Pokémon STOP by Vivian Le
Occoquan, Virginia is one of those quiet, historical towns where wealthy middle-aged people go away for the weekend and buy art and BoHo clothing in small boutiques and then stroll along the waterfront, or at least, it was. Artist Lauren Jacobs was excited when in 2015 she won a juried place in a cooperative gallery in Occoquan called The Artists’ Undertaking, both to have an outlet for her work and to be part of a group of other like-minded artistic community. Her earthy, surreal mixed-media paintings and sculptures sold well for a while… until Pokémon GO came to town.
Released in 2016, this interactive game that places digital critters in physical locations had impacts on various real-world locations, but thanks to a confluence of algorithmic determinations and walkability, Occoquan was hit hard with an influx of players. For the uninitiated, Pokémon GO is a phone-based augmented reality game that encourages users to get out of their houses and “catch ‘em all.” The game utilizes Google Maps and an app called Ingress to distribute gaming elements in the real world. Suddenly, this quiet old getaway town in Virginia was flooded with wannabe Pokémon GO “trainers.” The general consensus of the town is that this is something to capitalize on — they host Pokemon-themed events and one company even started selling tickets to “Pokemon cruise” that would take Pokemon GO players down the Occaquon river at just the right speed to hit PokeStops.
Lauren Jacobs has actually played and enjoyed the game, but at the same time, her gallery and many other businesses in the area depended on a particular clientele, and a lot of their usual buyers stopped coming to town in the wake of this shift turned off by the crowds of iPhone-wielding Magikarp hunters. Even though there were a ton of new potential patrons in the area, Pokémon GO tourists were more likely to buy snacks and inexpensive souvenirs rather than mixed-media installations or hand-painted ostrich eggs.
Some artists at the gallery started to adapt their work accordingly, producing things that can be created quickly and sold cheaply. Jacobs explains that one of the painters at the gallery developed a mass-assembly process, lining the canvases up in a row and adding the same elements to each down the line as she worked. Many artists who refused to compromise their artistic vision have left, including Jacobs. The shift in clientele had an impact on other small businesses too with mom and pop shops shutting down for good.
Augmented reality apps like Pokémon GO can shift local economies, but also cause other issues. This seemingly innocuous game has led to a fair amount of trespassing on private property and forced cities to rethink zoning laws. More broadly, it raises questions about how to regulate digital spaces overlaid on real-world places. Perhaps Pokémon GO was just a blip on the radar of 2016, or maybe it’s a harbinger of AR technology that will reshape the space around us, for better or worse.