Pokemon Go: Augmenting Reality, Transcendence, and Dragon Doors
Chances are you’ve heard quite a bit about Pokémon Go lately. There have been safety concerns, bizarre findings, and lots of people moving around in odd ways.
So what is it?
Pokémon Go is a game that uses a GPS signal of a smartphone, along with the camera and display to bring a video game a little closer to the reality.
By using the phone’s GPS information, users can view specific locations in the real world through the camera and display of their smartphones. The game then overlays a video game creature on the phone’s display. The result is an image that makes it appear as if the game characters are inhabiting the real world.
This is a style of gaming called “augmented reality.”
Pokémon Go isn’t the first game to use real world movement to capture new characters. Some have used real world wifi signals. Others have used simpler means like a camera that detects colors. Decades ago there were even games that created monsters from player’s CD collections.
Pokémon Go also isn’t the first game to use “augmented reality.” Years ago a video game promised to project fictional pets on living room floors. While Pokémon Go isn’t the first game to use real-world information to augment reality, it’s certainly made a big splash.
So what do we do with this information in ministry? I think there are two opposite responses worth considering.
First, it’s important to recognize that as humans we have a yearning for something that reaches beyond the world we experience. We always have.
Theologians call this “transcendence.” Don McKim, the author of the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, defines “transcendent” as “that which stands beyond all limits of human experience.” He quickly adds that Christians often use this word to describe God.
As humans, we hope, we suspect, we believe that there is something deeper than the world we can see and touch and taste. We have a fascination with the strange and bizarre. There’s something deeply human and healthy about it. In fact, churches have used art in similar ways for centuries. Just consider the symbols of the four evangelists.
Pokémon Go is one way we take that deep yearning and let it out to play. It’s a way to give expression to the longing for transcendence through silliness and fun.
Perhaps, as we consider ministry in a world with Pokémon Go, it may be helpful to recognize the yearning for transcendence, and allow people to express it in deeper ways.
Second, it’s important to realize that we often fail to see how bizarre reality can be. G. K. Chesterton, with his typical penchant for quotability, mused that “A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”
His point was that in childhood, we recognize how amazing the world can be. There is no need to augment reality–reality itself is fascinating.
At its best, a game like Pokémon Go can help us recapture some of the fascination with the world around us.
The downside, of course, is that augmented reality games do put dragons behind doors. At their worst, they cause us to miss out on the excitement of reality.
Pokémon Go doesn’t just give church leaders something to think about; it also gives them something to do. Consider this: Pokémon Go may actually bring new people to your church since tons of churches are locations for the game. Wondering how you can reach these potential visitors? Check out the “Church Marketing Sucks” blog post on the topic.
Perhaps in a world of augmented reality, we can strive to help people to see the wonder of reality itself. We can encourage others to see the wonder of doors and trees and clouds, whether or not there are cartoon dragons behind them.
The Rev. Derek Davenport ’05 is director of enrollment at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and program co-director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute. Derek is also a PTS alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program after which he served at a church in Orlando, Fla., for five years. Besides working with prospective students, he serves as a guest preacher in Western Pennsylvania, researches church symbolism on his website, and tweets at @DerekRDavenport.