Pokemon Go and the role of Third Places in Neighborhoods
When I started playing Pokemon Go, I found myself planning little road trips around the area that didn’t involve freeways. Instead of driving to Shaker Heights at a set time for an event, for instance, I would drive from University Circle, to Shaker, to Bedford, to Hudson, to Tallmadge, to North Canton in a day to hit various parks and local landmarks that were rumored to spawn specific monsters. The next weekend, I’d make a similar trek from Lakewood to Massilion by way of Strongsville, Medina, and Wadsworth. Combing through the area in these new patterns showed me how all these places I had been to from either Akron or Cleveland connected to each other without us. I still tingle thinking about a phone game connecting me to my own home in such a real way.
The not-so-sneaky goal of Pokemon Go is to draw nerds out into the civic commons by incentivizing visits to places of cultural import, or Third Places. Your home is a First Place, your school or workplace is a Second Place. All other places are Third Places, and they have two distinct categories: places where you are being sold a thing, and places where you are allowed to simply exist.
Third Places are something we talk about at the library often because Third Places are the hubs for community interaction. It’s where you encounter strangers who live near by. Libraries, churches, post offices, public sculptures, parks, and graveyards are dispersed remarkably evenly throughout cities, suburbs, rural communities, and residential neighborhoods alike. When I'm driving from one town's library to the next, I find myself traveling not across freeways but Main Streets, through town squares and the heart of communities. I experience these towns as they were designed to be encountered. And the pattern still amazes me.
These places exist where they do by design, and I couldn’t see it until I started seeing them in aggregate and of my own volition. In a pre-internet world, if you could find one of these Third Places, you could orient yourself to the town. And you could meet people who live there. Niantic recognized that those civic haven Third Places have traditionally been essential to the fabric of a community, and so they designed the game to get players to get to them and linger there.
Pokemon Go also brought my attention to another phenomenon of community building: existing in that space for a period of time, or, loitering. In order to collect the monsters and fight in gyms, you need to spend roughly 30-120 seconds in a place. This probably sounds like a remarkably small amount of time, but try walking to your nearest church parking lot and standing there for a full minute. This is something humans in 2019 America do not do unless they are arriving at or leaving that church.
The act of waiting around in random places could sometimes feel awkward, and sometimes feel dangerous. But, because of the game, I would often encounter other similarly awkward people, fellow fish out of water, and we would make eye contact, nervously ask if the other was playing Pokemon, and form the small, temporary connections that used to be a hallmark of humans in a society.
Meeting new people is something we don’t do as a society as much anymore. We don’t trust each other. When we find ourselves around strangers, we find anything else in the room or our pockets and of course especially our phones to fixate on and barricade ourselves behind. And so if a person pauses in an unusual location, in some places that might pique curiosity. In others that might ring alarm bells.
I’m reminded of the Netflix documentary Flint Town, which follows police officers in Flint, MI trying to do a hard job with no funding in an era when the ethics of policing is being called into question. At one point they break up a group of black men hanging out outside a store. It’s an ongoing battle the cops are having with the shop owner, who has no problem with the men hanging out there. Fresh off my own stint of loitering, I was very aware of the stark contrast to the reception a young white woman gets standing around in public, which tends to be lots of attention, often helpful (“Are you lost?” was common, probably because I looked lost), sometimes not. But always a notable lack of suspicion that my lingering was problematic in some way.
Regardless, in all circumstances, remaining in a place without an urgent, physically apparent objective always, always leads to conversation when other people are around. Existing in a space with others is a way for community to grow, breaking it up displaces that community. Between technology and politics, there is a lot of community brokenness going around. But Pokemon Go remains a very positive gaming experience for me, because it forced me to grow and connect to my physical world, which is no small feat from a phone game.