When Auschwitz Becomes a Poké Stop

A Pokemon seen at the Auschwitz museum

Last week we watched death on our smartphones. We witnessed the light drain out of Philando Castile’s eyes and we knew that the stillness of Alton Sterling’s body after the bullets were fired was that of death. We watched. On smartphones and tablets and laptops and televisions, we watched real people die.

As Luvvie Ajayi has written, these images and videos “desensitize us to black death” and numb us to the violence done against black bodies—a powerful truth that collides with questions about death and how to treat it reverently in this digital age.

This week, instead of watching people die, we are playing Pokémon Go. In just a few days, the game has more users than Twitter, has crashed servers, and sent Nintendo’s stock soaring.

And we don’t need to read about the phenomenon, we can see it in real life. Millions of people are walking around, on sidewalks and in parks, in cities and small towns, trying to “catch” Pokémon who are visible in the “real” physical environment of the player, as mediated through the phone’s camera. As one player told a reporter: “This is full on escapism, where I’m like ‘let me just go catch some Pokémon and ignore the news.’”

What news is she talking about? The murders of Sterling and Castile and the Dallas police officers. She is referring to the news of death. But in a matter of days Pokemon Go has changed our relationship with death.

This is new territory.

For years now we have been able to escape our physical spaces with our phones. But Pokémon Go doesn’t just allow us to avoid a “real” place in favor of a “virtual” one. It has instead transformed our real spaces into virtual ones. It may have been bad manners to play video games at a cemetery, or to take a selfie at a funeral, but with Pokémon, the funeral, the cemetery, and now even the Holocaust memorial and 9/11 memorial, have become the game.

Pokémon is new because it transforms real places—cemeteries, museums, and hospitals—into diversion. This is deeply different from diverting yourself from a place or a situation by playing a game or checking Twitter.

Transforming a sacred or holy place into a diversion and a meaningless recreational activity is more than “inappropriate,” as the Holocaust Museum’s communication director Andrew Hollinger claims.

If I were to play Candy Crush at the Holocaust museum one could argue that I was simply avoiding, however inappropriately, what is there to be witnessed. But if I change the place itself into a game I have done something else entirely. This is not “escapism” as we think of it because Pokémon Go doesn’t actually encourage escape, it facilitates transformation. Even “irreverence” does not describe this new way of being in the world—because we can’t be irreverent in the presence of something that is no longer real.