VirtuREAL Connections

August 1, 2016, Department, by Aaron Perri

Pokémon Go players in an Anchorage, Alaska, park congregate and share stories.Pokémon Go. At press time, it had been just over one week since I first heard that term. Immediately thereafter I began noticing swarms of people wandering about town being led by their phones, as if they are dog owners being pulled forward by an eager puppy on a leash. The trend is easy to spot in any park, civic center or downtown street, but even more impressive are the numbers with daily users almost instantly exceeding that of Facebook or Twitter. Early reporting on the fad contemplates health benefits, public safety concerns, business opportunities and various social blunders. I was fascinated and simply had to know what the buzz was all about. I downloaded the app, signed up and went to South Bend’s Howard Park after work where I observed the following:

 

  • I met several teenagers who were visiting South Bend’s river walk for the very first time. Many of them grew up in town, but stated they never had a reason to visit downtown.
  • I met a woman who was currently battling cancer. While her kids were out chasing Drowzees, she sat on the bench to enjoy the park. Somehow she struck up a conversation with a young man on a nearby bench who happened to be a nurse at the hospital she visits. While I don’t know the extent of their conversation, it was uplifting to see this random, intergenerational conversation.
  • I encountered a single mother who said this is the first time in several years that she’s been able to go out and enjoy a walk with her teenage daughter.
  • I met a guy in his late 20s who said he walked nearly 12 kilometers the previous day (the game tracks in kilometers). He thought perhaps a kilometer was longer than a mile, so he was a bit disappointed when we discovered that equaled about 7.5 miles, as opposed to the 20 miles he thought he had walked. Nonetheless, he was still enthusiastic to share that he probably hadn’t walked more than a mile since high school, 10 years earlier.
  • I met dozens of people who were excited to engage with me and teach me the game. Some of them were experts and others were still learning themselves. While most were teenagers and young adults, some were very young and some were older than me. Some of them were in groups and some were solo. Some were introverts and some were extroverts. The game did not seem to discriminate by skin color whatsoever. The diversity was impressive, and the comradery even more so. 

 

What struck me most was the way these adolescents were willing to interact with me. This experience clashed immensely with one I had about a year prior. Shortly after a new “life-sized” chess board was installed downtown, I began to notice groups of young people gathering in the area. One day after work, I approached a group of adolescents who seemed to be having a good time. I was excited to see the new activity and greeted them with, “Hey guys, what’s going on?” My greeting was not well received.  Admittedly, the group of African-American teens probably was not approached too often by a white guy in business attire. What seemed routine to me may have seemed awkward or threatening to them. Needless to say, the interaction didn’t last long and I continued my walk home.

That memory has stuck with me, but I encountered a vastly different post-work situation while out searching for Pokémon along the riverfront. I can’t help but wonder: What role can technology play in bringing people together, not only virtually but also physically? What role does it have in civic engagement? In public health? Social equity? 

The risk here is something I’ve considered repeatedly during the past several years. In 2009, shortly after I dove into the online social sphere, I took a trip to China as a part of my MBA studies. I decided to try, for the first time, keeping an online blog. “Aaron’s Great Wall: Tumbling through China” was an experiment for me. I wanted to see if I could be fully immersed in learning about this foreign land while also being fully engaged online by hyper-blogging my experiences. The question I asked then is one I’m still asking today, “Does giving in to the crave to stay ‘in the loop’ via all this technology come at the expense of neglecting what is actually happening around us?” 

Technology to date — whether it be a photograph, video, social media website, virtual reality experience or otherwise — has primarily served as a way to represent reality, but it’s always lacked some degree of authenticity. In some instances, technology has even served to compete with reality. Here is where Pokémon Go gets interesting. Users both interact with the real world around them, while also engaging with computerized animations. Some may say this is just a fad. Pokémon Go may indeed be such, but I think we’re experiencing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to recognizing how augmented reality can transform our communities. My brief involvement with the game has already revealed a few ways in which it can bring people together, encourage an active lifestyle and highlight new experiences. 

In the past few decades, we’ve seen an unhealthy shift in the balance between reality and technology. But, my Pokémon Go experience has me convinced that we may be approaching equilibrium once again. I look forward to exploring how this technology will further shape the policy, programming and design of our communities and impact the ways we relate to one another. 

 

Aaron Perri  is the Executive Director of the South Bend, Indiana, Parks and Recreation Department.