Unless you’ve been living under the sofa, you’ll have heard talk of the latest craze – a smartphone game in which you wander the real world with your eyes glued to your phone screen as you hunt around a Google-Maps style landscape for virtual creatures that you can catch and collect. You can find them in parks. You can find them in the street. And surprise, surprise – you can find them in cemeteries. There are even rumours that the ones you find in cemeteries are SPECIAL Pokémon that only reside among gravestones. And if, like me, you’ve become addicted to Pokémon Go over the past few days, then the lure of rare Pokémon is rather strong.
You may also have seen news reports about people getting locked in graveyards after hours because they were hunting Pokémon, and various museums and war graves’ commissions pleading with people not to play the game on their property, because it’s just not a very sensitive thing to do.
At the same time, stories have started to break showing that in some places, the opportunity for game players to make important real life interactions and discoveries that they would not normally seek out had been recognised, and potential for good seen.
Even on my Facebook page, informal discussions have started to happen. Is Pokémon Go a stupid game that is dangerous and not always appropriate, or is it an opportunity for adults and young people alike to get out there, get active and get noticing the world around them?
After thinking about all these things in relation to Cemetery Club, I decided to carry out an experiment, the objective being to discover two things:-
1.) Does it feel insensitive and wrong to play Pokemon Go in a cemetery and
2.) Would I gain anything positive from the experience, i.e. learn something I didn’t know, find things I would not have otherwise seen and generally pay attention to my surroundings, turning a smartphone gaming dalliance into a meaningful real-life experience?
This afternoon, I went to Nunhead Cemetery, one of the Magnificent Seven Victorian garden cemeteries of London as well as a working cemetery, intending to find out.
I chose Nunhead because people go there for a host of different reasons – not just to visit graves but also to learn about Victorian History, to have a nice walk, to take the dogs out for a run, to see nature…and there’s a lot of tree cover. If I felt like I was in the woods then perhaps it wouldn’t be as weird as if I was just standing in a graveyard trying to catch cartoon pigeons.
The first thing that happened on arrival at Nunhead was that the game crashed (it crashes a lot) and we couldn’t open it. When we did, there was a lot of aimless wandering around without any action. We were hindered every time another human being walked past us, because we felt self conscious and hurriedly put our phones down by our sides. If I don’t want anyone to see that I am playing a game in a cemetery, then on some level do I feel that it is inappropriate?
After a while, the game loaded enough that we were able to see that several parts of the cemetery had been made ‘Pokéstops’ – points on the map that when in close range, yield virtual prizes. They also can be clicked on in order for one to learn a snippet of information about that point of interest. At Nunhead, it turns out the Anglican Chapel has been made a Pokéstop (I know right? You’d never know it just to look at it). Several areas containing war graves have also been made Pokéstops. This feels slightly weird. I personally would take the opportunity to look more closely at the graves and try to have the proper respect for them, but would everybody else? It’s hard to know for sure.
We didn’t find any actual Pokémon until we stumbled out into the open air of the modern end of the cemetery, with the most recent graves. These ones were actually being visited and so when a large orange crab appeared on top of one of the gravestones, I felt intrusive and insensitive in catching it, rather than excited.
Once home, I decided to walk down to Beckenham Cemetery – this is a more modern cemetery (although it does still house some pretty old graves) with an open-plan layout. It would also be busier today, with a flower seller outside the front gate and several people dressed in their Sunday best, coming to lay flowers at gravesides. I figured that if it was completely inappropriate to play a video game in a cemetery, I would find out for sure here.
The game crashed again as soon as we entered, rendering the trip almost pointless. Except that in my rage at not being able to access my virtual army of big-eyed creatures, I started stamping my foot and huffing loudly. Then I looked up and realised I was pretty much standing ON the grave of W.G Grace and the game was up. If you come to a cemetery and have a loud tantrum because you won’t be able to catch a giant yellow mouse then you are probably missing the point.
To be honest, I am still undecided and therefore there will be no neat conclusion to this post. On the one hand, I see the potential for people who wouldn’t normally go into a cemetery to discover the peacefulness, the nature, the history that all resides there. On the other hand – you risk offending/disturbing those around you who might be grieving. And if you don’t look up from your phone screen, you don’t see anything of your surroundings anyway.
What do you think? Should cemeteries welcome Pokémon Go players as long as they abide by some rules, or should players stay well away and have a bit more respect for these spaces for the dead?