Madeline Nowicki: A civics lesson from Pokemon Go

Wednesday, July 27, 2016 - 6:35pm

This is not another think piece about Pokemon Go. But it’s kind of crazy how Pokemon Go took over the mobile (and augmented reality) world over the past few weeks. Perhaps this is the political science minor in me, but the first thing I thought about as I played the game (besides what a lure module does) was how I was visiting, for the very first time, community centers, public buildings, city halls, courthouses and libraries in my community and the surrounding areas — many of which I never knew existed.

By this point in 2016, there’s quite a lot of political fatigue. The Republican nominee is a certified racist, misogynist and xenophobe with a frighteningly cultish fan-base, whose outright lack of public policy experience and violently unbridled temperament somehow propels him forward at every turn. The Democratic nominee should be one of historic allure, a symbol for gender parity and expert policy negotiations, but who is quelled piecemeal by her very own history, a potpourri of errant decisions and, of course, the enduring twilight of sexism. And this is all without mentioning the nearly weekly travesties that continue to devastate communities from Nice to Baton Rouge to Orlando to Dallas. The political climate is, for many, exhausting.

And yet, here we are. We are running around unabashedly. Outdoors. Frequenting public spaces where local politics — perhaps the most practically impactful form of government — is practiced. Pokemon Go has brought us away from the lugubrious state of national politics and instead directed us, by way of Eevees and Bulbasaurs, to the steady centers of our cities. There lies an immense opportunity here for public engagement at a scale we have not yet experienced.

Ideally, the political system should be, in Lincoln’s seminal words, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” But when more than 80 percent of eligible voters fail to participate in local elections, the system breaks. We can see how broken it is every day on the news at a federal level. We can see how broken it is every day when state budget mismanagement leads to a horrific endemic. We can see how broken it is every day when living, breathing children come second to greed, corruption and making up the bottom line. And yet, still voters do not exercise their hard-fought right of participation.

What if games like Pokemon Go could change this? Millennials longing for nostalgic fun are being exposed to public places of organizing and change — what if there were augmented reality rewards (whether in Poké-form or through another innovation) for actually taking the next step and shaping that change. What if voter education and information was not done just by dreaded phone banking and door-to-door canvassing but was something people were incentivized to do? What if you saw a Vulpix near your polling place, and then were motivated to register to vote? What if, during your quest for a set of Pokéballs, you were greeted by some milestones about how to participate in city council meetings? How much more engagement could we get?

I don’t think Pokemon is the necessarily avenue we should take to pursue civic engagement. It’s fun, it’s a game and it needs to remain fun to retain its user base and value — that’s just how capitalism works. Pokemon Go is just an initial dose of augmented reality in the mobile tech world. Games like this have massive potential to catalyze our catatonic (and frankly, shameful) public participation rates. And maybe once that happens, we won’t see such a broken system each and every day. Maybe then, finally, we can have a body of organizers, participants and voters who ascend the ranks of politics for a politics of, for and by the real people.

Madeline Nowicki can be reached at nowickim@umich.edu