When the augmented reality game Pokemon Go was released nearly six months ago, there were few institutions concerned with the management of heritage sites and historic properties in the UK that weren’t asked to respond quickly to the sudden presence of a new visitor demographic on their properties. Numbers may not have been as large as the hundred strong crowds caputured on video, blindly walking through on-coming traffic in a US city as they chased a Charizard – but a significant impact has been felt, with steps being made to encourage much of the same. Historic churches too, like many other heritage sites began seeing a rise in visitor numbers as the game’s popularity boomed. Many active churches, whether listed buildings or not, also saw a rise in visitor numbers leading church authorities to speak up on the overnight phenomenon as well.
Because the game uses landmark based, geographic technology to center points of game interactivity in the real world based on the player’s present location, we’ve seen many sites of historic significance drawn into the narrative of Pokemon Go (PG). Wild Pokemon appear through in-game augmentation for the player to collect at public landmarks in the real world, known in the game as PokeStops. VR (virtual reality) or augmented reality is a form of gaming that will soon become the standard; drives in advertising are at a noticeable high in the run up to Christmas. Many Museums, art galleries and cultural centers have been widely reported as active participants in respect to this location based aspect of the game. Once you’ve caught some Pokemon, you can train them at PokeGyms, which are similarly known landmarks in the real world to the PokeStops.
How these institutions have sought make the most of this increase in visitor numbers has been widely reported online. English Heritage’s ‘5 Steps For The Successful Pokemon Trainer‘ on their website is a positive, yet arguably weak attempt to grasp the imagination of a younger generation. The British Museum has used social media to broadcast it’s location as a Pokemon hot-spot, whilst the V&A tested dropping in-game Lures to attract Pokemon to their PokeStops to draw in more visitors. The labyrinthine V&A Museum initially encountered problems with the mapping of their colossal Knightsbridge site in Pokemon Go. As a ‘public space’ it expected to be registered as a Gym but was instead mapped as a series of PokeStops. Teams at the V&A also noticed that the game’s mapping data had failed to register the large pond at the center of their garden when no water based Pokemon appeared for capture to gamers. That the Museum aimed to rectify this and planned an initiative to drop in-game Lures across the site seems a funny (good funny) step forward in progressive app-based publicity.
Data complied by Historic England, who itself has been using social media to share their visitor’s Pokemon encounters, has shown that PG players are statistically a younger, audience, suggesting this was something to be “celebrated and embraced” by those in heritage management.
The mood in the heritage camp seems to be largely positive as visitor numbers and activity on social media rose, but there were some concerns over user interaction and engagement with the sites in which the elusive Pokemon were appearing. Whilst I do wholeheartedly commit to the idea of putting away your tablet or smart phone when walking around a Museum or a site of some historic interest – one thing I believe is important to remember is that in this circumstance, the game will draw individual gamers in greater numbers to the site of a significant piece of public art, a monument or a feature, during peak day-light hours on particular days. You may struggle to keep your new audience, if perhaps they are easily spooked in their new found surroundings, if you limit their in-game accessibility on a chosen site.
Prof. Howard. M. R. Williams (Prof. Archaeology at University of Chester – at time of writing) recently wrote (albeit in an article concerning a dispute surrounding photography in church graveyards), and I quote: “Photographs are an important medium of popular engagement with heritage of all kinds including memorial art and monuments and including historic cemeteries and churchyards. It puts people off visiting if they feel their behaviour is being monitored and criticised”. This opinion, to which I align with, can surely be applied to matters over the use of PG if Heritage sites restrict accessibility to a demographic through limiting the use of their outlet.
PG gamers, willing to explore new areas, do team up and do explore together, despite the outdated stereotype. New friends, discovering new spaces in their community and previously unseen aspects of their game will experience these areas in a very unique way. They will ultimately remember that space whether they screenshot the moment or not. If they do, then the location, public artwork, monument or feature providing the backdrop to their gaming experience will define that experience. The limitations of the PG app with regards to user experience at heritage sites are fascinating and the study of apps in digital heritage is something I respect greatly and would like to think more on past the surface thoughts I shared above.
Whilst gamers seem to not mind being lured to Museums in order to capture Pokemon, a large number took to Twitter to express their discontent over local churches being the site of their nearest PokeStop or Gym. A Welsh gamer Tweeted “Starting to think #PokemonGo is a ploy to get kids to go to church”. Sadly, church buildings appear to represent something to be avoided, in a way of putting it, in the society of 2016. Largely I suppose people don’t seem to mind them until they have to go inside one. Their frustration isn’t unprecedented, rather, it seems almost expected. To consider the church as a space, there are many aspects of entering a church that are intimidating – even to adults! You have to be quiet. You feel you strictly must not go in certain areas. You feel you must not touch this. You must not touch that. Secular visitors with their PG apps open won’t want to chase Pikachu down the central aisle and into the chancel for fear they might whack their knee of the communion rail, alerting the attention of the vicar who will crawl out from behind the organ because he was watching you the whole time and give them a damn good telling off. I have just introduced the second reason people are largely put off by churches; the image of ‘THE CHURCH’ (caps intended). The #1 thing people probably don’t want to do in a church is talk to someone from the church. It’s quite sad, because just like in the real world, most people are friendly and nice to talk to, but much of the time it’s probably an all true misconception and therefore people don’t go in them.
