Public Historians: Trained for Pokémon Go?

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Devin Hunter is Assistant Professor of United States and Public History at the University of Illinois–Springfield. As a public historian, he is most interested in counter-narratives embedded in unexpected places. He is also completing a manuscript focusing on the ways that liberals, progressives, and radicals conceived and employed notions of cultural diversity in Chicago during the 1950s and 1960s. His current Pokémon Go level is too low to merit mention.

Park guides at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, in Springfield, Illinois, are fond of telling visitors that Abraham Lincoln had a soft spot for stray cats. He seemed to collect them from around the neighborhood, or on his walks to and from work. This story is meant to offer visitors some humanizing insight into one of the most written-about people in world history. Delivered while gathered in the very room where Lincoln maintained his feline crew, it is also an anecdote that works as a variation on the classic “on this very spot…” theme of historical interpretation. While I have not been on a Lincoln Home tour since the dawn of the Pokémon Go era, I have little doubt that at least one of the guides has added a clever aside to the stray cat story. Perhaps: “We don’t know for certain, but it could be that Lincoln also collected stray Pokémon.” Upstart trainers on the tour would immediately note that, indeed, a PokéStop hovers just steps from the Lincoln Home front door.

For the uninitiated, the rules and objectives of Pokémon Go are a browser search away. Players (“trainers”) locate various creatures (“Pokémon”) that are virtually scattered about the real world. The app superimposes Pokémon on the trainer’s smartphone camera screen, and the trainer captures the beast by flipping a Poké Ball on to it. Using products secured from PokéStops—stores tied to real-life places and landmarks—trainers prepare their Pokémon for battle in a “gym.” These gyms are also associated with landmarks. This is why you might see dozens of folks gathered in a park or near monument, intently staring at their phone.

The relationship between Pokémon Go and museums and heritage sites became obvious almost immediately upon the app’s launch. Many public historians with early adoption tendencies seized on the opportunity to highlight their site’s place in the surging stream of players. Yet it was the app design itself that initiated the relationship, since the game relies upon discrete public and semi-public landmarks. Sites that host gyms or stops seem to have migrated from Ingress, a place-based game that served as a Pokémon Go precursor, or are drawn from the Historical Marker Database. Site staff, therefore, really had little say in the matter of becoming a host to wandering, phone-gazing gamers. As a result, many observers have commented on the phenomenon’s connection to public history.

This first wave of observations hit upon many relevant themes raised by Pokémon Go. The problematic presence of Pokémon Go at the Holocaust Museum, Arlington National Cemetery, and Auschwitz offered us ample opportunity to extend a longstanding discussion about patron behavior at sites of conscience. Scholars who have been thinking about augmented reality and gamification were quick to place Pokémon Go into context. Besides this valuable commentary, I’ve been struck by two ways that the craze relates to well-established but evolving discussions in the field of public history.

  1. Local First

What Pokémon Go looks like, to a public historian, depends largely on where they are standing. There is no one-size fits all reaction to the game. Staff at the Lincoln Tomb, a few miles north of the Lincoln Home, have “cautiously embraced” the game. The app algorithm placed a gym outside the tomb. On a recent visit, I noticed only the usual crowd gathered around Lincoln’s bust, waiting their turn to have a photo taken of them as they rubbed Abe’s nose for luck—a practice that site officials once discouraged as inappropriate but today encourage, with even a step stool at the base of the monument. Staff members at the tomb are less enthusiastic about the apparent infrequent appearance of Pokémon inside the tomb, next to Lincoln’s sarcophagus. Only anecdotal evidence points towards an increase in visitorship—although one Springfield resident made his way to the site for the first time in over 20 years, on a Pokémon quest. Meanwhile, the curator at the Illinois State Military Museum was at first hesitant to “allow” a PokéStop at the site; but he was pleased with the description of the museum in the app. A gym stands outside Frank Lloyd Wright’s majestic Dana-Thomas House. No Pokémon have been reported inside the house (which would likely be much to the notoriously protective architect’s relief).

Just these examples alone show that the experience of the Holocaust Museum or Arlington National Cemetery do not necessarily provide a template for best practices. An organization’s mission, the realities of visitorship and visibility, and the needs of the surrounding community will come first to public historians when considering how Pokémon Go relates to sites. Fortunately, local and community-centered practice are ingrained in the field of public history.

  1. Questions of Mediation and Authority

Public historians are (mostly) willing to work with communities in “sharing authority” or even “co-creation” in areas of interpretation. Some of the field’s most foundational works place a priority on meeting the visitor where they are, and forging empathetic connections between the visitor and history. Public historians are attuned to the baggage that visitors bring with them to sites and museums. Yet here lies the most limiting aspect of Pokémon Go-obsessed visitors. Staff have little to no control over the content and behavior of the app. The game’s historical layer is very thin, and the player is not required to interact with the site, other than to physically occupy it. The app has no open sources elements, no way for developers to tweak the game to increase the value of a visitor’s experience at a site. In this way, public historians are at the mercy of the market to a degree even greater than usual.

In many ways, despite the precedence of managing visitors, mediating between historical value and contemporary expectations, and experimenting with tactics to increase and diversify visitorship, the scope of the game’s popularity should give public historians a reason to think about the cultural factors pushing the record-breaking Pokémon Go download numbers. Why are historic sites so integral to the place-based aspect of the game—second only to, perhaps, parks? How can we leverage this not just for an increase in visitorship and visibility, but also in efforts to show policymakers and taxpayers that museums and heritage sites have value and deserve protection and promotion?

Eventually, historians will shift interests from Pokémon Go and history, to Pokémon Go as history. That moment might arrive sooner than later: game enthusiasts are already treating a park in Japan as a Pokémon Go monument or shrine, since an aerial view there reveals a fountain to be a near replica of a Poké Ball. Until the first memorials to Pokémon Go need public historians for management and interpretation, we will do our best to embrace—or survive—the virtual critters that surround us.

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