Map Quests: Political, Physical and Digital

Pokémon STOP by Vivian Le

‘Town of Occoquan’ plaque and town photograph by Ron Cogswell (CC BY 2.0)

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.

Selected artworks by Lauren Jacobs

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.

  1. Ian

    The discussion of graffiti on trip points made me think of the Cofiwch Dryweryn phenomenon. It’s a slogan meaning ‘Remember Tryweryn’ that started appearing all over wales (on Trig Points and elsewhere) as a low key Welsh nationalist movement, recalling the flooding of a Welsh valley to provide water largely for English towns. It began in the 1960s, but is still quite a common phenomenon. Might be an interesting subject for a show some time.

  2. Byron Himberger

    As a long time Ingress player, 99pi has been something of an inspiration (I once used the “always read the plaque” shirt as neutral camouflage during a large scale Ingress battle, where participants often wear faction colors!)

    Since you’re in Oakland, you should probably visit Niantic’s offices in SF (you probably already know what the company name is from…)

    A show about Ingress itself would be worthwhile. It draws thousands of players worldwide to special events and is played daily by many more. A good time to meet some is every first Saturday of the month, when there is an official gathering in cities all over the world.

  3. Devin

    Great episode as usual. It reminded me of my childhood: I used to go to summer camp on Star island in Cass Lake in northern Minnesota (Unistar!!) – I have no way to verify this but the camp used to say the lake located on the island, Lake Windigo, was the largest lake on an island on a lake in the US. Cass Lake is also just downstream from and was once named the head waters for the Mississippi River. A beautiful place to visit in spite of the millions of mayflies that descend on the lake in early summer.

  4. Gus B

    There is another inception island in the Philippines.
    – Vulcan Point Island is inside…
    – Crater Lake which is inside…
    – The Taal volcano and happens to be an island inside…
    – Taal Lake which is inside…
    – Luzon Island, the largest island in the Philippines.

    Vulcan Point Island
    San Nicolas, Philippines
    https://maps.app.goo.gl/cVbsap1scm2CPM1D7

  5. Kevin

    I have to admit, that I had a fleeting hope that one of the stories in this episode would be about people who draw their own maps and invent their own worlds for their writing or for D&D. Even with the limited exposure that I’ve achieved, it blows me away the lengths that some people go to to invent constructed languages or fictional worlds detailed down to the plate tectonics.

    All the same, my own efforts in the future will go a little further to include enclaves and exclaves as well as triangulation stations in my made up maps.

  6. I have always been fascinated by the pieces of states that are separated from their home state by the meandering history of the Mississippi River (and other rivers, I’m sure). Look closely at a Google map of Arkansas’ southeastern border, as just one example. Pieces of Arkansas are now on the Mississippi State side of the river, and vice versa. When this happens, do states ever renegotiate their boundaries?

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