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The Real Problem With Playing ‘Pokémon Go’ at the Holocaust Museum

The museum, like the video game, relies on careful curation to furnish an alternate experience of reality. Playing Pokémon Go at a memorial isn’t just disrespectful — it interferes with the augmented reality you’re already in.
A Syrian gamer uses the Pokemon Go application on his mobile to catch a Pokemon amid the rubble in the besieged rebel-controlled town of Douma, a flashpoint east of the capital Damascus on July 23rd, 2016.

A Syrian gamer uses the Pokemon Go application on his mobile to catch a Pokemon amid the rubble in the besieged rebel-controlled town of Douma, a flashpoint east of the capital Damascus on July 23rd, 2016.

Even if an algorithm can locatea crowd, it can’t read its mood. In perhaps the most surreal testament to the widespread popularity of Pokémon Go, several of America’s most somber tourist attractions — memorials and their museums — have seen visitors playing the viral mobile game. The placement of so-called Pokéstops (landmarks where users can win free in-game rewards) at these locations may be to blame, and it isn’t accidental. The application is the most prominent mobile game to date in the “augmented reality” genre; it taps into four years’ worth of location data from the user base of its exploration-game predecessor, Ingress, to center reward destinations wherever people already congregate. But on hallowed grounds, museum organizers and visitors alike say they would prefer gamers stayed away.

“Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism,” The United States Holocaust Museum’s communications director told the Washington Post in mid-June. Three Pokéstops have been located at the Holocaust Museum, and it’s not the only memorial that’s seen players trying to catch ’em all. Players have identified Pokéstops at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, the 9/11 Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Auschwitz museum in Poland, and monuments in national parks. On June 12, Arlington National Cemetery responded to reports that Pokéstops had been located on at least three separate graves by warning visitors to “refrain from such activity.”

Memorial visitors themselves are taking steps to end the outbreak of Poké-play. Severalhave devoted Reddit threads to implore offending players to knock it off; one petition asks visitors to “Stop poke centers and gyms at cemeteries.” Others have complained to the press: As one visitor at the the National September 11th Memorial & Museum told Time: “A lot of people died here. It’s a place to reflect, not to play a game.”

In the ongoingdebate about mobile phone use on sites of mourning, the these news items seem to have inspired a mainstream consensus: Pokémon and tragedy don’t mix. It’s easy to see why so many are sympathizing with this Luddite position—would you really want a Charmander popping up on your loved one’s final resting place? And yet the news also sheds light on the strange similarities between the mobile game and memorial sites. Like Pokémon Go, memorials and museums create immersive, artificial realities — augmented by multimedia and careful curation.

Memorials and memorial museums often fall into the category of so-called “dark tourism,” a public history phenomenon that has exploded in the past several decades. Coined by John Lennon of Glasgow Caledonian University London, “dark tourism” refers to visiting sites associated with brutality and destruction. Opening these tragic places to the public can serve a variety of noble purposes, according to scholars who study them: They educate the public on these events, ensure contemporary viewers do not forget them, and demonstrate a common resolve to prevent future, similarly tragic occurrences.

To be sure, dark tourism sites also indulge visitors’ morbid curiosity and bring in valuable tourism dollars. Anthropologist Valene L. Smith estimates that commemorations of death and war now make up the largest single category of worldwide tourist sites, outnumbering cheerier fare like theme parks and beaches. Adventure Travel News reports that the adventure-tourism industry, which encompasses visits to sites of war and political turmoil, is valued at $263 billion.

While memorials and memorial museums often offer free admission, they nevertheless boost their cities’ bottom lines. Dark tourism sites beckon visitors who seek alternative ways to experience a city, and may not be spending much on the usual, more lighthearted tourist fare. Memorials are increasingly playing a part in “branding” a city for this sector of tourists, according to historian Paul Williams, author of Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities. These sites “feed and respond to the growth of non-traditional forms of tourism, which in turn makes them economically viable urban fixtures,” Williams writes. As such, dark tourism sites must somehow satisfy two demands at once: They must be consumer-friendly experiences for dark tourists, but also invite serious reflection about historical events for the general public.

That’s a tough balance to strike, and most sites manage it by delivering a necessarily truncated historical narrative: Memorials and memorial museums are meticulously curated performances of grief, engineered from a specific point of view. As scholar and rabbi Peter E. Tarlow notes, the curators of these institutions tell very specific histories: The 9/11 Memorial isn’t designed to prompt reflection on the morality of the War on Terror that followed it—rather, it wants to be “a tribute of remembrance and honor to the nearly 3,000 people killed,” according to its website. The World War II Museum in New Orleans naturally focuses far more on the Pacific Ocean theater and the American home front than the World War II Museum in Moscow does. Even genocide memorials must grapple with questions like whether to collapse events into a narrative of victims and perpetrators, or broaden the scope to include onlookers and collaborators. To visit any of these places is to soak up an emotional story—one written by the curators for their visitors.

Memorials and memorial museums are meticulously curated performances of grief, engineered from a specific point of view.

For Williams, large-scale memorials exemplify the “ultimate physical commitment towards ‘setting the historical record straight’” for a city that’s defining itself, in part, for tourists. But just because dark tourism sites have a commercial agenda doesn’t make them bad, or even exclusively useful for travelers. Tributes to collective memory can help bind any community or nation of permanent residents together. Subsequent generations may, indeed, gain some therapeutic benefits from sites that ask people to sympathize with victims, and better understand their ancestors.

Visitors, perhaps, don’t normally think of memorials and museums as a form of civic theater. At the Holocaust Museum, it would pull them out of the moment to imagine who debated which display order would deliver the biggest gut-punch, or carefully arranged a glass case piled with victims’ shoes. Visitors would likely prefer to commemorate the people who were wearing the shoes.

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.

In the end, playing Pokémon Go (or extending a selfie stick, or any other exhibition of shameless modernity in a museum gallery) displays less disrespect for victims than it does for fellow visitors’ experiences. Maximizing the emotional impact of these sites requires all of us to play along: If historical sites offer visitors testimonies of the past, they only work if people are giving them their full attention in the present. And so, even if memorial attractions and Pokémon Go aren’t as different as they seem, they don’t jive well together. If the Pokémon-memorial site controversy is any indication, it’s perhaps best to respect others’ experiences — and stick to one form of augmented reality at a time.