Monday, July 25, 2016

Pokeman Go and the local Museum

Do you know this great man? Do you know what he said . . . and did?
We’re always elated to see visitors in the Mennonite Heritage Museum. Especially those that ask questions, ponder the meaning of exhibits and chat among themselves and with us about the subjects we present.

So when I went to open the museum yesterday, I was excited to see four people already on the steps. Waiting for the place to open . . . I assumed. Silly, Luddite, ever-hopeful me. They were in fact four teens with cell phones gathered in by the “Mennonite Heritage Museum” sign where a PokeStop has been placed by the virtual-world “Holy Ghost” that guides the inner workings of Pokemon Go.

I’ve heard it touted as a virtual game that gets people out and about: exercising, breathing fresh air, meeting real people and making new friends. The dozen or so drawn by the game to our front yard have been uniformly oblivious to their surroundings and/or have harboured too little interest in things historical to engage with me or the museum. (I’m pretty sure I appear historical to Pokeman Go enthusiasts!) Those I’ve seen haven’t been doing any real exercise; they strolled, and lolled; one lay down on his back and held his cell phone up, arms extended for about ten minutes. I tried to engage the four yesterday in a bit of conversation; they weren’t having any of that nuisance—not with me, not with each other.

So is this new—and probably short-lived—virtualized version of geocaching a “step in the right direction” for kids who are hooked on gaming and social media? You tell me.

We see our humble museum as a classroom, a classroom where curious people can come to learn useful things, like how they and their friends came to be here, what their ancestors did to make possible the life they enjoy, what Martin Luther King meant when he said, “We don’t make history; history makes us,” or words to that effect.

The good functioning of any democracy—be it a family, a church, a community or a country—is dependent on its participants being knowledgeable about the realities of their world. Isaac Asimov has said, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

My experience with Pokeman Go is minimal, confined to a few encounters and the reading of the game rules on Wikipedia. It doesn’t take a knowledge of logic to realize that the time Pokeman Go consumes could have been spent in other ways, like actually exercising, actually meeting and getting to know people, actually learning about the world, how it came to be what it is, what it means to wrestle with its future.

Marshall McLuhan coined the media phrase, “the medium is the message,” an insight that has supported our suspicions about TV, for instance, being more than a tool for acquiring information and entertainment; the TV in every house changed the culture irrespective of what programming was chosen to be broadcast. The car, the phone, the computer and the internet have all in their turn reshaped our culture, our politics, our socialization.
Pokeman Go is just another game? I don’t think so. If it were designed to be educational or even informative, it might well be a medium whose message is constructive in our culture, country, communities. But I can’t see that message there at all. The message, I fear, will again be the enrichment of a few highly-knowledgeable entrepreneurs through the further addiction of the not-yet-knowledgeable young masses.

If it would ignite enthusiasm for museums, galleries, libraries and actual travel, I would endorse Pokeman Go. If it should turn out, after all, to have this effect, I will humbly apologize—and then eat the Mennonite Heritage Museum, one brick, one exhibit at a time.

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