The Social Deconstruction of Physical Space (and Pokémon)

There is nothing interesting about the Pokémon in Pokémon Go. What is interesting in Pokémon Go is it’s potential to constantly, and randomly, apply new meaning to established physical space.


I’m too old for Pokémon. In fact, I’m so old that I was too old for Pokémon back when it first got popular in the late 1990’s. It was the first genuine cultural phenomenon aimed at young people that I just could not relate to, as I was just slightly above the recommended age group. So I can name exactly one Pokémon: the yellow one called Pikachu. Nevertheless, a few days ago I found myself staring at my phone while walking down a leafy, residential street in Hamburg. This in itself is nothing unusual, except that my phone was directing me towards a certain location nearby where it thought a rare Pokémon might be hiding. I got close enough, and the image of the monster appeared on my screen. I just had to go a few metres of physical space more to be able to engage with it on my phones screen, and ultimately attempt to capture it for my collection. I looked up from my phone and realised that the location of my target was in the middle of a designated children’s playground. It was a sunny Sunday, so there were children running, laughing and playing all over the place. In order to ‘catch’ this Pokémon that I had been stalking for about five minutes, I would have to walk into the middle of all of the children, and stand there with my phone while I battled it into submission. After careful consideration, I put my phone away and walked home.

As I said, I don’t know anything about Pokémon, so it is not out of youthful nostalgia that I had downloaded Pokémon Go, it was merely out of curiosity. I am a childless mid-30s know-it-all that likes to pretend to be aware of all current and future popular culture phenomana as a desperate attempt to cling to my youth, so trying out this current Pokémon Go trend is practically part of my job description. The game isn’t great, and I haven’t played it in a few days now, and can’t see myself playing it much apart from when I am stuck waiting around somewhere with nothing to do. While I don’t like the game too much, I do however find the technology very interesting, as I have been following the development of augmented reality (AR) for several years. The use of AR in Pokémon Go is extremely clever, even fascinating. I say it’s fascinating because, like my experience above in the playground, Pokémon Go has the power to constantly apply new meaning to an established physical space. And this could be very, very interesting.


Social Constructs

Many of the basic concepts we hold dear in this world we can broadly define as social constructs. Family, government, law, the economy, the country you live in: none of these things actually exist, they are simply modes of complex cooperation that have evolved over time in human history as things that work quite well. It’s generally a good idea for a man and a woman to raise children together, it’s generally a good idea that we have a set of rules that we all stick to so that we don’t all kill each other, and it is generally a good idea to have a few people in charge of everyone to make big decisions. There are lots of different ways to socially construct a society, but this is the one we have, and it’s difficult to imagine it any other way.

While these vague concepts are usually what we use to explain social constructs, what is interesting also is to explore the social construction of physical space, as you will find that it defines our world just as much as government and the economy. To badly misquote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most important moments in history was when someone put a fence around a piece of land and said “this is mine”. People believed that person, and soon got to fencing in their own land, and now we live in a world that is absolutely defined by property rights. Respect for property rights is one of the essential founding blocks in the reliability of a nation-state (also a social construct of physical space, but that’s for another day). If the people within a country do not have faith that they can own their own property, then chaos will reign in that country. If you have ever seen the TV show Deadwood, that show is fundamentally about the absence, and possible but not guaranteed appearance, of the enforcement of property rights, and as a result society is brutal. An essential function of government, in the form of the police and judiciary, is to enforce property rights. So we have several social constructs whose job it is to enforce a fundamental social construct, the right to call a piece of land “yours”.

It’s not “yours”, of course, but you have a piece of paper from the government saying that it is “yours”, and everyone wants a piece of paper just like that, so it is in everyone’s interest if we all just play along in this grand game of pretend that we call civilised society. So yes, for the sake of civil order, everyone’s piece of paper gives him/her the right to do with whatever he/she wants with it, be it building a house, starting a business or leaving it completely empty. And by doing this, meaning is applied to this land that society has agreed is owned by the person who bought it and holds the deed issued by the government. If it’s a family home, the meaning is that it is the place where the Mulligans hang out, and this meaning is tempered by what we know of the Mulligans and how likely they are to appreciate outsiders coming on to their property, If they are friendly, and if they are likely to shoot trespassers. If it is a business, meaning is bestowed based on what the business is. If you open a bar, then people will feel comfortable coming in unannounced to sit drinking beer for hours. This is unacceptable in most buildings on earth, but because of the meaning given to that particular physical space by the owners of the socially constructed deed, we are comfortable that this behaviour is acceptable. No one even asks when they enter a bar whether it’s ok to sit down and drink a lot, they just do it.

