An elderly woman was walking slowly away from me in a shambling sway. She turned her head and looked at me. I was struck by her motion, and I met her eyes. I wondered if she wanted to tell me something. In my glance I took in her clothes, her way of talking, of holding herself, and looking.
With a hard start, I realised that she was not on Gunter-Strasz at all, and that I should not have seen her.
In China Miéville’sThe City & the City the cities of Besźel and UlQoma are cities with a strange attachment. The two places are intermingled; one street in Besźel and the next in UlQoma, with “crosshatched” areas where the two cities exist right on top of each other. In the crosshatch one building might be in a different city to the next, and people mingle in the streets “unseeing” their neighbours that belong somewhere else.
The book introduces us to unificationists who insist that there was no real difference, as well as nationalists of both stripes who want to annex the other side. But far more numerous than any of these are the ordinary citizens of both cities who do the work of keeping the cities separate every day, in their thousand unseeings of people and places right in front of the them, but in a foreign land.
This book works so well because of a sense that this conceit literalises something that is true of every city. There are places that are home, places that are not – and places where people walk past each other, ignoring lives that are right next door but might as well be in another country.
I bring this up because, when we talk about augmented reality games as a new way of interacting with The City, hidden inside our discussion is the idea that there is only one City to augment.
Pokemon Go in Melbourne. Image: Getty
At its most sci-fi, augmented reality can be seen in technology like Google Glass, which superimposes information over your vision to add context to the world you’re seeing. But this is just a high tech version of an old idea. A tour guide walking with you through a city’s streets is itself a form of “augmented reality”, revealing hidden histories and stories that change how you see a place. And what is a ghost tour but an AR fantasy experience, exploring a different world with different rules, hidden right beneath our own?
What makes AR games different is you can interact with this other place: your actions can change it. Niantic’s Pokémon Go is essentially a re-skin of their other game Ingress. But Ingress’ game mechanics were built around a sci-fi conspiracy story, with unseen alien intrusions into the real world, Pokémon Go has a far more appealing angle. There is a world that overlaps this one, and it’s your childhood. It’s back! In app form!
Niantic released access to a whole alternate world overnight. This action created both a distinction between players and non-players (why are all these people here and staring at their phones?), and a different set of rules on how players should interact in public spaces. And as the game requires physical presence at certain places, it brings people together in an unusual way: people walk with their phone out, a shibboleth of their membership of the new community.
Like a power cut that disrupts the normal flow of life and brings people out on the streets, Pokémon Go temporarily disrupts the idea that you don’t have things in common with these strangers. These are people who grew up to find themselves living different lives, but Pokémon Go creates a new space on top of all the different cities, based around a touchstone they all have in common.
Pokemon Go in Kuwait City. Image: Getty
But the every day world can’t be easily pushed aside with an app. In recent Pokémon games, you can set your gender and skin tone, without that setting some areas or interactions out of bounds. Dropping game rules that don’t see physical features as significant onto the real world leads to clashes between game rules and social ones. Walking back and forth on random streets looking for Pokémon might be a different experience, with real world risks, depending on the colour of your skin.
Alternatively, game rules can be manipulated for real world advantage. Players can use a lure to bring more Pokémon to an area, which in turn lures other players – great if you’re looking for people to rob.
One of things The City & the City does well is take the reader from thinking the situation is absurd – it’s all clearly one place – to believing that there is value in seeing Besźel and UlQoma as separate; that something is lost in the idea of unification. This isn’t to say that our divisions are inherently Good and Proper (which takes us quickly to “people should just know their place” and “separate but equal”): it’s simply to recognise that cities with millions of people are too big to have just one culture. The real benefit of healthy cities is constructive cross-hatching, where people exist in multiple identities at once.
Pokémon Go might not change break down social rules, or last longer than a year – but augmented reality, where people can share the same experience of a different place, will have an impact on the cities of the future. Whether this is a good thing or not will likely depend on the audience size. Will these new realities bring people together, or make the world more insular? What kind of cross-hatching does your app create?