Lilycove is not actually a real place anywhere near the Shady Grove Metro. Lilycove is a fictional city (with an art museum called the Lilycove Museum) in the imaginary world of Pokémon. The imaginary world of Pokémon, meanwhile, has recently taken over society. This takeover includes real-world museums, and it also includes the part of the real world that is near the Shady Grove station, the Red Line’s western terminus in Montgomery County, Maryland.
The Pokémon franchise has been around for 20 years, and includes an anime TV show and movies, comic books, and games (both electronic and card). I remember in high school, catching glimpses of the anime series as my brother watched it, and learning the various species’ names and types as he taught me how to play the card game. It was only this summer that my interest in the world of Pokémon was reignited, as interest in Pokémon simultaneously exploded far and wide with the release of Niantic’s augmented reality app Pokémon Go.
At first, I was reluctant to download the app. Isn’t reality interesting enough without being augmented? Isn’t there something a little…creepy about superimposing fake things on real spaces? And if I start playing this game, won’t I get addicted?
My brother and a good friend convinced me that I would love the game, so I did download it, and I did indeed become addicted. When the game loads quickly, works properly, and measures distance accurately, it is an incredibly fun way to spend time, giving me something to do during the walking part of my commute or providing that extra motivation to take a walk just for the heck of it.
The world of Pokémon overlaps its important locations with real-world places, including museums. Important sites in the game, Pokéstops and gyms, are real-life points of interest such as museums, libraries, churches, restaurants, and parks. Each Pokéstop (where you can go to pick up in-game items and XP points) contains a photo and short description of the real-world landmark. In some cases, the landmark may be so small or blend so well with the urban landscape that you might not have been aware of it until the Pokéstop pointed it out to you: a tree with a tiny memorial plaque in front of it, a quirky sculpture on a rooftop. (The Pokéstops are not always up-to-date, and some of the outdoor sculptures that appear on Pokémon Go’s map have been moved or removed in real life.)
Not every Pokéstop is museum-related, but a decent chunk of them are. Near the Shady Grove Metro – which to my knowledge has no museums nearby – the Metro station itself, a restaurant, and a church serve as Pokéstops. But in downtown DC where I work, Pokéstops I can easily reach while walking around at lunch include a piece of art at the Renwick, a plaque outside the Octagon, and a gargoyle atop the Corcoran.
Aside from the literal intersection of virtual Pokéstops and gyms with real museums, Pokémon Go also relates to cultural sites by tapping into some of the same human inclinations that bring people to visit and love museums. After all, Pokémon Go is all about exploring places and building a collection. An article on the psychology of Pokémon Go discusses two types of collecting, taxonomic and aesthetic. Pokémon Go, which encourages players to “catch ‘em all”, is an example of the former. Meanwhile, blogger Andrew Reinhard writes about Pokémon Go as a prime example of archeogaming, declaring that the game “might be the best thing to happen to archaeology (or at least archaeological tourism) in years.”
Despite how utterly enjoyable this app has been for me and countless other players, it has not blended seamlessly with reality, but rather, it has come with controversy, mishaps, and naysayers. While Pokémon Go certainly did not invent distracted driving or walking, the fact that it is meant to be played while walking exacerbates the likelihood that players become too absorbed in the game and too oblivious to real-world surroundings, leading to some unfortunate results. The game’s premise, promoting getting out and moving around in order to reap the in-game rewards, looks good on paper but can be tragic in areas plagued by landmines or crime.
The world of museums and tourism is divided on what to make of Pokémon Go (not surprising, given that these visitor destinations are not a monolithic category of places). Memorials and museums that interpret some of the most horrendous moments in human history, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, have, quite understandably, asked Pokémon trainers not to partake of the app in their spaces. (Just as Pokémon Go did not invent distraction or landmines, the Washington Post points out that the game also did not invent rudeness in solemn surroundings.)
Meanwhile, the game has been dubbed a gift to museums in one article, while another writer ponders whether the app is a blessing or a curse. From one scathing webpage which is not loading for me today, I fortunately had the foresight to copy the quote, “When a Pokéhunter arrives at a[n archaeological] site (drawn by the lure of a rich Pokéstop) they are in the classic state of Cartesian disconnect.”
