Pokemon Go, healthcare, and the usurpation of real life



Recently, I ventured with some family members to a Dolly Parton sponsored show in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee. The show, which is about “lumberjack” communities, is an entertaining depiction of life in a lumberjack camp in the Appalachian mountains at the turn of the 20th century. There was a point in the show where an elderly character (played by a relatively young man) makes a joke about working in the moonshine industry. He states that he notices how they must race cars to escape officers from local police departments and the IRS. He pauses, then suggests that there may be a future in “car racing”. He then breaks into a joke: “No, I don’t think car racing is going anywhere…I have another idea…the personal telegraph machine…I can send and receive messages…and play pokemon.” He was referring to the recently released Pokemon Go.

For the audience, this was hilarious. The current national conversation about the game Pokemon Go threaded its way into a family show about life 100 years (or so) ago. However, what I find interesting is the ease with which the history of material realities like car racing, moonshining, and lumberjacking were quickly and humorously taken over (usurped) by the jarring effects of virtual reality.

Indeed, during time spent with younger family members this summer, it became obvious that the virtual and the “real” tussle with one another. It just so happens that Pokemon Go takes humans into physical spaces where they run into real things. Take, for example, children who have discovered dead bodies on their Pokemon adventures. Or, in many other cases, consider how the chasing requirements of Pokemon Go result in twisted ankles and falls off cliffs (yes, that happened!). Young Americans have chimed in to discuss how Pokemon Go opens up or furthers critical conversations. Consider the description of Pokemon Go as a “death sentence” to the young Black male who may be playing it. I would venture to say that the more we enter into the virtual – or, the more it is able to entertain us and guide our physical bodies – the more we bring the nuances of instiutionalized prejudices and oppression into the fore.

This is occurring on a world stage where we face additional types of encroachment beyond people playing Pokemon GO. The entity that is “ISIS” has caused great panic. Recently, at the homecoming of the Lumbee Indian Tribe (my tribal community) rumors circulated wildly that ISIS planned to bomb our events. A few of my family members were quite afraid.

We were also recently engaged in a national conversation about bathroom use in North Carolina. (I asked someone just the other day if Pokemon Go would take a boy in the girls bathroom or visa-versa. They looked at me like a deer looking into headlights.)

I would make an argument as an anthropologist of healing that what we attempt to repair – that is, what we place resources toward in order to fix particular conditions on some type of community scale – becomes reality. Virtual reality doesn’t “trap” many of us, to address the argument of fellow anthropologist Nick Weaver. It seems more accurate to say that many of us are tussling with virtual reality as we are simultaneously trapped by intergenerational conversations, debates over civil policies (e.g. bathrooms), and the very nature of institutionalized racism that has always left people of color “trapped” inside their bodies.  (Read Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks).

At this point, I will speak to my own experiences playing online games. My wife teases me a bit because I joined other family members this summer on “the farm”. I began playing Hay Day, which is a virtual farming experience. You feed livestock. You gather milk. You send goods to local buyers. You help local townspeople.

Many lumbee elders grew up farming. So, when they heard game noises (e.g. cows mooing, the noise of our delivery drug, etc.) they would often state that we were “farming on (our) phones”. While such farming has helped relax our minds – my cousin stated that playing Hay Day is like “getting away” – I have noted how the game is a mechanism of social interaction and a medium through which particular histories and cultural affinities are expressed.

In Hay Day, you can look at other farms. These farms are virtually owned by people all over the world. Their names are in English, Arabic, Spanish, and many other languages. Their crops are arranged to spell out their names or words that are meaningful to them. Some people proactively “welcome” people by writing the word in blackberry or nectar bushes.

Importantly, a lot of this is happening within the lives of people who are working “9 to 5” jobs. To do exceptionally well at the game, you have to consistently tend to your farm. I was especially motivated to write this blog post after a conversation with a family member who stated that her hospital put official sanctions on employees in regard to their playing Hay Day on hospital computers. She stated quite adamantly that healthcare workers (including nurses and pharmacy workers), medical billers, and other employees of the hospital would spend countless hours playing Hay Day during the work week. The hospital threatened to fired employees who played Hay Day on hospital owned computers.

If we consider how human tribal standards like dating/courting have been threatened by conditions such as catfishing, it is important that we contextualize our fight to open up the quagmires of virtual reality. First of all, we (the super collective “we”) are creating the atmosphere for individuals to be able to easily escape into the virtual. (Take, for example, the mission of some people at MIT to get a computer in every child’s hand in Africa.) Secondarily, there is a sense of contentment that comes from acting in the virtual that seems to directly contradict (or, possibly, “alleviate”) the conditions of real life. Online gambling, pornography, and other spaces of psychological relief are quite accessible. A recent scandal that broke out involved the use of the website Ashley Madison by many famous men in the United States.

Virtual access is also creating scandal within healthcare. Hospitals like Brigham and Women’s hospital have chosen to blog about patient care mishaps. Whether this was an ethical choice or a decision made in reaction to signs of changing times, B&W felt like they could no longer keep mistakes and errors under wraps.

Indeed, if we consider the risks of maintaining technology in healthcare, we cannot merely focus on how particular devices help patient care (which is the typical conversation in the healthcare world). We ought to also look at the homeostasis of healthcare workers who may one day chase some of the Pokemon creatures (or whatever the prey is in some other game) into patient rooms. Reality is our fight over the sacred. Within healthcare – as within American policing – the sight given to us by technology (and the ability to share captured images virtually) has only reemphasized very grounded realities. In terms of finding dead bodies or blogging about medical error, the important stuff is not the virtual. The virtual is merely a mirror to what is important. Although, at times, it may seem like a house of mirrors.