Pokémon & Social Constructs

So getting back to last Sunday at the children’s playground in Hamburg, the reason I did not enter the playground was because of the meaning I had applied (through its social construction) to that particular space. It would have been inappropriate (and quite odd) for a lone man in his mid-30s to enter that space at that time. The interesting thing about this is that for a few seconds, while still involved in the Pokémon Go game, my interpretation of that physical space was completely different to everyone else around me. Through the game, I had applied new meaning to this space: it wasn’t a playground owned by the government to allow children a space to play, it was a free place in the world where a rare Pokémon happened to be.

If you look at the media attention that Pokémon Go is getting, you will see that this is the issue that crops up more than any other: the confrontation between different meanings and social constructs assigned to certain physical spaces. The most famous of these is the highly publicised story about the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC complaining about a lack of respect for victims of the Holocaust shown by those playing the game on the premises. I apologise for any offence, but to commit to my point I have to go there: the Holocaust Memorial is a building that is assigned meaning by those who own it. There is no real connection between that physical space and the Holocaust, its designation as a memorial was a conscious choice by the legal owners of the property, as after all it is located in Washington DC, far from any site associated with the Holocaust during World War II. The space’s official meaning is obviously more noble and powerful, but it is still a complete social construct, and the meaning Pokémon Go assigns the space in the form of a certain breed of Japanese pocket monster is no less objectively valid.

In a similar, although not as moralistic, way, a lot of stories about the game echo this clash between the officially socially constructed meaning of a physical space and the meaning ascribed from the Pokémon Go app. You see stories about homeowners becoming annoyed that people are hanging around outside their property in search of a fixed ‘pokestop’, you see photos posted on library doors telling people that they need a library card to come in and hunt Pokémon, and you read angry tweets about clueless old men attacking millenials for coming too far into their local dive bar to catch that elusive Meowth (alright, I know two Pokémon names). This isn’t where Meowth is, they could say, this is the place where I’m allowed sit and drink all day.


So this is where all the public interest in Pokémon Go is coming from: the clash between socially constructed reality, and augmented reality. The big question would be whether the game gets big enough so that its own designated meaning to a physical space actually begins to supersede the socially constructed official meaning of that space.  This is possible, as it has happened many times before in the form of religious sites such as Lourdes, Fatima, Knock, Mecca and Jerusalem. Completely exogenous events occurred in all of these places that ultimately ended up with a new meaning being applied to the physical space they inhabit. What is the difference between people flocking to a site where someone saw the Virgin Mary, and people flocking to the site where someone saw the rarest Pokémon? Objectively, there is no difference, but social constructs like tradition and religion may think they have priority in the matter.

What will be really interesting is when more augmented reality games appear, and each physical space gets assigned a number of different meanings to different people. To some people, that statue down the road covered in pigeon shit is a former mayor who lowered unemployment. To others, his statue is a haunting ground for an evolved Pikachu. For others, it was the place of death for a favourite character in an augmented reality mystery game they played. For many, however, it is and always will be the place that a hologram of Kim Kardashian appears and demands to take a selfie with them. That pigeon-shit drenched statue could just become the new Jerusalem, with several different factions struggling to have their meaning dominate the appreciation of that physical space.

Thus we have the social deconstruction of physical space, and it is obviously offensive to those that are of the opinion that they not only own a physical space, but also uniquely own the right to apply meaning to that physical space. This was always a fallacy, and it has taken a long time to challenge this perception. Pokémon Go just disrupted property rights.

“This isn’t where Meowth is,

they could say,

this is the place where I’m allowed sit and drink all day.”

Ancient Irish Haiku