The Iliadic Nature of Pokemon Go!

When one thinks of Pokemon Go, Niantic’s new mobile-based augmented reality video game, one’s logical next thought is unlikely about Homer’s Iliad. And why would it be? One is a brand new iteration of a twenty year old franchise, catching on like wildfire, and another is a nearly three thousand year old epic poem. Even the wildest flights of fancy would have trouble bridging the language, location, medium, and message gap between the new and old, or would they?

What makes Pokemon Go novel is its tromp into the new ground of augmented reality. Rather than game-play experience being the usual withering on a coach, drinking and eating whatever sugary junk keeps one cognizant enough to play, while one’s body effectively fattens or fades in the service of strengthening a virtual avatar, Pokemon Go offers players the chance to explore their own real world settings and local venues by offering added incentive to get off the couch and out of the house by making Pokemon appear “in the wild” outside one’s house. So if one wants new items and new Pokemon, a player must (unless he or she has incense), leave the comfort of his or her home, use his or her legs, and travel about like a “real” Pokemon trainer in order to improve his or her standing in the game. Does this still not sound like the earth-shattering conflict between Achilleus and Agamemnon, nor the tragic fates of Patroklos and Hektor? Well, let us draw the connection tighter, then.

It is precisely the augmented reality function of Pokemon Go which makes it so similar to the Iliadic world. You see, while playing Pokemon Go, the player is still moving throughout the actual world, while catching, trading, and fighting Pokemon, on location through the medium of one’s cellular device. This essential feature, of augmentation, is what connects the world of Pokemon to the world of Homer. For in Homer’s Iliad, it is not Pokemon which exist within the augmented reality he constructs, but the gods. In fact, in Book V, Diomedes is given the ability to see and attack the gods (imagine he is given an i-phone to look through), just as one’s cellular device allows one to fight all manners of divine animals, Pokemon, in one’s otherwise mundane world. It is precisely the excitement of living amidst the unseen, the inscrutable, and the otherwise occult, or hidden, natures of creatures or gods, which makes this game so addictive and interesting, and also so similar to what adds grandeur and scope to Homer’s Iliad.

Without the maneuvering and machinations of the gods, one is left with the impotent and flat Troy, universally derided for stripping to majesty from our primeval epic. Without augmented reality, and the novelty of moving through our normal world while finding that which has never been there and yet always has, Pokemon has hit on both an ancient and truly novel concept. It has brought the notion that there exists within our world that which is worth seeing, precisely because it is not of this world, back to life.

Now a common joke now shared through memes is that Pokemon Go has achieved in mere days what Michele Obama did not accomplish in eight years in the White House:

This meme is of course unfair, but the point it makes is worthy of expansion: this simple video game can, in becoming viral overnight, affect the habits and beliefs of an entire generation of people. On the one hand, this may simply be due to good marketing or a strong platform, but on the other, it may be the result of something which has been true in America for a long time: there is a vacancy in the spiritual life of Americans which allows for them to want and support any attempt to augment reality by adding a deeper level of connection to the world. This function was once served by the Christian faith, but in this time, fewer and fewer Americans find themselves faithful and fulfilled by such dogma, especially younger millennials.

Elsewhere, I have written that there is evidence of this spiritual desire and questing in today’s education. So, today when you boot up your Pokemon Go application, and go out into the world seeking that which both is and is not, remember that you are not simply seeking higher experience and a larger Pokedex, you are seeking the meaningful mythical and religious experience which neither religion nor education, in their current forms, have the power to sate you with.