Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
"The game is her element, as the air is that of Pidgey and the water of Squirtle."
In the augmented-reality smartphone app Pokémon Go, players journey from their homes to search for virtual Pokémon and assorted venues of play tagged to locations in the real world. With an estimated 7.5 million U.S. downloads since its July 6 release, the game is a bonafide craze.
This has created a new class of urban explorers, roaming busy streets and sidewalks—where there's more density, there's more game action—with phones in hand, occasionally lifting their eyes to register actual surroundings. Sometimes this leads to pleasant real-world discoveries; perhaps a "Pokéstop" is tagged to a local landmark or building that went previously unappreciated. Other times the game leads to dead bodies and the arms of robbers. (Yes, all while collecting reams of personal data.)
For better or for worse, the Pokémon Go player is a new kind of flâneur—that French literary term for those who stroll city streets with no aim but to gather observations and ideas. With that, we took inspiration from a famous passage in Charles Baudelaire's 1863 essay, “The Painter of Modern Life”—which vividly defined and glorified the flâneur’s walks and musings—and from famous artworks of the same period to give an impression of this para-virtual wanderer. To borrow from the game's term for coaching Pokémon for battle, we present le traîneur:
The game is her element, as the air is that of Pidgey and the water of Squirtle. Her passion and her distraction are to become one flesh with the game. For the perfect traîneur, for the passionate Pokémon catcher, it is an immense joy to encounter a Charmander in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of moving cars and crosswalk lights, in the midst of lure modules and gyms.
To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world of PokéStops, to be at the center of a world of PokéStops, with flashes of appreciation for physical surroundings—such are a few of the slightest pleasures which collecting extra balls, while avoiding pedestrian collisions, summon forth.
The traîneur is a princess who everywhere rejoices in newfound motivation to move her feet. The lover of the game has the whole world mapped before her, who turns the corner to collect a Jigglypuff and discovers a weird pizza-themed mural she somehow never noticed before.
Thus the lover of augmented reality enters into the game as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy (because it is, that’s how her phone works). Or we might liken her to a mirror as vast as the game itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with good throws, responding to each Pokémon and reproducing the multiplicity of real life and the flickering grace of all the elements of her phone.
Traîneurs, CityLab salutes you. Go forth and make Baudelaire proud, and stick to public spaces.