Pokemon Go + Historic Sites

By: La Dawna Minnis, Director of Education Programs

We recently had a chance listen to a new release from HiFi History, their episode on the popular game Pokemon Go and how it's being used in some communities. As folks who are passionate about historic places who also play video games, we were eager to discuss this episode with each other; and with you! 

By now, you have probably heard about the popular mobile game, Pokemon Go. This mobile game has garnered quite a bit of attention for getting players up and about to walk around their cities, and there have been flurries of enthusiasm about the educational potential of the game. Businesses are proudly listing that they are "Pokestops" or hot spots for gameplay. 

So how are historic places responding to Pokemon Go? We know that some historic places are more open-minded than others when it comes to technology. While some are embracing the app to draw in visitors, other groups are outright banning the play of not just Pokemon Go, but other games as well as a result. In their episode, HiFi History goes into depth and compares two very similar spaces with very different perspectives on Pokemon Go. 

For example, the City Council in Newnan, Georgia, went so far as to create an amendment in response to visitors using Pokemon Go in their city's cemetery. Their concerns: ensuring security of the property during after hours visitation, respect of their community members, and the potential of damaged property by large crowds. Their hasty, knee-jerk reaction: a $1,000 fine and up to 1 year in jail for playing any mobile games in the city cemetery. 

The first time I went to the cemetery was because this game took me there. Even though it’s only a mile or so from my house. I spent just as much time looking at the gravestones and checking out the history as I did playing the game. I definitely think the city should... better define “cemetery purposes”.
— Jerry, a resident in newnan, ga
Residents in Newnan, GA play Pokemon Go. Photo Courtesy of the Newnan Times Herald.

Residents in Newnan, GA play Pokemon Go. Photo Courtesy of the Newnan Times Herald.

How are their concerns different from the other historic cemeteries that hold public tours and events? They're not, and really they're no different from any public space. All banning games does is alienate a significant portion of the population and tell them they are not welcome in this place. Unfortunately historic sites have been sending this message for a while, with and without Pokemon Go. And while a lot of them are now struggling to connect with younger generations and retain visitors as a result, is this the right move?

Inspiring our youngest community members to take interest in these places is essential to ensuring they are maintained for future generations,  but it's also key to continuing the tradition of these sites being regarded as a resource for the community. 

The Historic Oakland Foundation at the Oakland Cemetery has embraced Pokemon Go in an effort to use it as an incentive for people to visit their site. Their approach was much more intentional, embracing their identity as a public space that emerged not only to bury the dead, but also to provide public green space for the community to gather for walks, picnics, and even bike rides. 

In the video to the left, a local teen makes his way to the historic cemetery to play Pokemon Go, enjoying an outdoor adventure with his friends. 

What steps do we need to take to make sure that teens like those we see in this video feel able to explore their neighborhood and engage with the environment around them? What other possibilities might we find for public spaces to embrace games like Pokemon Go and make connections with their community?

Maybe there's potential for new ways to interact within the game that could help visitors learn about the cultural value and history behind the places they're visiting while they're using it. What if, instead of having to toss a ball to catch your Pokemon, you could engage with interesting facts and stories from the place? If we can be intentional and creative in our solutions, maybe we can use ideas like these to bridge the divide. 

Katie RispoliComment