But churches seem to have responded positively, and often with much humour and ‘good sport’ despite immediate criticism from some gamers on social media platforms such as Twitter. The Church of England encouraged its churches to welcome PG users in a statement issued shortly after the release of the game in July, with remarks on guidance for churches on engaging with new visitors by their Digital Media Officer, Tallie Proud. The City Road Methodist Church in Birmingham, strongly willing gamers ‘to come on in’, put up a brilliant sign in their church saying “Jesus Cares About Pokemon Gamers” (click link to see image). I want that T-Shirt.
It wasn’t long before the global sensation spread to the Vatican where rumour had it the legendary Pokemon, Arceus, could be caught inside. This spawned a huge internet frenzy. The Arceus example somewhat falls back into the discussion of heritage and tourist sites since it was unclear whether the legendary Pokemon could be caught inside or outside any number of buildings within the Vatican complex.
Many historic churches such as those protected by the CCT are open day-to-day as heritage sites, depending on their locality, accessibility and number of volunteers. Many of their less ruinous historic churches battle the intrinsic problem that they still look like active churches because that is one hard image to shake once you are a church – and some people are still tentative to enter for fear they might interrupt a service, end up embarrassed and forced to apologise PROFUSELY to a frowning congregation of knitting nannies.
When I volunteered at Holy Trinity Goodramgate, protected by the CCT in York city center during the summer, my Volunteering Officer and I had a discussion about PG and its wider application in the Trust’s outreach. In this conversation we discussed Geocaching as anther tried and tested way the Trust had used online gaming to draw visitors in, with successful results apparently – even though like PG, Geocaching can have it’s obvious ‘accidents’. But Geocaching requires a physical, direct interaction. Not one performed from behind a screen; a space seen through a lens, half super-imposed and half reality. It will require you to navigate and think hard about the surrounding space and it’s architecture. Geocaching, like PG, is frequently participated in by groups of friends and in this sense shares a similar social benefit to this year’s game. Ideas such as Geocaching, however, seem to ask more of the participant, with the reward itself perhaps themed. The National Churches Trust recently Tweeted a link to an article on their website promoting Geocaching in British churches and ‘ChurchMicros’.
An item on the front page of a local parish newsletter (The Link) caught my eye the other week as I was leaving All Saints church in Shiptonthorpe, East Yorkshire, having spent the morning looking for a piece of Saxon stonework. I went back and had another look, only to see an image of a Pikachu charging in, like a bull in a china shop, through the south porch of the same church and not gently closing the door behind him? How dare he. I reckon he needs a good telling off! The masterfully crafted Photoshoped image was followed by a paragraph of expert level cringe humour:
“The General Synod of the Church of England has decided to invest its clergy pension fund in an unorthodox manner. Senior Church Commissioner, Dame Nina Tendo (sigh) explains, “We have arranged to set up a ring-fenced fund which invests solely in a free-to-play, augmented reality mobile game, in return for the placing of prime game play characters in Anglican real-estate on a one-day-in-seven basis”
Undoubtedly there will be plenty of negative reflections in the media concerning various parts of the church and their response to PG across the world, but in the UK they seem to be fairly accepting and good natured at the very least. I’d like to draw to a close by delving into my gaming past. When I thought about this the other evening I was hit with a big wave of nostalgia. I remember playing this on my parent’s old PC. It was ‘DK Eyewitness Dinosaur Hunter‘. The disk cover describes the game as follows:
“Immersive 3-D reality-style graphics create a dinosaur museum overflowing with atmosphere”.
The atmosphere being that of an early survival horror game. The music was TERRIFYING. It was educational. You could enter specific rooms in which you could learn about all sorts of paleontological bits and bobs and importantly (and most excitingly) excavate Dinosaur bones, which once formed complete or part complete dino skeletons, would come to life and roam the virtual Museum, adding to the already eerie in-game soundtrack. Give it a quick Google search. But if you give the product’s own description another thought, is that not a springboard for some far-out heritage app-based thinking? Who wouldn’t want to one day walk around a Museum and see some 3-D Romans legionaries, some Saxon or Viking warriors (although the flooding in York was awful and caused much regretable damage – thankfully the awful model, robot things in the Jorvik Center were damaged and hopefully won’t return when it re-opens), medieval townsfolk or civil war service-men among the displays? It’s probably hugely problematic to apply in real life – especially in clumsy sites such as historic churches. I wouldn’t want to be knocked over a pew because the 15th century stain glass panel of St. Christopher had appeared to me suddenly in the third dimension. Or would that actually be quite good fun?
The Link: October/November 2016. Published by the Pocklington Group of Parishes.