Youth worker and social researcher Raymond Smyth, who has been involved in a number of virtual history and zombie events, believes that a truly transformative drifting experience for the playful traveller will only be achievable once wearable tech such as watches, glasses, and even implanted chips become a serious (and affordable) reality. People need to be able to break away from looking at a screen; “for tech to transform a reality, it has to be part of it, rather than alternative to it”. He gives the example of a virtual point and click adventure game he recently played that involved hacking into CCTV and collecting objects around the city. The concept was great but the tech was “clunky” to the extent that the feeling of “immersion” was lost.
Zombies and pocket monsters
The roots of zombie walking are again millennial. In 2000 a flashmob style subversive event took place at GENCON 2000 in Milwaukee. A year later in Sacramento, zombies gathered to promote a midnight film festival. There are now zombie pub crawls and zombie world record attempts. The idea of simply drifting has been replaced by one of communal gameplay.
This is not to say that there is not some form of subversion still present below the surface as the players hit the streets. Where large groups of people gather in the form of what is effectively a rolling festival with or without official permission, there can be fallout among the people who are not part of the game. Cars get covered in goo by zombies. Windows get broken. Commuters and transport police get spooked by silent discos on railway stations. Some people play harder than others. And there has been nothing so potentially damaging as when the playful world rubs up against the masses simply travelling from A to B, as the phenomenon seen in Pokémon Go.
Flashmobs and zombie walk events are only possible by means of fast communication via social media, and are often produced as content for social media. They are a playful means to a shared experience, or a shared performance. Pokémon Go, launched in 2016, takes things much further. It is an augmented reality game where players hunt down virtual Pokémon in real world surroundings using smart devices. It has been wildly successful, with more than 500 million downloads in its launch year alone. Smyth says that at least anecdotally among his contacts, the game remains very popular in an industry where tastes change very quickly. It is, however you choose to look at it, a form of playful travel that is very big business.
It has though not been without its issues. In an early version of the game a Pokémon Gym (a battle location) was placed in the North Korean demilitarised zone. According to a study published in The New Scientist last year Pokémon Go may well have contributed to as many as 150,000 traffic accidents and 256 deaths in the USA as a result of people playing at the wheel of their vehicles. There is still something inherently subversive in not moving with the crowd, even when you are one of millions following a trend.
In Pokémon Go people are seeing the world through the lens of their smartphone’s camera. This is as far removed from the spirit of the flaneur as understood by Phil Smith and Raymond Smyth as it is possible to be. But there remains a thread of playfulness that connects them. The “otherness” involved; the uncovering of things not visible in the guide books. Travelling is seen as a kind of performance. So where are we now?