World of Digital Spirits: How Pokémon GO Haunted the Planet With Online Ghosts

A World of Digital Spirits: How Pokémon GO Has Haunted the Planet With Online Ghosts

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It’s nearly midnight, and I’m on campus at a University in Colorado, preparing for the arrival of campers for a yearly two week summer camp I work at each year. It’s a place where spontaneous conversations about the nature of the universe aren’t uncommon. It’s a place where all things nerdy and different are celebrated. And it’s a place where this new Pokémon GO phenomena is sweeping through the staff as we wrap up our training week.

Though I’m a Millennial, I’m not a big Pokémon guy. Nor am I a big mobile-gamer. Directing the night side of a summer camp takes up too much time right now anyway. But, with the release of Pokémon GO today, crashing servers and sweeping the world, I couldn’t help but have a moment of awe regarding the game.

See, if you’re not familiar with it, Pokémon GO is an interactive game for your smart phone, which uses your GPS location and camera to insert Pokemon into your environment for capture, and scatters objects and creatures around, well, the world.

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You play by studying a GPS map overview that informs you where nearby Pokémon are before you get close, and then switches to camera mode, which overlays the Pokemon onto your environment, and you capture it with a swipe of the thumb. The game apparently expands into something about gyms and battles, some kind of contest between red and blue teams, and by all appearances it seems HIGHLY addictive.

No, really.

As I’m sitting here in the common room of a campus residence hall, my staff members are running in and out, shouting things like, “Chuck caught a Dratini that was in a mirror!” Earlier, as I stood outside chatting, eight staff members went speed-walking toward the far side of campus hoping to catch an Abra. Two minutes later, a local couple wandered up the sidewalk beside us, staring at their phones. “You playing Pokémon?” our staff member Jake asked. “Yep,” they answered, laughing.

Clearly the game is a massive success. It comes from a mobile game development company, Niantic Inc., who was behind the hit augmented reality game Ingress, which briefly came across my radar when it hit iOS in 2014. What I’d heard of the game sounded fascinating, combining real world visuals and references with the purpose of a Massively Multi-player Role Playing Game. It’s like Warcraft in the real world.

Ingress didn’t seem to last long in the public consciousness, at least as far as I was aware. But today’s release of Pokemon GO seems to have utterly re-invigorated the novelty by calling on Millennial nostalgia and deeply clever technology.

My two assistant administrators just walked in.

“The energy around here is wild tonight!”

“I know,” Jenna says. “That group earlier was such — OH! ” She looks at her phone. “The grass is puffing!”

It’s like I’m in a zombie movie. My trusted administrators have now been infected too. Soon I’ll be Legend.

But what stopped me in my tracks earlier this afternoon, upon first hearing of the game, was the astounding similarities to paranormal investigation.

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While it’s true we still don’t know what a “ghost” may be, one of the frameworks suggests that they’re a spiritual being existing in space around us, just beyond science’s careful gaze, all but invisible to most of our senses and detection tools. Paranormal investigators run around with EMF detectors in the dark, hoping for some sign of their “spiritual Pokémon” (if you will), moving from room to room on a mission to capture them… Well, at least on film.

The comparison here being that we’ve just created an entire world in the air around us. Due to their connection in the cloud, each person’s phone recognizes the same creatures existing objectively in the air around us, and the only way we can interact with these things is via a piece of technology: here, a smartphone.

We can’t photograph these things. We can’t hear them or glimpse them. But with the right tools — tools that reach BEYOND our five senses, we are able to see them and interact with them.

What sense would this be creating? Our sense of sight obviously recognizes the screen. But, considering the phone as an extension of ourselves and our awareness of the world around us, we now have what we could call a kind of Digital Sense. An Internet Sense? Binary Sense? A sense of the cloud?

And this sense, this extension of our awareness via our smartphones, makes us now AWARE of an entire world that is existing side-by-side at all times. A world that I have no direct awareness of because I’m not extending my senses into that realm (in other words… I’m not planning on downloading the app).

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How is this invisible world any less real than the world of EMF waves pulsing invisibly all around us? Certainly the game doesn’t physically interact with the world around us. We feel no effects of it. These Pokémon can’t touch us.

