'Pokemon Go' is a work of art, not a social experiment

'Pokemon Go' is a work of art, not a social experiment
Pokemon Go players interact near Echo Park Lake on Wednesday, July 13. (Los Angeles Times)

"Pokemon Go" appeared on U.S. shores nine days ago, and people with Android phones already use the app more, on average, than has-been diversions such as Snapchat, Tinder, Instagram or Facebook. Also, this just in, more than they use chairs, common sense or oxygen.

The only other phenomena proliferating as rapidly as "Pokemon Go" are PokeMemes and PokeMusings. While old folks and cautious adapters fortify themselves against the game's seductions — shaking heads at kids today — a stampede of pundits have broken with game-hating tradition and praised "Pokemon Go" for a broad slate of social virtues.


Anything but that! "Pokemon Go" is indeed a gem, a startlingly lovely and ambitious work of software art that allows anyone with a mobile phone to hunt and capture Pokemon, or pocket monsters — an augmented-reality version of catching fireflies and grasshoppers in the park. It reveals an uncanny new landscape, grafting our digital fantasies onto the old, sweet and tired planet Earth. It is also an invitation to explore that hybrid world. What we find enlightens or amuses us; sometimes it disgusts and shocks us.

This galvanic game is not a public-health initiative — or, heaven help us, a means of subduing angry people and controlling crowds. It is the work of traditional artists who set out to mystify, engage and change the people who play it.

The opiners, however, insist on seeing it as an experiment in collective well-being. They praise "Pokemon Go" for fostering friendships among players who meet in the field — for the way it draws despised screen addicts out into nature, which to them seems to teem with twitchy bats and blue turtles. In spite of instances of digital deceptions and gruesome discoveries related to the game, the nation's chattering classes are pro-Pokemon, almost unnervingly so.

And the police too. Even the New York Police Department seemed more charmed by the game than wary of it. After perfunctorily reiterating banal "warnings" — gamers should stay alert, play in groups and obey laws against trespassing — the NYPD turned to shilling: "Good luck in your quest, and happy hatching, trapping, and training at the Pokémon Gym!"

With protests at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland only days away, and recent murders by police playing on social media, perhaps it's shrewd for the police to endorse the beguiling and apolitical distraction of Japanese pop culture.

That endorsement must come as a surprise to the game's inventors, who identify more closely with artists such as Dmitri Shostakovich than with Mr. Rogers. The company behind "Pokemon Go," Niantic, includes Dennis Hwang, who trained as an artist at Stanford University. Before joining Niantic, Hwang created the Gmail logo, and he's drawn many hundreds of irreverent cartoons in the spirit of artists such as Miro and Calder to adorn Google's logo on special occasions. CNN has called Hwang "the most famous unknown artist in the word."

Resistance to the game vanishes in a flash. To try “Pokemon Go” is to feel there’s no going back.

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Also at Niantic is a Junichi Masuda, a Japanese designer and composer, trained as a trombonist. Heavily influenced by Igor Stravinsky and Shostakovich, Masuda as a composer has long scored Pokemon. As a designer, he believes that games should be fantastically easy to learn. "We always have beginners in mind," said Masuda, who sees the goal of exquisite design to make devotees of skeptics.

Blending graphics with photography, two-dimensional digital artifacts with real-world vistas, in a way that feels not only not-nauseating but also profoundly good — bringing the unbeatable high that VR and AR fans call "presence" — is an artistic triple-axel for Niantic. Shaped by a classically trained artist and composer, sensitive to its impression on brains new to it and contagious in the extreme, "Pokemon Go" is a virtuoso postmodern work, on par with the best of Takashi Murakami.

For all its elegant features, "Pokemon Go" has suffused the ether because its artistry generates a singular effect: inevitability. Resistance to the game vanishes in a flash. To try "Pokemon Go" is to feel there's no going back — that, in fact, on some deep level you've been somehow waiting for this experience your whole life, maybe even training for it in your dreams.

It's in your limbic system before you know it. Hand a prospective hater the phone with the app open, and the first time a twitchy bat or blue turtle shows up, she's taking aim at it. When bright fake anime objects disrupt the low-key palette and predictability of your vicinity, it's instinctive to restore stasis and bat that pest away like a horsefly.

The country feels like a political tinderbox, so it's heartening to encounter heterogeneous crews all looking for imaginary things in picturesque places. But healing the body politic is nothing like "Pokemon Go's" reason for being. The game is supremely amoral, functioning like an ambitious symphony. It leads players into unfamiliar territory, making danger, competition and emotional investment in a new and phantasmagoric world compulsory, and compulsive. Play at your own risk.

Virginia Heffernan's new book is "Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art."

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