The 2016 Election as Casual Game

img_2628 The Norfolk Pagoda is a grim place on election night as the sun is setting. The Chinese restaurant that might attract patrons other than the addicts milling around the waterfront has been shuttered for the better part of the year. Among the people circling its garish umbrella you can overhear discussion of gambling interventions and money problems. Some of these lost souls talk about trouble with the law, especially those fending off the constant temptations of trespassing.   But mostly those gathered at the pagoda are immobile and silent. Parents interact little with the children they have brought, and couples do not hold hands or nuzzle. The casino mentality is obvious as the obsessives in the crowd only become energized when there seems to be a run of positive results on their screens.  Lots of players wear sunglasses despite the shadows and clouds in the scene, perhaps because they have not been sleeping.

This may be the ultimate place for local Pokémon Go players to gather who have hit rock bottom. I came here as a level 25 player a few days ago and am now a level 26. Participation in this game designed for mobile smart phones has forced me to interact with the Trump supporters that I have been avoiding on social network sites like Facebook. I found the pagoda through Reddit, which I normally steer clear of because of its toxic misogyny.  My local Pokémon Go gym is a Confederate shrine so I only collect the game’s colorful animated digital characters rather than participate in the full range of behaviors associated with the tournament culture of battling other players that the game’s affordances seem to encourage.

For the last few months Pokémon Go has been my escape from the grim prospect of a divisive U.S. election and the toxicity of online discourse.  I know a lot of us in FemTechNet have been playing the game with ritual devotion, and I know it was particularly appealing to former co-facilitator T.L. Cowan, who led the group’s experimental pedagogy initiatives.  Certainly crowdsourced resources exist for instructors interested in teaching with the game, such as the voluminous Pokémon Go Syllabus.

As someone who writes about the digital rhetoric of political life (with both a capital “P” and a small “p”), it has been a time of anxiety and conflict.  Since I try to be a conscientious researcher and am teaching a course on digital journalism, I have been reading Breitbart.com, the Twitter feed of Donald Trump, and the online apparatus of Fox News.  All of this makes me feel terrible and demeaned.  It is an information stream that focuses on hatred of college campuses and of women who are judged as being undesirable potential objects of the male gaze. To resolve my anxiety I constantly refresh data from the website of FiveThirtyEight.com where I could see supposedly objective results from polling statistics and quantitative projections that offer a seductive possibility for factual correlation.

Pokémon Go has offered a respite of imagined digital meritocracy as I evolved my Pikachus and Magikarps in what seemed to be a relatively color-blind, age-blind, and gender blind environment of site-specific participation.  Living in Colonial Williamsburg, where the algorithm has located a treasure trove of digital assets to be located, I often talked to other players who were scouring the landscape for rare specimens.

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My friend and colleague Ian Bogost has done a lot of thinking as a game scholar about how civic virtue could be shaped and rewarded by digital cues.  His analysis of the Howard Dean for Iowa game points to the possibilities of gratifying the acquisitive obsessions of the quantified self by tallying good works by canvassing neighborhoods, passing out pamphlets, and waving signs.  Yet he disagrees with noted new media scholar Henry Jenkins, who asserts that games and fan culture might offer good models for democratic participation as touchstones for a participatory culture.  Bogost adopts a more critical stance when it comes to what gamers learn from gaming and the status of game design and user practices as morally ambiguous forms of cultural expression.

For example, like any example of procedural rhetoric, there are workarounds for those who want to avoid the healthy behaviors of outdoor social interactions that the game supposedly rewards.  Pokémon Go seems to encourage exercise by rewarding walking, but a player can also acquire candies for one’s digital familiar crawling forward in a commuting vehicle stuck in traffic.   Ideally it is could spur intergenerational outings, but the same effects can be achieved in parallel play.

As a symptom of retreating from political realities to the digital world, Pokémon Go became a laugh line on the election trail.  Hillary Clinton’s comment about not knowing “who created Pokémon Go” but wishing that the same tech wizards would create “Pokémon Go To the Polls” was certainly cringe-worthy, but it took place in the context of praising the growth of tech sector jobs and lauding algorithmic literacy.

What FiveThirtyEight and Pokémon Go may appeal to is a desire for magical thinking and a wish for intimacy with the dataveillance of our mobile devices.  While these election results come in this evening we need to understand the ways that digital technologies promulgate false consciousness without succumbing to moral panics about digital distraction and media seduction.  Although casting a vote in a polling place is supposed to be a defining moment of exercising agency instrumentally, generally by wielding a tool as we feed in a ballot to a Diebold machine, this election for me has been more like a casual game to be engaged with digitally in short bursts by providing input to sentient devices during the course of many days.  As Jesper Juul has pointed out, such games may not be fun, and casual games may involve powerful commitments, dreary labor, and the slog of routine.

Bogost has pointed out that in his essay “The Tragedy of Pokémon Go” that Pokémon Go had many less commercially successful predecessors.  In recounting the genealogy of alternate reality games, he also observes that it is a profoundly flawed game that depends on exploiting an intellectual property franchise.  In short, according to Bogost, the game “both a delightful new mechanism for urban and social discovery, and also a ghastly reminder that when it comes to culture, sequels rule.”  I was always a fan of Bogost’s mobile game Jet Set, which was about geography of airports and made light of the absurdity of security screening procedures and the place-making work of souvenir acquisition.  Critics complained that by mirroring real life it wouldn’t be fun enough to turn a profit.

Casual games, I might argue, are more about status checking than playing.  They speak to our anxieties about phatic communication and object permanence in the era of social media.  Although elections are often perceived of as one-time affairs — with online countdown clocks already ticking the seconds to the 2020 election — they may be more like what Wendy Chun has called “habitual media” in which we are updating to stay the same.