Here but not here: the architecture of Pokemon GO
I don’t know what’s going on here in the absence of people, but the moment someone shows up, everything comes into motion. Old traps disappear and new ones emerge. Safe spots become impassable. Now your path is easy, now it’s hopelessly involved. That’s the Zone. It may even seem capricious. But it is what we’ve made it with our condition.
Stalker (Andreï Tarkovski, 1979)
Have you played Pokémon Go? What an unusual object. A map on a phone, with animated symbols and GPS location, telling me on Friday night there might be Pokémons in the park. And surely Friday night I walk to the park, even though it is dark and it rains a bit. Guided by the map, I arrive in this strange public place, adorned with glowing faces floating in the dark with no body attached. My fellow players. Distributed evenly on the grass, in a very specific area, we are all silent but we know: it is here. I swipe my screen and the screen confirms, there is a small fire pony running between our legs and feet. This is your park, Ponyta, we’re all here for you! One skilled gesture and I take it out of the grass to put it in my phone. The screen says: my collection grew, the park is empty, and I should go to the next location, a few minute away. So I am on my way again, leaving the floating faces and a park with a strange afterglow: the colors of the Pokémon that was there, this childish ridiculous creature that brought me out here on a Friday night. There are hundreds of parks in Taipei, but this is the park of Ponyta, the fire pony.
The park is a place with a space and a time. And the game unloaded its meaning inside of it, litters of paint on the green grass, and now this time and this space are tainted with yellow and red, and other cartoonish colors. The Pokémon arrived in the park like the genius in Norberg-Schulz’s loci. The spirit in the place. Time and space at this precise location were picked up from their banality – where everything is like the other and in that sense there is nothing – and then brought into the much more restraint realm of the meaning. They became a place, limited, located, and connected. The organization of space and time: this is what architecture does, and in that sense we would like to say Pokémon Go is architecture. We who have played, we know! It did something to the place around us didn’t it? But if someone asks for proof we haven’t got any. Nothing is left from Friday night, except trampled grass in the park, rain on our coats, and of course, all the data in our phones. Is that all there is then?
Real (is not the question)
Saying a digital game is architecture is dangerous. We have to be ready to jump off the train at any time. Today we simulate the presence of Pokémons in the park and we call it “augmented reality” – but since reality is always too banal, tomorrow we might want to augment it a little more. We’ll simulate better birds and better flowers, with better sounds and better smells, anything the digital allows us to do we will do. As we progress there will be an inflection point when the simulation won’t complete the park, but instead park will complete the simulation. The physical world, the one from which we started, won’t be anything else but barely visible scraps between the folds of the simulated veil. A nuisance, really. We’ll hit our foot on a bench or a trashcan and we’ll wish there was no park at all. Augmenting the world with simulation we could arrive at what Jean Baudrillard calls “hyperreal”, a simulation replacing the “emptiness, secrecy, pure appearance” of the world with complete, determinate meaning. So complete that it becomes self-sufficient. It doesn’t need the world anymore since it is a world in itself – a perfect “real”.
Freed from the physical by the digital, architecture has no limit. We can build hyper-architectures with infinite volume were time and space are designed in all their possibilities. In the depth of infinity, finally, there is room for perfection. One perfect world for each and every one of us. If you are bored with the architecture you’re in, make another one inside of it, and another one after that. Worlds within worlds, fractals of reality where each world is as real as the other, since all of them are equally complete. But this scenario of a total simulation is also the end of architecture as a concept: since time and space are completely designed, there is nothing left to give meaning to. No world left to read, no mystery left to protect us from: infinity is finally contained.
Simulation is not a place for architecture. Architecture will have happen elsewhere. We won’t say the real world, because don’t know what real is. But deep inside the simulation, travelling from space to space and time to time, a simple question will remain on the back of our head: “Where is my body”? Whereas all places are equally real for the mind, one only is accessible for our body. The aging, heavy, limited body, the one we have today and we’ll have tomorrow. The place of the body is the place of architecture. If someday we don’t know where our body is, we will have to revise our definition of architecture, along with our definition of humanity. But just before that, when people each day lie down in their VR sarcophagus to enjoy the simulation, architects will be the ones staying awake a bit longer, even if all they have left to do here is making sure the light stays on, in case somebody wakes up and has to find its way to the bathroom.
