite trailers showing players catching Pokémon as if on safari, in reality Pokémon rarely spawn in uninhabited or lightly inhabited areas, since the game uses landmarks submitted by players of Niantic’s previous game along with frequently geo-tagged or posted attractions from the Historical Marker Database. Players in less urban places have unsurprisingly complained about the dearth of Pokéstops and gyms in their neighborhoods, spawning a whole subgenre of PG journalism with gems like “I Am Now a Rural ‘Pokemon Go’ Player and It’s the Worst”.
For me, this highlights a backend lack of natural data and continuing digital divides based on geography and the topography of cellular networks. Lisa Parks has a wonderful essay called “Where the Cable Ends” about communities beyond the reach of traditional media infrastructure, and her work usefully reminds us that the journalistic furor over Pokémon Go’s “global domination” conveniently overlooks the elite profile of the ideal PG player, someone who can afford the device, data, and time necessary to “catch ‘em all.” We need look no further than players who rely on free wi-fi to play or the Chinese players forced to find workarounds for China’s Google block. In my case, I upgraded both phone and data plan to play Pokémon Go, only to move from an established tourist town to a new community on the edge of undeveloped land. Overnight, I went from being a stone’s throw from gyms and Pokéstops to crying in a Pokémon wasteland.
In other words, Pokémon Go reminds us that the word “overage” nestles viper-like into the word “coverage” and that gaming, even when mobile and “augmented,” is still an experience built on infrastructures for electricity, cell phone use, and wireless broadband—another reason why we need more media study from the standpoints of cultural geography and the environmental humanities.