Questions have arisen, in a legal sense or otherwise, regarding who owns virtual space. While the makers of Pokémon Go attempted to map their gyms and Pokéstops onto existing public spaces, some mishaps ensued – such as when a man living in a house that had been converted from a church began to notice people outside his dwelling at all hours, because his churchlike home had been designated a Pokémon Go gym.
Niantic has since created a method for requesting the removal of an inappropriate gym or Pokéstop. (Proposed legislation known as Pidgey’s Law would fine Niantic for not removing Pokéstops as requested.) However, as virtual and augmented reality continue to develop, challenges will pop up when virtual points of interest pop up. Cities may begin looking at zoning according to virtual reality among other factors; the small historic town of Occoquan, Virginia is trying to come to terms with being taken over by Pokémon Go due to its abundance of historical landmarks and its prevalence of Water Pokémon spawning along the river.
If it is agreed that people should have some control over the virtual layer(s) of their own space, additional questions arise: who decides on a particular building’s virtual accessibility, its owner or its tenant? How do we navigate the disagreements that the public may have about appropriate use of public areas? One Sunday this summer, I had lunch with a frequent library patron who said that she believes libraries are sacred and are not appropriate places for playing Pokémon Go. The following Sunday, I had lunch with a library employee, who mentioned that she knows people are playing the game at her workplace and has no issue with it.
While some museums have been forthright that their collections and the whimsical collection of Pokémon are incompatible, many other museums have embraced the app. For example, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is noted in this article as one place in the city to go catch Pokémon and in this article as one art museum using the game to engage audiences. Shortly after the game was released, the museum hosted a Pokémon Go-themed Meetup during its pay-what-you-wish hours.
I visited the PMA nearly a decade ago, long before the advent of Pokémon Go. My friend and I explored the whole museum, and I photographed some of the art, including art depicting animals like a snake, a dog, and dolphins, as well as the Rocky steps. Today, visitors can go look for Ekans, Growlithe, and various Water and Rock Pokémon among the museum’s acclaimed art and famed architecture.
For those museums that do want to lure Pokémon Go-playing visitors, Preservation Maryland offers some tips here, and the Virginia Association of Museums raises some questions to help museum professionals consider the game. The Museum Playbook offers some guidance on utilizing the app in the museum field, and Museum Hack discusses how getting in on the Pokémon Go action can help attract millennials to informal learning sites. In her blog, Mar Dixon published a guest post examining the social facilitation that can happen in museums via Pokémon Go. Forward-thinking museum people are considering the possibilities that augmented reality could offer the world of interpretation.
Some additional examples of Pokémon Go in the museum include:
At art museums…
- Another museum with the initials PMA, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, has designed its own similar app PMA GO, in which players explore the city and try to virtually collect a number of works of art.
- In France, the Musée du Quai Branly not only is a Pokéstop itself, but also contains a piece of art with actual artistically rendered Pokémon. (Wolfe von Lenkiewicz created his own take on Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and Lenkiewicz’s version includes pop culture creatures such as Pokémon’s pocket monsters.)
At history museums…
- The American Association for State and Local History has several blog posts about Pokémon Go, including this one which discusses Weedle (mealworm) races as one activity offered at a Pokémon party hosted at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Illinois.
- In DC, Grant Atlas Tours offered a Gotta Catch the Mall tour which included stops to see the White House and various monuments.
At science museums…
- At Alabama’s Birmingham Zoo, a professional in the bird exhibit put up signs for the animals on view resembling the format used to describe the critters in one’s Pokémon Go inventory.
- The National Museum of Natural History and the Virginia Living Museum have posted photos of animals in their collections alongside their Pokémon lookalikes.
Whether you are searching for Pokémon among museum exhibits or at a suburban Metro terminus, I wish you luck in connecting to the server and catching 101 Magikarps. Stay safe, and keep it classy when you’re at a memorial or sacred site.
Shady Grove is a Metro stop and Pokéstop on the Red Line.