Deep inside the simulation, travelling from space to space and time to time, a simple question will remain on the back of our head: “Where is my body”?
If the digital game Pokémon Go is a form of architecture, we must see how it works along with our bodies, in the place of our bodies. Although there is no sign left of it, the architecture of Pokémon Go must have been with us in the park, present beyond its digital state. In which form did the game appear to us?
If Pokémon Go is an architecture, its function is “game”. That is, in the simplest definition, “organized play”. There is at first a certain human behavior, play, which is then contained by a system of rules: the game. It is the difference between kicking an empty can on the sidewalk, or playing a football match in a stadium. The system of rules is the fabric of the game. It provides, to all the possibilities of human behavior, a frame with openings and closings, landmarks and guidelines. The system might be loose or tight; you might feel extraordinary free while playing, but however wide it is, the net is still there. Your freedom is designed: it is called by game designers Salen and Zimmerman the “space of possibility”. You cannot control something as unpredictable as players’ actions, you can only hope to limit their possibilities and let the events unfold. “Game design is an act of faith – in your rules, in your players, in your game itself” the designers wrote. And surely when some of us ignored the rules, tweaked their GPS so that they could catch Pokémons while seating in their couch, they were banned. The game cannot survive in the unique space of our immobility, or the instant time of a touchscreen, it needs to include, in its possibilities, the thousands of spaces of a city, and all the time it needs to get there. But all of this spaces and times are carefully regulated. You can’t access the Pokémon gym in Shida, unless you reach level five. You’ll have to spend the time to access the space. Until then the Shida area is accessible, but not worth going. The game reorganizes our relationship with the world just as we plan our houses: there is a space and a time for everything.
The digital sign
Rules need signs to be understood. We follow the rules of a bedroom because when looking at the carpet, the heavy curtains and of course the bed, we know the function of the room is to sleep. We enter through the door, lean on the wall, look through the window, because that is how they are meant to be used and that is how we understand them. They are functional elements, but also the sign of their own function. When we were children and we wanted to play football in a place that did not want us, we’d put four schoolbags on the concrete floor, not only because we needed goals and limits, but also as a sign for others that this was the time and space we took from the world, and inside, the rules of football applied. With fragile and transportable signs, for moments only we could make a place our own, we could make our own fleeting architecture. But Pokémon Go doesn’t even need four schoolbags. An empty park is far from the architecture described by Charles Jencks, which pitched roofs, bricks and columns are signs working together like words in a language. Far from Aldo Rossi’s buildings forming “physical signs of the past, assembled in the system of the city to constitute its history and art, its being and memory”. A memory inscribed in stone and concrete, with a meaning that lasts for centuries. We will always have Paris.
In Taipei we have Paris as well, on two dimensional signs covering entire façades. Posters with perfumes and Eiffel towers. The face of Taipei is on the signboards, not on the buildings behind. Francoise Choay describes how the last century has seen the decay of “pure signifying space” in favor of “substitute systems”. The city has to speak fast, for everybody, about everything; the pace has changed, stone and concrete could not keep up. So the city now wears two dimensional clothes it can change at each season. Space and time do not want to talk about themselves, but rather about Dutch model Doutzen Kroes and her new smartphone. And the one next year. And the one after that. Taipei is Paris. Taipei is Samsung galaxy. Taipei is Pokémon.
In this acceleration of the architectural sign it seems the digital is the next logical step. No need for printing machines and delivery trucks, all it takes to for the sign to change are fluctuations in the electric stream. From centuries to months, the architectural sign arrives to the instantaneous. Instantaneous itself is nothing new, as the fleeting schoolbag architecture showed us; the real novelty is that the digital sign is instantaneous everywhere. As if all over the world, millions of schoolkids were simultaneously building millions of football fields. The digital sign doesn’t bother much with the limitations of time and space, in fact it has now left the time and space it gives meaning to, to simply inhabit our phones. We don’t find the sign when coming to a place, we bring the sign inside the place. It follows us everywhere and when the time comes, like a theater prompter, secretly whispers: “This is what this place means, and this is what you should do”.
