This is a guest contribution by Kamila Soh, who holds a Masters in Architecture from the University of Western Australia and currently works in interior design and administration. Her keen, theologically inflected aesthetic sense deserves a wide reading. May this be the first of many posts from her.
The French philosopher Simone Weil said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” It is our primary means of connection, which leads to astonishment at both the goodness and affliction in our world.
If there is anything Pokémon Go has done, it has certainly gripped our attention.
By using augmented reality, the game has become a means of re-enchanting civic space. Unlike the old-school games that was limited to the realm of game console, Pokémon Go encourages users to go outdoors, navigating points of interest within our urban environment to search for digital critters.
Even if you have not gotten hooked to the game, there is no avoiding the social phenomena it has created in places once familiar. From the odd lone ranger walking along our usually quiet streets at night, to the hoards of crowds gathering in our favourite parks– there is no denying that the game has captured and entranced its catchers.
But there are also the darker elements of its technological impact that seeks to divert our attention away from reality. For while it does lead to discovery and a sense of community, there are dangers of viewing these things not as valuable in themselves but as means to an end. An example of this would be the trivialization of sacred spaces, rendering them as instruments for our consumption.
Take for instance, the influx of people who now flock to Kings Park, since it became a major Pokémon hotspot. Home to the breathtaking war memorial overlooking the city, there are also over 1600 plaques decorating trees that have been planted to honour wartime individuals along the park’s Honour avenues. However, as of late these avenues have become frequented for a different reason, as they are now littered with designated pokéstops to obtain pokéballs, potions and revives for progressing in the game.
Yes, the game is encouraging people to go outdoors and to frequent their local attractions. Yet, is this an authentic response to reality, if the significance of that place, and the reality of our fallen soldiers is downplayed to being a mere thing of play?
It brings to mind the distinction that the German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand made between two different kinds of good: the subjectively satisfying, and the intrinsically valuable.
The subjectively satisfying is that which is good, merely because they agree with us or satisfy our desires. These things, such as a tantalizing meal or a compliment, only hold their importance insofar as they give us pleasure. But when the moment is gone, and our craving is satisfied, the importance of that thing fades into anonymity. This kind of happiness wears itself out and leaves us within the confines of our self, our changing moods and dispositions. So while it is a good, the subjectively satisfying is ultimately limited to the realm of self-centredness. With this impulsive nature, it tends to adopt an insistent character, lulling us into a state of yielding to instinct and thus dethroning our free spiritual centre.
The intrinsically important, on the other hand, is that which is valuable for what it is in itself, regardless of its relation to us. An act of forgiveness for a grave injury, a breathtaking view from the top of a mountain – these are things that do not depend on our reaction in order to hold its importance. These cannot be diminished by our whims, for they draw their importance not from their relation to us, but from their own rank. Faced with the intrinsically important, our interest in the object is completely based on its goodness, beauty and splendour. The intrinsically valuable thus allows us the possibility of transcending the limits of our subjective inclinations, tendencies, urges, and drives rooted exclusively in our nature. And in this value response we will also find ourselves attracted to, and conforming ourselves to the object’s goodness.
So where does Pokémon Go fit in amongst all this?
For one, it certainly has elements that fall into the category of the subjectively satisfying. There is the addictiveness of the game, which adds to our already compulsive nature to constantly turn to our phones to satiate our impatience with boredom. Coupled with the immediacy of it being on one’s phone, it also pushes the limits of where and when it is appropriate to play the game. This can then lead to the civic impact, where the game encourages an attitude of appropriation, and renders the sacredness of places as something to be ‘sacrificed’ for our consumption.
With this attitude for only being attentive to that which will serve our own purposes, there is no room for anything outside of ourselves. It compromises our ability to respond, as it diminishes the room for an other to respond to. If a place is not seen for its own worth beyond its usefulness to the game, we cannot truly be awed and appreciative of its own significance.
Yet, in a space that seems to only make one selfish and selective of our own reality, there is still a need for relationship, as the game creates the need for reaching out to others. Sure, it may seem to arise from a utilitarian attitude of only taking interest in those that may help us to progress through the game. But one cannot avoid this potential of inherent goodness, however small and obscured. For even on a theological level, there are elements of heavenly realities that this phenomenon allows us to glimpse – values such as relationship, community, and the sharing a common ‘culture’ even among those who do not share the same history.
These are the intrinsic values that Hildebrand says draw us out of ourselves, attracting us by their goodness, regardless of our moods and dispositions. And in response to this goodness, the words of Weil are uncannily befitting: “If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.”
Ultimately we have to remember that these connections are only simulations of the deeper sense of community that we are made for. That spark of that desire should point us towards striving to form relationships that will challenge us, and stretch our capacities to love others in reality.
Perhaps, in all the attention Pokémon Go is garnering, the game is illuminating the sense of both the goodness and affliction in our culture. And in the astonishment of seeing our world anew, we are offered an invitation to respond by cultivating more of the values that we so cherish.