“The City & the City & the Squirtle”: What can China Miéville teach us about Pokemon Go?

Pokemon Go outside the White House. Image: Getty.

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?

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.