The fact that Pokémon Go is an architecture without doors and windows, stripped from the weight of its traditional signs, shows us that the irruption of the architectural act inside the world cannot depend solely on the mass and stability of its materials. Pokémon Go doesn’t need any material, it has digital signs; but this doesn’t mean that we have in our pockets some sort of portable, self-sufficient architecture. Amputated of the place they refer to, the signs are mute, incomplete. They rely on our will to leave the sofa.
The unexplored part
With the sign, the theater prompter looking over our shoulder, we walk through sidewalks, parks and plazas. We act on them and they act on us, exchanging wet feet, crowds and traffic sounds, all actions being sanctioned by the prompter: we arrived, cached a fire pony, well done, now what’s next.
The creation of architectural meaning is a triangular relation between a location in space and time, the meaning we give to that location, and the architectural sign telling us what that meaning should be. The banal park becomes the place of a fire Pony, through the lens of Pokémon Go. The three sides of the triangle depend on each other, but only indirectly: there is, at the root of each interaction, the human player, walking, panting, wiping the rain off the screen. A door is a sign that can change the meaning of the room behind from “accessible” to “restricted”, but only if somebody is willing close it. The simple act of walking, as Michel de Certeau puts it, is to the city’s architecture “what the speech is to language”, an “acting out”. Architecture is a language waiting to be spoken. Signs within a system of rules waiting to be read and acted upon, suddenly emerging in the world like a cat wakes up at the touch of its back. A system designed to let us explore its “space of possibility”, welcome us in a closed field of many possible actions among which we make our unpredictable choice.
Without us Pokémon Go, as Baudrillard shows, could very well play against itself and instantly calculate its own end. Without our intervention architecture is a problem without an unknown, it is already resolved – it has no reason to be. In other words, architecture comes into the world because with our unpredictable actions we give value to its time. If we do, finally, use the word “virtual” in this text, it should be following Gille Deleuze’s interpretation: “The virtual is not opposed to the real, but only to the actual”. Whether their signs are made of stone or binary code, all architectures are mostly virtual, in the sense that, since we are people with restricted action, we haven’t experienced most of their possible meanings. Virtual, but real nevertheless, because the sections we haven’t explored are within the limits of the architectural design. They are permitted, but did not happen. They are virtual, real, but not actual. We did not yet bring them into time. Of all possible things to do in the room you’re in you haven’t done most of them. And so the room waits. Architecture waits.
Of all the possible things to do in the room you are in you haven’t done most of them. And so the room waits. Architecture waits.
When I was a child I was fascinated by the road. It was so different from my own world. I lived in limited places: my side of the room ended were my sister’s started, our room ended at the door, our house ended at the front yard and the front yard ended at the sidewalk. After the sidewalk, started the road. And I had yet to see it end. A road is always connected to another as it must be accessible somehow; we can name some of its part but we cannot isolate them. The road if front of my house was not a road, or my road, but rather some extremity lent to me by a gigantic interlaced network, the biggest spaghetti bowl you could imagine. From Brussels all the way to Hong-Kong. It’s an 180 hours drive, I checked. The road doesn’t cover the entire world, but it links together all of its places. Even the desert has a road leading to it. It is a maze of points and vectors between those points, organizing the time and space of the globe, with signs made of speed limitations, white stripes and fast-food neons.
But as any other architecture, the road waits. It is the architecture of mobility but without us it is immobile, because it has already arrived. The road is already in Brussels, already in Hong-Kong. Stuck in the permanence of the everywhere. So the road needs us to bring our time, our time it takes to get there, time in which we can put points and vectors in succession, and create our own paths. The amount of combinations is limited, but unconceivable. Imagine the amount of possible paths – more than we will never know – and you’ll know the amount of virtual left to explore. Is the road our biggest architecture?
