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‘Pokémon Go’ Has Another Genocide Controversy on Its Hands

The augmented reality game runs into trouble in Cambodia.

By Max Ufberg


(Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, located in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, stands as a testament to the heinous crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. Between 1975 to 1979, the former high school was used as a prison, and was host to around 15,000 executions. It stands now as a popular reminder of the genocide that killed as many as three million people over a four-year span.

It is also, incidentally, the new site of two Pokémon Go gyms.

Cambodia Daily reports that “visitors, employees and survivors of the prison were appalled on Tuesday by the placement of virtual Pokémon Go battlegrounds there over the weekend.”

The augmented reality application, created by American software developer Niantic, has faced criticism in recent weeks for its placement of gyms—essentially virtual battle-training grounds—in historic, often sobering sites. Tuol Sleng is hoping to join the growing list of monuments and attractions that have successfully petitioned for the removal of Pokémon Go gyms on their grounds. Earlier this month, the game was removed from the the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan.

Pokémon Go’s gameplay allows users to assert augmented reality over their surroundings. They engage as people on the game board of Pokémon Go, not as people taking in the meaning of the space around them,” one woman told Cambodia Daily.

For places like Tuol Sleng, it’s not just an issue of due respect; it’s also a matter of effectiveness. As Natalie Shurewrote for Pacific Standard:

Pokémon Go has interrupted the contemplative sadness that memorials generate with a tacky reminder that visitors are already immersing themselves in artificial spaces. We visit memorials to wrap our heads around what it means for whole lives to be casualties at the hands of history, and here comes some teen battling a Bulbasaur to remind us of the silly things we pass our time with in the contemporary world. The contrast between actual events and the artifice designed to evoke them is briefly humiliating — but so is the fact that there isn’t so much to contrast at all.

With few memorials erected in remembrance of the Cambodian Genocide as it is, for Tuol Sleng, the risk of losing potency to a Bulbasaur is very real—and very troubling.