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Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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The radical urbanism of Pokémon Go

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The radical urbanism of Pokémon Go

Paragonah, Utah—population: 470—is not exactly a walking destination. This despite the fact that you can cover its 0.6 square miles quite efficiently. But here’s an interesting fact about Paragonah, a place you likely had never heard of before: its street grid is virtually identical to Chicago’s. Sure, Chicago’s grid covers a greater swath of territory, but both cities are built from 400-square-foot grids.

Paragonah, Utah, as viewed from Google Earth
Paragonah, Utah, as viewed from Google Earth

Grids, the city planner Paul Knight notes, aren’t just for cities; they “can be ghost towns, farms, or suburbs.” If the streetscape can be the same in a lively spot and the deadest of ghost towns, something other than the geometric pattern must explain the difference between these environments. Why, in other words, is Paragonah a far less desirable walking destination than Chicago?

Here’s a theory: An interesting pedestrian environment is created by the tension between various elements occupying the same environment. In Paris, for instance, Haussmann’s grand boulevard model of urbanism coexists with the small streets it sought to destroy and more recent attempts at (mildly) vertical development. Even a stricter grid, like New York’s, can contain tensions between different impulses and ideas about city building. Aggressively-planned communities, on the other hand, cannot overcome monotony in this manner.

And here’s a theory about Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game that appears to currently be all the rage in North America and Europe: Its popularity stems in large part because it superimposes another layer of intrigue onto the streetscape. To the various tensions embodied in a city, add the reinterpretations of space that Pokémon Go conjures. The game may be a synonym for going outside—there’s even a Google Chrome extension about that—but the way it changes the occasionally great outdoors is worthy of consideration.

most of this tension is inherent to Pokémon Go

Writing at CityLab, Laura Bliss compares the Pokémon Go phenomenon to Baudelaire’s idea of a flâneur: “that French literary term for those who stroll city streets with no aim but to gather observations and ideas.” There is plenty of truth in this insofar as Pokémon Go does create its own form of pedestrian culture. But Baudelaire’s flâneur is a more passive participant. “For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and infinite,” he wrote. “To be away from home and yet feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can clumsily define.” The flâneur is the man who isn’t really there; the Pokémon Go player, on the other hand, gradually reshapes the environment.

The tensions between how spaces were once intended to be used and how they are used in Pokémon Go is what makes the game interesting, but it also what creates some of its more unfortunate moments. Trying to catch Pokémon in the US Holocaust Museum, to pick but one example, is in poor taste. (Think of it as the spiritual successor to the Anne Frank House sequence in 2014’s The Fault In Our Stars.) While the most extreme of these discordant moments can probably be engineered away, most of this tension is inherent to Pokémon Go. A version of the game that didn’t increase the discordance between different layers of the urban milieu would create a sterile environment, a larger-scale Paragonah. The game’s real contribution to urban life is the addition of another layer of meaning and ideas to already complex places. That is an inherently messy process, but it is what separates the Chicagos of this world from the Paragonahs.

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