A recent study from The Urban Institute finds that Pokémon GO is causing some serious racial tensions in Washington, D.C. due to its clear bias towards primarily white neighborhoods. The study has ignited a roaring fire online, and it looks like it may result in a serious rift among Pokémon GO‘s user base.
— True Pundit (@true_pundit) July 27, 2016
It’s quite unlikely any reader is not familiar with the basic idea of Pokémon GO, as it has been constantly present in the news for the past few weeks. Just in case, though, here is the gist: players use the free app, which is connected via internet to a GPS, to find Pokémon, Pokécenters, and other digital landmarks at points located on the map. They must actually walk to the real-world points to access the landmarks, something detected by the GPS.
Because of the community exploration and social interaction aspects of Pokémon GO, it has been praised by many as a revolution in mobile gaming that brings together people with a similar interest from different walks of life. In fact, uniting a diverse spectrum of Pokémon-lovers has always been one of The Pokémon Company’s driving mantras.
Pokémon GO‘s goal of uniting people from different backgrounds is certainly a noble one, but it apparently does not apply to racial lines — at least, not in the case of Washington, D.C.
The study, which is profiled in a piece by the Washington Post, finds that there are generally about 60 Pokémon GO landmarks in an average predominantly white D.C. neighborhood, while there are only about 25 in a predominantly black neighborhood.
To be fair, these numbers may not be exact, since Pokémon GO has not actually released its geographic data to the public yet. However, Ingress, another game by Niantic, Pokémon GO‘s developer, that uses the same real-world GPS-based landmarks idea, has released its geographical data, and Pokémon GO‘s geographical data was taken from Ingress. So, using the locations of the Ingress portals, The Urban Institute can make very educated guesses where the Pokémon GO landmarks can be found.
— Urban Institute (@urbaninstitute) August 2, 2016
The article goes on that the app’s obvious racial divides represent a missed opportunity by The Pokemon Company to associate itself with the bridging of race and class gaps. The scarcity of Pokémon GO content in some lower-income areas even prevents some potential players from being able to join in on Pokémon GO altogether, a fact many critics have pointed out with distaste.
“We see Pokémon GO as a way for everyone in the city to engage in space and make the public space together,” explains Shiva Kooragayala, one of the co-authors of the Urban Institute study.
“In a city like D.C., where it so segregated and there are not many organic ways for people from different neighborhoods to interact, Pokémon GO is a way to have people from these different neighborhoods come together.”
Washington, D.C. is not the only big city in which the Pokémon GO racial divide has been taking its toll, either; Rise News contributor Courtney Anderson recently published a long article detailing the many ways Pokémon GO seems to be racist in Memphis, Tennessee.
Anderson notes that Pokémon GO‘s Pokéstops and even the Pokémon themselves are located in the areas of town where the roads are better and where the shops are clustered more closely together, two traits much more common to white neighborhoods than black ones in most cities.
— Pokémon Go Reddit (@GoReddit) July 27, 2016
Dover Post argues that Pokémon GO has served as a welcome breath of fresh air during a Summer when racial tension seems to be dividing the media and communities across America.
As Anderson writes, though, maybe Pokémon GO is drawing more attention to the issue instead — not necessarily a bad thing.
“Even something as frivolous as Pokémon GO can reflect racism and other inequalities,” she warns.
[Image via iStock]