Where the Wi-Fi Ends

Curator's Note

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.


I’m thrilled you’ve raised this point, especially since (optimistically) my own post focuses on how there’s ‘something for everyone’ in Pokémon Go, but obviously there remain a number of serious issues with the game. As a previously rural player I understand that frustration… and as an affluent white person I also need to acknowledge that the area I now live in is catered to by the game, I don’t need to worry about racial profiling while trying to catch Pokémon late at night, and as an able-bodied woman the ‘go’ aspect of the game is readily available to me. There are numerous layers to this elite gamer profile, including the financial aspect you mention. Even beyond needing to pay for the phone and the data, there is the added problem of, with no Pokéstops in rural areas, there are no Pokéballs—no Pokéballs, no game. While living in the more remote parts of PA this summer, I seriously considered paying for coins/supplies and only withheld because my mom (also an avid gamer) was willing to drive out into town with me and play, making the trip worth it and emphasizing that we had the time to do so. There’s something to be said for those bonding experiences… though also the fact that we probably paid more for gas than we would have spent on coins in the first place.

I think all of our posts thus far raise the possibilities for engaged and even radical interventions that Pokemon Go allows -- albeit contingently -- for connection, for pulling together different experiences and knowledge making, and for exploration and encountering defamiliarized geographies. Obviously, all of this is bracketed by the fact that these very technologies also reveal massive limitations and pitfalls. I think the repurposing of the previous GIS data was too much of a shortcut, especially without the capability of adding new stops, gyms, and such. (Granted I am not sure we are ready for carte blanche adding of stops and gyms.) It will be interesting to see if there is an attempt at a kind of redistribution. There are places in my city where the density of Pokestops is staggering--more frequent than bus stops along any given road or path. I am also disappointed in the "augmented reality" aspect of the game, or rather, the "augmented camera view" I should say. In the first weeks of play, I talked with friends and folks about the moments when the game and the "real world" actually managed to coincide serendipitously. For example, I was walking in a park and I caught a Rattata; just at that moment, a real rat ran across the path. It would be fascinating if the game (or future games) allowed you to "take a picture" of a bird and it would randomly generate the possibility that it is actually a Pidgey and go from there.

Katharine, I love that you and your mom bonded over Pokémon Go excursions. I find myself now having to cajole my spouse or my child to go on walks or errands so that I can reach Pokémon "civilization," too! And I had a similar experience to Ed's (with the rat), except that in my case the rat was visibly in its death throes, probably because of campus pest control procedures. Not a comfortable moment, stopping to catch a rare Pokémon, only to see a real animal succumbing to poison before me. A few things I didn't get to mention in the post, that I find interesting and relevant:

-Some have downplayed PG's data hogging, but I talked to an AT&T rep in early July who admitted to having already used 37GB (!) of data playing Pokémon Go after his shifts. Granted, he was wandering around for 9-10 hours a stretch, from what I gathered, so I have to hope that he gets unlimited data as an employee.

-T-Mobile, which is already known for targeting lower-income phone users, made headlines when it decided to offer its users "free" data for the game for a year. But pundits quickly smelled a trap.

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