Pokévangelism in a secular age

If you have recently spotted more people than normal wandering public places glued to their smartphones, you may have witnessed the global phenomenon known as Pokémon Go. Pokémon Go is a new location-based game which uses smartphones and GPS positioning to determine your location and display virtual creatures with exotic names such as Squirtle, Pidgey and Pikachu. Using a technique called augmented reality, these creatures appear overlaid on the screen as if they were in the same real-world location as the player. As players walk around the real-world, they are alerted to Pokémons lurking “nearby,” and by manipulating controls on the screen, players can capture, train and battle a wide variety of creatures.

The game differs from typical computer games in that it requires you to get up and walk around outside. Some locations are designated for special purposes, such as Pokestops where players can restock certain resources, and “gyms,” where players can join teams and compete against others. The game was criticized for including sensitive real-world locations such as the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Arlington National Cemetery.

As it turns out, many PokéStops and gyms are located at real-life churches. One blogger wrote how his church was pursuing “Pokévangelism”: leveraging the church’s location as a Pokéstop to reach out to players. The church put up welcome signs, provided charging stations and water for players, and invited them to check out the church’s Facebook page.

Because the game motivates players to move around, Pokémon Go has been lauded for getting people outside and exercising. But the game has not always been good for the health of its players. People need to stare at their screens while walking to play, which has led to some accidents in the real world. Since the game debuted a few months ago, our local children's hospital has seen at least a dozen children in the emergency department after sustaining injuries while pursuing these Pokémon creatures. A more serious incident occurred in Quebec City, where a driver playing the game crashed into a police car. Others worry about privacy and the data that the game collects from its users. It is not hard to imagine how such a game could lead to targeted advertisements based on your location.

More than this
Pokémon Go is a clever game, but this does not fully explain its phenomenal popularity. Perhaps the ability to glimpse into an imaginary world which exists alongside the real world has triggered a human yearning for “something more.” In his book, How (Not) to be Secular, Calvin College philosophy professor Jamie Smith explains the philosophy of Charles Taylor concerning our secular age. Taylor suggests that our secular society lives in an “immanent frame” which only recognizes the natural world; people, however, are still “haunted” by the possibility of “transcendence,” that there is something beyond what we can see. In a similar way, the book This Present Darkness became popular among many Christians in the mid-1980s by painting a vivid picture of a spiritual reality that lay beyond what we can see. Although the book was subject to many theological criticisms, it highlighted a fascination with imagining the reality of a spiritual world, even among Christians.

Pokémon Go is an interesting example of the many creative possibilities that arise when one combines technologies such as mobile devices, cameras, GPS and wireless data networks. But I think it might also be an example of what Taylor calls the “cross pressure” of our age: being caught between a natural view of the world and the lingering desire for transcendence. Aside from attempts at Pokévangelism, this game is another reminder to engage our secular neighbours who are fascinated by the notion of transcendence with the true story of a risen saviour, in whom we “live and move and have our being,” wherever we go.  

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin, he worked as an engineer and taught for many years at Redeemer University. He is a fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation and an Associate Fellow of the Kirby Laing Center for Public Theology. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013) and a co-author of A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers (IVP, 2022).

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