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Pokémon Go: Elitist, racist and inaccessible?

Written By | Jul 14, 2016

WASHINGTON, July 14, 2016 — Pokémon Go hit the internet like the Mongol horde last week. On Tuesday you were innocently posting and watching cat videos on your Facebook page; on Thursday your friends were spouting jargon about “Valor,” “Instinct” and “Pokestops,” and were inexplicably preparing to train in gyms.

By Friday you’d caught a Jigglypuff and hatched a Weedle, and on Saturday you’d taken control of a gym.

My 15-year-old son got out of school in May, and by mid-June my wife and I had given up on seeing him again until the end of August. We simply left bags of food at his bedroom door. On Saturday he unexpectedly emerged and asked me to download Pokémon Go to his iPhone.

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This wasn’t a whim. Teenagers are conformist proto-fascists by nature and avoid individualism like leprosy. When they feel the urge to be different or try something new, they make sure that their friends are all being different in the same way, and that it isn’t so new that their friends won’t have heard of it and think it weird.

According to my data logs, there was a flurry of texting between my son and his friends in the hour before he decided he wanted that app. Texting activity plummeted in the hours following.

Five minutes after the download, he’d left the house of his own free will, gone walking through the woods, walked around the block, and was prepared to walk a half mile to a friend’s house so they could go out on the lake. He only came home first because there was this big, bright yellow thing in the sky and when he called his friend to talk about it, they decided that maybe they should worship it, and could they use his sister as a sacrifice?

The Daily Dot isn’t entirely pleased with this fad. Writer Selena Larson describes the plight of Alyx, who uses a wheelchair. According to Alyx,

“It kinda just makes me sad. There was a pokemon across the street and I rolled up to it only to find that it was just out of reach, up a rocky hill.

“I just sat there on the pavement pouting for a minute before going home.”

Larson quotes Diane Murray, editor of a blog for the chronically ill:

“I also suspect there are a bunch of folks with lower coordination who are frustrated with the way Pokémon are caught, since it requires a fairly precise throw … [And] those who deal with derealization or disassociation may find the VR mode a bit jarring or triggering.”

Larson’s conclusion is simple: When a game becomes wildly popular, it should be accessible enough that everyone who wants to can participate equally.

Pokèmon Go is not accessible to someone who is homebound, to which I say, “thank you, Niantic!” If it were that accessible, my son and his friends would be in their rooms playing it, not outside. The sun would still be just something they read about and not an object of wonder, and they’d have no idea just how hot it can be outside in the summer and not in an air-conditioned room.

I don’t know what was in the minds of the game’s creators, but it seems that the point of the game isn’t just to stare at a screen, but to go outside and interact with others and your surroundings. And once you walk out your door, your surroundings won’t always accommodate your physical limitations.

My advice to Alyx would be to hunt Pokémon at a shopping mall or in a city center, places engineered to be accessible to people in wheelchairs. If there are Pokémon at the top of Mount Rainier or the bottom of the Grand Canyon, resign yourself to leaving them for people who have the mobility and physical stamina to go get them.

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And if your hands tremble from Parkinson’s disease, don’t bother with games you have to play with smartphone touch screens.

There are other objections to Pokémon Go, one serious and one peculiar. The peculiar objection is that the cultural phenomenon excludes a class of people: those who can’t afford smartphones. The more serious objection is related; it isn’t safe to play this game in some areas where disadvantaged kids live, and it isn’t safe to play if your skin color makes you an object of suspicion.

Neither of these issues should be of any concern to the creators of the game. Golf requires expensive equipment and sometimes considerable greens fees. Lacrosse, soccer and football all impose costs on people who play on organized teams, and facilities for swimming and gymnastics aren’t always available to poor young people.

These barriers are pervasive, and they are a problem we should care about. Internet access, access to books and educational resources, the ability to enjoy a national park and to visit great museums are all constrained by financial circumstances. The extent to which we rip away those constraints is a matter of politics and policy.

Is it dangerous to play Pokémon Go while black? That’s an easy question without an easy answer. There are spreading reports of people calling the police when they see black youths wandering slowly past their homes, the police discovering that those youths are looking for Squirtles and Caterpies.

White players are also running afoul of suspicious property owners, but there is evidence that while black men are no more likely to be killed by the police than white men, non-lethal police violence is much more likely if you’re black. And encounters between police and black men are more likely than encounters between police and white men.

Everyone is well-advised to be careful playing Pokémon Go. No matter how badly you want that Charmander, if it’s in my back yard, it’s off limits without my permission. You don’t hunt Pokémons where you might wander into a drug deal, you don’t hunt them in dark alleys in Brooklyn, you don’t hunt them on the perimeter of Ft. Meade or from the driver’s seat of your car.

The racial politics of Pokémon Go are part of a broader problem. As for the game itself, I hope it remains popular through the summer. It’s too bad that some people can’t play, and that some people can’t get to the bottom of the Grand Canyon or afford to take up golf or learn to play the theramin. Life isn’t fair, and many things worth doing can’t be made fully accessible and remain worth doing.

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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.