Two weeks ago, before the Republican National Convention began, my Twitter feed was consumed with, of all things, a card game from the 1990s. Really, every tweeter and their mother had some sort of joke/comment/photo of themselves playing Pokémon Go, the new mobile version of a 90s card and video game in which you collect and fight one another’s adorable little monsters with names like “Charmander,” “Emolga” and “Pikachu.”
What has made PokémonGO such a crazy instantaneous phenomenon is the way in which it uses the real world as a setting for play. Rather than buying and collecting game cards, players find new monsters by wandering their neighborhoods with their phones, looking for little monster icons and other beacons to appear on their actual GPS maps as an overlay, aka “augmented reality.”
And in the game Pokémon can be found pretty much anywhere — your bathroom, the church steps, police stations. The U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. recently had to tell people to stop trying to capture Pokémon there. People have also been criticized for trying to play at the September 11 Memorial in New York, at cemeteries, even at Auschwitz.
There are 720 different monsters, and the goal is “to catch ‘em all,” as their slogan goes, and then to fight one another with them in “gyms” which are other random places, including such bizarre choices as the Pentagon, a Yellow Fever Memorial and the Westboro Baptist Church.
Already the app is not only the biggest mobile game of the year, but the biggest U.S. mobile game ever. In 10 days, it had raised more users than Twitter. And its popularity has led to some ridiculous scenes, such a particular moment at 11 p.m. on July 16, when hundreds descended all at once on Central Park, after a rare “Vaporeon” Pokémon spawned.
Here’s the thing — this app is really a mess. The system has already crashed multiple times, including over the weekend. People and businesses are complaining about the invasion of their privacy — how, for instance, Massachusetts resident Boon Sheridan has people flocking to his house day and night because it had been designated as a gym.
And, more than any of that, the game is actually kind of dangerous. People have not only crashed cars while playing, but have also walked off cliffs. Much as we would like to spend our lives hooked into our phones, it’s just not terribly safe to walk around looking at the world through tiny screens for very long.
(Some have actually praised the app for causing people to leave their homes and get some exercise. Except, how strange is it to spend a day outside and yet never actually see the world around you except through the lens of a mobile phone?)
So, if you ask me, as big as a deal as PokémonGO is right now, it’s not going to be too long before we’re seeing it as the MySpace of augmented reality tech. It’s more exciting for the possibilities it suggests than it is in and of itself.
For instance, do you remember Google Glass, those weird little screens Google wanted you to attach to your glasses that made no sense and people loathed?
Well, while I can’t imagine they’re ever coming back, with augmented reality the concept of some sort of adapted eyewear becomes much more interesting. I don’t care whether you’ve been looking at mobile screens since the day you were born, at some point we all get tired of them. They’re too small.
But if you could wear glasses that allowed you see normally, but with the added feature of allowing monsters and gyms and whatever else to pop up around you, who would go back to playing the game on their phone? No one.
Augmented reality and the secret stories of our world
And augmented reality in conjunction with such eyewear leads to all kinds of intriguing possibilities. For instance — I spent a month in 2009 with a historian of China, filming a documentary on the history of the Jesuits in China. We were in 11 different cities, most of them places tourists don’t go. People would come up and want their pictures taken with the white guys. (Or they’d just stare.)
Over the course of that trip, I learned two things: (1) Traveling alone with a historian can be a handful. (“I don’t care what famous conversation once happened on this corner, I REALLY NEED TO FIND A WESTERN-STYLE BATHROOM.”) (2) Also that every single corner of our world is filled with so much history that most of us know nothing about.
Father Paul Harman, a great Jesuit at the College of the Holy Cross, once preached that life is sometimes like living at the bottom of an active volcano. Each day, everything that happened yesterday, whether good or bad, significant or not, gets covered by another layer of ash, a.k.a. events, experience. And if you’re not mindful, before too long the things that are most important, the treasures that God has given you, get lost.
It seems to me that our whole world is very much that Pompeii (minus, at least so far, the lava). Consider the streets we live on; how did they get their names? Who are the figures they refer to? What’s the tale behind the building I live in? Everywhere you look, there are hidden stories. And augmented reality could provide a really interesting way of accessing them.
So, for instance, what if while wandering through Zhaoqing, where Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci got his start in China, or London or Seoul, you could see little beacons that highlighted places of historical, literary or religious interest?
Augmented Church reality
The possibilities for the Church are similarly countless. I was recently staying with the Jesuits of the Rue de Grenelle community in Paris. The minister there, Father Bernard Gilbert, has produced a fantastic little book of local Jesuit history, with maps and walking routes to see where Ignatius and the early companions went to school, where they took their first vows; etc.
Again, what if you could just put on a pair of augmented reality glasses and have the path set out before you, maybe even with Father Gilbert or someone else narrating on earphones the stories of those places and different French Jesuits?
Or what if when you went into a church, whether a cathedral like Chartres or your own parish place of worship, you could via augmented reality learn information about the paintings and sculpture there, or be led on a simple guided retreat via that art? What if at Mass, instead of playing Minecraft on your iPad, your kids could look around and see biblical stories for children based on the stained glass?
I reached out to Matt Meeks, social media czar for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, to get his take on the possibilities. He said at the offices they were spitballing their own augmented reality games.
“Imagine a game where you create a create a character who encounters saints or collects them as spiritual guides based upon service oriented check-ins around the city,” he suggested. “You check in at a soup kitchen or a sandwich line and you get the St. Francis achievement, [and then he] gives you daily insights from a Franciscan perspective.”
Or, Meeks suggests, what if you could use this technology to get people looking for Jesus: “Maybe once a day, you have the ability to encounter Jesus in the city in a new location that needs volunteers.” Maybe Jesus even pops up some place without any explanation. And if you go there, maybe there’s a service opportunity, or a special Mass or a big old surprise barbecue or Father John Misty concert. (He is a priest, isn’t he? Pretty sure he’s a Paulist.)
It’s hard to believe that a mobile phone game starring adorable cartoon monsters (and adults behaving in ridiculous ways) could draw people into a deeper relationship with God. But you know that Jesus — he’s gotta catch ‘em all.