Looking at Pokémon Go we have to doubt it. The game comes into the interstices left between the vectors of the road, filling the gaps like butter on a waffle, because under the GPS satellites, every spatial position is valid. The game borrows the scale of the road but achieves a different kind of depth: as if after walking down a narrow corridor we stepped into a gymnasium. There are no restrictions to your paths, as long as you reach the necessary beacons: pokestops, pokegyms, etc. Many games are playable anywhere, anytime, but for architecture this might be a first. You have to leave your house to enter the architecture of the road, but inside your living room you already are in Pokémon Go. You walk around and your thigh tickles – that’s the game inside the phone, waiting to be turned on and reveal what you’re missing. It is here but not here. Virtual to all the places you go, ready and waiting, but not actual until you turn the switch and let it gush in.
The game start and ends with our experience, has no other shape in space and time than the experience we have in space and time. And what curious shape it is! It covers the world with a plain, indifferent film of virtuality, but brought down into our experience it is at our mercy, appearing here and there, now and then, based on each of us goodwill. On and off as experiences start and stop. The shape of Pokemon Go is continuous in the virtual, erratic in the actual. Metastasic. Random bubbles in boiling water. Time again is a decisive factor. If you want to know how the architecture of Pokémon Go appears the first question to ask is “when?”. Yesterday it was here, today it is not. It is shaped by the ephemeral particles of our experience, and therefore entangled into permanent change.
We easily imagine the gigantic thing fragmenting under its own weight, trembling too hard for the particles to hold, and instead forming a multitude of individual architectures simply sharing the same signs and rules. Like McDonalds restaurants or public bathrooms. This would be forgetting the digital, a powerful glue carrying not only the signs and rules, but also the ability to join each player’s experience into a single network. We can of course meet others on the sidewalk and play together, combining our experiences of the game, but through the network these combinations are made with players in time and spaces we are not in. You find a Pokegym at a deserted crossroad and the game tells you it is captured by another player. “Roger was here” says the network, as would graffiti on a bathroom stall door. Roger left this morning, but through time a bit of Roger remains. On a larger scale, data from players all around the world is collected by the network, then centralized and reviewed by the developers. A single anomaly in one of our experiences and the system is corrected for all with a general update. Pokémon Go is not an architecture that can be experienced alone. For better or worse, the architect is there with you, peeking through the network, perfecting the rules and signs as you use them, as a waitress refills your coffee in a diner. “How is everything sir?”
When designing architecture we design its virtual part. We can never know exactly the nature of the events through which architecture will take place; we can only hope to provide a frame to limit their range of possibility. Escape the infinite. We build houses in cement and bricks because we want this frame to last, stand still through all the events projected within it. We hope to find stability in architecture’s resistance to time. Pokemon Go doesn’t have bricks or cement, it is built into a code that can be updated all the time. As the rules of the game change the frame of possibilities evolve: Pokemon Go is instable in its core, to its very virtual state. It appears in time and evolves with time, but time might bring an end to it. It could simply disappear once we get bored, perhaps very soon, and instead of bringing demolition trucks and dynamite, we simply stop playing. The game is not the hyper-architecture we secretly dream of, covering the mystery of the world with complete and definite meaning. It is gigantic in scale, but as architecture it depends on us to give it its shape into the world. It is gigantic but fleeting, like the fragile schoolbag architecture of our childhood, filling the world one minute at a time.
 CHRISTIAN NORBERG-SCHULTZ, Genius Loci, Rizzoli, 1980, p.18
 JEAN BAUDRILLARD, Le Crime Parfait, Galilee, 1995, p.15
 MARC PRENSKY, Digital game based learning, McGraw-Hill, 2001, p.119
 SALEN –ZIMMERMAN, Rules of play, MIT press, 2004, p79
 CHARLES JENCKS, The language of postmodern architecture, Rizzoli, 1977, p. 60-73
 ALDO ROSSI, The architecture of the city, MIT press, 1982, p.58
 FRANCOISE CHOAY, Le sens de la ville, Broche, p.18
 MICHEL DE CERTEAU, Practice of everyday life, University of California Press, 1984, p.98
 Op. cit., p. 45
 GILLE DELEUZE, Difference et repetition, PUF, 1968, p.169