Politics and Economics Collide with Pokémon Go

It seems strange to think it’s been barely a week since Pokémon Go became the dominant pop culture phenomenon of the summer. Publications better known for their coverage of politics, economics, and international affairs have quickly jumped into reporting on the popular mobile game: the Washington Post is offering readers “A look at ‘Pokemon Go’ and how it works,” Forbes attempts to lure in older players with “3 Reasons Boomers Should Play Pokémon GO,” and Foreign Policy informs us that “Tourism Is Booming in the Only Town in South Korea With Pokémon Go.”

The unexpected triumph of the game has been generating all kinds of good news, with reports of kids (and adults) getting more exercise, strangers becoming friends by meeting up and playing together, and a flood of spontaneous reports of the game helping people deal with their anxiety and depression. But, of course, nothing can become as popular as Pokémon Go has without people projecting their fears and anxieties about the world onto it. Vox has a roundup of various mishaps and accidents that have occurred in the context of Pokémon hunting, under the peerless click-bait headline “Pokémon Go might kill you.” Most of these examples, however, fall under the heading of “things that happen to people when they’re distracted and walking around outside” and have little to do with the specifics of the game.

Naturally there are more sophisticated haters going after the game as well. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has sent an official letter to Niantic, the game’s developer, subtly suggesting that they change the structure of the game to reflect his preferences for consumer privacy. Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post has an alternately hilarious and frightening collection of stories on how government and religious officials around the world have reacted to what, for them, is no doubt a perplexing development:

Earlier this week, my colleague Sudarsan Raghavan blogged about the 2001 fatwa against the original Pokemon game, issued by an Egyptian cleric, who said the game taught children gambling through the use of “Masonic and Zionist symbols.” But now, the deputy chief of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the most important scholarly institution of Sunni Islam, has declared Pokemon Go to be as illicit as alcohol.

“This game makes people look like drunkards in the streets and on the roads while their eyes are glued to the mobile screens leading them to the location of the imaginary Pokemon in the hope of catching it,” said Abbas Shouman, as quoted by Gulf News. He went on: “Will people neglect their work and earning their living and devote themselves instead to hunting for Pokemon?”


Perhaps the most vehement response to Pokemon Go came from Russia, where the game has yet to be officially released. Andrei Polyakov, a Cossack leader in St. Petersburg, the country’s second-biggest city, said and his comrades would seek a government ban of the game.

“People should be dragged out of this virtual world, it reeks of Satanism,” he told local radio, according to Tass news agency. “There are so many interesting things to do and people are just wasting their lives.”

But no publication has put as fine an academic gloss on just-not-being-that-into the game as the leftist revolutionary journal of modern times, The Jacobin. In an article that reads like a particularly unkind parody of over-intellectualization, we’re treated to invocations of Marx and Heidegger, “the terrors and cruelties of infantile phenomenology,” the Parisian psychogeography experiments of an Algerian Situationist, and, toward the end, more Heidegger. Apparently this all leads up to conclusion that the existence of a free smartphone game based on a popular cartoon franchise constitutes “coercion”:

It’s a technology of biopolitics, something that speaks in one voice to the atomized millions and in its own small way helps to direct their lives. For the moment its injunctions are mild, but their mildness is that of the bourgeois ideal raised to an imperturbable universal.

Walk around. Explore your neighborhood. Visit the park. Take in the sights. Have your fun. Pokémon Go is coercion, authority, a command issuing from out of a blank universe, which blasts through social and political cleavages to finally catch ‘em all. It must be resisted.

The fun-loving Robby Soave has an entertaining response to this sour-faced theory tantrum over at Reason. Tim Worstall also weighs in at Forbes on the similarly Marxist-inspired claim that the game is “an indictment of late stage capitalism.” For the anti-capitalist ideologues, the world of Pokémon is obviously too, you know, corporate to enjoy as entertainment. Presumably they’d rather watch Eastern Europe’s favorite cat and mouse team, Worker and Parasite.