And certainly there’s no consciousness… yet. Artificial Intelligence isn’t yet sentient or self-aware. And it would seem that on some level, ghosts are indeed conscious and aware of themselves and those around them. And ghosts do seem to at the very least manifest physically, or interact in a way that can directly effect the physical environment.

So don’t get me wrong. I’m not losing my mind because I believe we’ve just created “ghosts”.

But we’ve just created Digital Ghosts, and they’re now all around us, completely unbeknownst to we who aren’t “tapped in.”

“Karl, there’s a Zubat on your head right now,” another counselor, Jace, says dryly, grinning at his phone screen. He captures it with a swipe of his thumb.

“There is a Rattata…. on my pocket,” Another counselor, Aaron, says matter-of-factly from where he’s sprawled out on a nearby couch.

In many ways, this to me is ground-breaking. Put it in whatever digital context you like. Another step toward more immersive mobile gaming. Another step toward virtual reality, existing solely in the worlds we create. Another step toward something like Tad Williams’ Otherland or even the now cliché The Matrix.

But this to me only serves to reframe our entire perspective of what is around us. Are we simulations in a computer construct, running through scenarios again and again, studied by some god or god-like machine? Have we taken the first step toward running our own invisible simulations in the world around us?

There are hundreds of people running around campus playing this game right now. Aaron notes twenty people he saw on West Campus. Jenna notes a pack of fifteen she saw ten minutes ago exclaiming “Someone just dropped an Incense at the Garden Theater!”

It’s like the most adorable horror movie I’ve ever seen.

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Now, the first level that I gauge whether a paranormal experience is genuine is via validation. An experience had by only one person is questionable. Was it a hallucination? A misunderstanding? A trick of the eye? But when two people witness the same thing, it suggests that the experience was something objective, something existing physically in the world that was witnessed by two people. Science, in the end, is a process of refining objectivity, of peeling away layer after layer, while testing again and again, searching for inconsistencies in their observations.

If we’re talking about an entire world, all around us, teeming with creatures invisible to the naked eye that can be witnessed and validated objectively by two or more people at once…

I mean, for all intents and purposes, have we not just created a world of Digital Spirits?

“It’s 12:30… I need to go to bed, but I might play for just a bit more.” Aaron mutters to his phone while the sound of quick footsteps and excited laughter floats through the open window.


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7 Comments

  1. julina

    07/09/2016 at 3:35 AM

    thats creepy how people came running to your area, what if some one was so busy chasing they ran into the wrong side of town and got shot for being on some gang turf. this might be dangerous.

  2. Drake

    07/09/2016 at 1:46 PM

    Like all good things, it’s only dangerous if you’re irresponsible or stupid with it. Chalk it up to other things that are dangerous if unmediated: sex, eating, sports, driving, playing MMOs for hours without moving… Most things we do have opportunity for negative consequences, and most of them only ever hit that point if we, as sentient beings, allow them to.

  3. Dan W

    07/10/2016 at 8:14 AM

    There is a similar type of game that uses ghosts. Called “SpecTrek”. I think more people that are interested in Paranormal would play that game.

    • Liam

      07/24/2016 at 5:49 PM

      the graphics on that are terrible. Only one kind of ghost and its a classic bed sheet one. Shame as the concept looked fun.

      Night Terrors looks like a it could be a good one, but its not out till next year or so.

  4. jim

    07/12/2016 at 2:17 AM

    I think it’s a great idea to get people moving. for years we have been presented with universes far beyond our own in screens and TVs. now we can actually see a more fascinating world and we can do it while free ranging. 😀

  5. lacey

    07/18/2016 at 12:55 PM

    What I’ve learned from both activities:

    Walking around museums, old buildings, parks, cemeteries looking for pokemon = trendy, go-getting, active, fun, inspiring. Minimal judgy looks from non-participating bystanders.

    Walking around museums, old buildings, parks, cemeteries looking for ghosts = stupid, waste of time, weird, delusional, “what is wrong with you”, ridiculous. Lots of WTF type looks from non-participating bystanders & even your non-ghost hunting companions try to distance themselves from you.

    Solution = Look for ghosts but mutter the word “Pikachu” from time to time just so people think you are looking for pokemon. Or do both at the same time.

    • Liam

      07/24/2016 at 5:52 PM

      Sadly the phones wifi mucks with my em meter, so no both at once for me.

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