People costumed as the game's characters participate in a Pokemon Go search in San Francisco. Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez
This article has a clickbaity title but a sobering and concerning point to make. In 2010, Google started up what is now a very important subsidiary, Niantic Inc. Google starts up a lot of companies each year and acquires a great many more, so there is nothing special in this. What is important is that whilst most of us see Google’s acquisition of every “start-up” and endless development of “subsidiary” companies with different names as simply an attempt to completely monopolize the market, the case of Niantic shows us that there is more to the extent of Google’s power.
Six years on from its inception with the launch of its biggest game yet, Pokémon Go, Niantic has hit the headlines and people are finally paying attention to the company, with some apparent leftists even claiming we ought to boycott Pokémon Go. In fact, Niantic have been working on mobile phone psychology and social organization for several years. An analysis of the company’s two big games, Ingress and Pokémon Go, shows us some important truths about the world we are living in, about corporate control and about the ability of our mobile phones to organize our desires.
Niantic developed their first major game, Ingress, in 2011. The game, one of the most important of recent years, is a key ideological tool for Google — one that, unlike Pokémon Go, is little publicized. Ingress has seven million or more players and Ingress tattoos show the degree to which people define themselves by the application. Some players even describe Ingress as a “lifestyle” rather than a “game”. The reader can be forgiven for thinking: “I don’t play it, so why would this apply to me?” But the entertainment coming out of Google via Niantic is in line with Google’s wider project of regulating our movements and experiences of the physical world; unless you don’t use Google or any of its applications, many of which come built-it to our phones and cannot be uninstalled, this applies to you.
Ingress reflects a trend of mobile phone application development (which includes Google Maps and Uber, among other well-known apps) designed to regulate and influence our experience of the city, turning the mobile phone into a new kind of unconscious: an ideological force driving our movements while we remain only semi-aware of what propels us and why we are propelled in the directions we are.
I first considered the importance of mobile phone games to be about a kind of “distraction” — an argument I made in my book and related article in The New Inquiry. Later, when playing Ingress for the first time, I realized there was a lot more to it than this. Ingress, rather than simply distracting us from the city around us, actually trains us to become Google’s perfect citizens. In Ingress, the player moves around the real environment capturing “portals” represented by landmarks, monuments and public art, as well as other less-famous features of the city. The player is required to be within physical range of the “portal” to capture it, so the game constantly tracks the player via GPS. Importantly, it not only monitors where we go, but directs us where it wants us to move.
As such it is very much the counterpart of Google Maps, which is also developing the ability not only to track our movements but to direct them. Of course, Google’s algorithms have long since dictated which restaurants we visit, which cafés we are aware of and which paths we take to get to these destinations. Now though, Google is developing new technology that actually predicts where you will want to go based on the time, your GPS location and your habitual history of movement stored in its infinitely powerful recording system. This, like Ingress, shows us a new pattern emerging in which the mobile phone dictates our paths around the city and encourages us, without realizing it, to develop habitual and repetitious patterns of movement. More importantly still, such applications anticipate our very desires, not so much giving us what we want as determining what we desire.
Here again, the connection with the concept of the unconscious is useful. While some have seen the unconscious as a morass of unregulated desires, followers of Freud and later of Lacanian psychoanalysis have been keen to show precisely how structured the unconscious is by outside forces. Our mobile phones pretend to be about fulfilling our every desire, giving us endless entertainment (games), easy transport (Uber) and instant access to food and drink (OpenRice, JustEat) and even near-instantaneous sex and love (Tindr, Grindr). Yet, what is much scarier than the fact that you can get everything you want via your mobile phone is the possibility that what you want is itself set in motion by the phone.
Into precisely this atmosphere enters Pokémon Go, out just days ago, and already the most significant mobile phone release of 2016. The game is, of course, made by none other than Niantic Labs. A series of hysterical events have already arisen from the ethical minefield that is Pokémon Go. In the case of Ingress, academic study has already been dedicated to the fact that the game has sent young children into unlit city parks at 3am. With Pokémon Go, Australian police have had to respond to a bunch of Pokémon trainers trying to get into a police station to capture the Pokémon within and some people found a dead body instead of a Pokémon. It has already been suggested that Pokémon Go is eventually going to kill someone — and since that article was published someone has crashed into a police car and another has been run-over while hunting Pokemon. But, as with Ingress, it is not the occasional mad story to emerge that should concern us, but the psychological and technological effects of every user’s experience.
The premise of Pokémon Go is simply that you use your GPS to find Pokémon in the real environment and then your camera to make the Pokémon visible, so that the world is enriched by looking through the screen at what lies behind it, as in the image below:
The Pokémon itself is an incredible phenomenon deserving of a book length study. Perhaps for now we can say that the Pokémon is the perfect example of what Jacques Lacan called the objet a, that perfectly cute fetishised but illusive object of desire that would truly make us happy if only we could just get our hands on it. We never do, because there is always a newer, cuter and harder to capture version that we just have to catch!
Dystopian visions of what technology and videogames would lead to seem to have got something completely wrong. Depictions of the dystopian videogame future have always tended to see the future as involving each individual isolated from the rest and sat quietly alone in a small room hooked up into a computer through which their lives are exclusively lived. In other words, the importance of the physical environment recedes in favor of the imaginary electronic world. On the contrary to these predictions of the future, we now live in a dystopia where Google and its subsidiaries send us madly around the city almost non-stop in directions of its choosing in search of the objects of desire, whether that be a lover on Tindr, a bowl of authentic Japanese ramen or that elusive Clefairy or Pikachu.
In the 1990s parents could ask their children to “get outside more” to escape the videogame space, but now it is the games that make us charge around the city capturing portals and collecting Pokémon and going on dates. Putting aside the full access that Google gets to your accounts via Pokémon Go, this shows us something really dangerous. It points to the increasing reality that there really is no escape from Google — and that while we are doing what we think we want, believing that we are just using our phones to help us get it, in fact Google has an even greater power, a truly revolutionary one: the ability to create and organize desire itself.
It is this truly revolutionary power that is important when it comes to Pokémon Go and Ingress. To say that these games are revolutionary is not to say that they are doing any good, nor that they are “radical”, and certainly it is not to say that they are left-wing — on the contrary, the revolution in desire appears to be corporate, hegemonic and centralized. If the left is to have any hope, however, it must not resist Pokémon Go, as Jacobin have now famously suggested, but understand and perhaps even embrace the power of the mobile phone to re-organize desire and look for ways forward from here.