Is Pokemon Go a Blessing or Curse for Museums and Historic Sites?


Update: I cobbled together my thoughts on this topic for The Daily Beast.

They have already been sighted at the Gettysburg National Cemetery, the Flight 93 National Memorial and even the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. No, this is not a new wave of young history buffs, but phone wielding kids (and adults) playing Pokemon Go. Read this before proceeding any further if you have no idea what I am talking about. Don’t worry. I had to look it up as well.

The Holocaust Museum had to issue a statement requesting that visitors show the utmost respect for the museum and the story it tells. Even National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis decided to make a brief video reminding videos that they just might be interested in looking up from their phones long enough to appreciate the beauty and history of our national parks. Arlington National Cemetery is facing similar problems. It’s just a matter of time before we hear stories of visitors playing the game at the 9-11 Memorial in New York City.

Apart from the obvious cases where the game conflicts with the sanctity of a specific site, however, I have yet to see how museums and historic sites are planning to take advantage of this new craze. After all, half the battle is getting people to historic sites and museums.

I don’t have any answers, but I do think the nature of a given site’s response will tell us a good deal about how they frame their mission in relationship to the general public. Control is certainly part of the equation. Many places assume in some shape or form that it is what they have to offer that ought to be sufficient to attract the general public. The thought of people arriving for reasons that have nothing to do or even appear antithetical with the site’s historical significance or purpose must be unsettling for some. for batter pc and windows experience please check remote play pc.

As has already been pointed out to me, the challenges that Pokemon Go present to historic sites in particular may overlap in interesting ways with the recent rise of what some people call, “Dark Tourism.” Is the search for ghosts at Gettysburg really much different than searching for cartoon characters that exist in a virtual world?

There are reports that some Pokemon players are taking the time to learn about the places they visit, but I suspect that they will be few and far between. I suspect that those historic sites and museums whose interaction with the general public is framed around finding ways to meet people half-way will have the most success. The trick will be to find creative ways to engage these people without sacrificing their core mission. In the long run, it’s not enough to simply count bodies.

Well, let’s see how this unfolds. I would love to hear of museums and historic sites that are thinking creatively about how to take advantage of this latest craze.

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29 comments… add one
  • Forester Jul 15, 2016 @ 16:45

    I want to see more augmented reality incorporated into the interpretation of history, like an app where your phone gives an illustrated tour, or you hold it up to see a reenactment in the spot you’re looking at. There are SO MANY things we could do with the current technology of smartphones.

  • Blake Lindsey Jul 14, 2016 @ 5:44

    It would serve us well to ask why people visit historic sites in the first place. If you think they go just to learn and hear what you have to say, you’re being naive. People go for experiences and to spend time with their friends. I completely understand certain sites’ aversion to the app, but other people are demonstrating just how out of touch they are, which is kind of concerning.

    My experience: I am one of about 12 people that actually care about preserving and telling the history behind the Civil War Defenses of Washington. These places are gyms and pokestops. As I’ve met people (usually millennials and younger) in these wonderful spaces, I’ve started conversations that usually end up with me ranting about my work on the subject. Believe it or not, they stop playing and they listen, ask questions, and have learning experiences. So I have no patience for the argument that this craze demonstrates that younger generations “don’t care” about history.

    I’m glad this issue came up because it exposes an unfortunate tendency to underestimate how interested younger generations are in history. If people are “concerned,” its because they’re out of touch and that, in my mind, is more dangerous to history education than any app.

    • Bob Beatty Jul 15, 2016 @ 12:27

      Hear, hear Blake. As I read Kevin’s post here and at The Daily Beast, I kept thinking to myself, “Sometimes we can be so overprotective of this discipline we love so much.” Why folks get to historic sites is not nearly as important to me as *that* they are there. And if we do our part well, folks may (will?) become intrigued and may explore more deeply. And if they don’t, perhaps their lives have been enriched in a tiny way and that’s a success in my book.

      I agree that there are some places where it’s just wrong to play a game like this. But to summarily dismiss this audience and the way they’ve come to engage with a history organization seems to me to be engaging in the same thing we’re accusing them of doing in the first place.

      Thanks, Kevin, for the food-for-thought.

  • Shoshana Bee Jul 13, 2016 @ 17:56

    These people have no more interest in the places they visit than a person taking a squat behind the nearest convenient tree.

    The purpose of the game, as so aptly put by the author in the information link is “to give(s) you the opportunity to for once forget about all the terrible shit happening out there”. Fine. Tune out and cop out somewhere else, as I find this teetering on desecration on our hallowed grounds.

    As a person who has spent much time and revered places such as the Holocaust Museum, I just as soon see them bar the doors and send these people out on the street where they belong.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 14, 2016 @ 1:12

      Seems to me this is just a bit over the top.

      • Shoshana Bee Jul 14, 2016 @ 7:13

        Dear Mr. Levin,

        Perhaps you are right, but on the other hand: I have deep emotional investment in two of the places invaded by these gamers. My father is buried in a National Cemetery, and the Holocaust Museum memorializes the losses suffered by the European part of my gene pool. I have shed many tears in both locations. Juxtapose this with folks walking around with so little awareness and control, that they probably would not pass a sobriety test (there have been some local incidents involving distracted gamers stumbling around in traffic lanes) I find this intolerable.

        I don’t know enough about most things Civil War to be this passionate about it, but I know all too much about what my father and his relatives endured to warrant military burials and specific museums to memorialize their losses. I take it very personal when people turn these places into their own personal amusement park.



        • Kevin Levin Jul 14, 2016 @ 7:33

          I completely understand and I appreciate the follow up. I also have very personal connections to specific historic sites such as the 9-11 Memorial. I would be appalled if I saw visitors playing this game on site. But let me suggest that Pokemon Go did not create this problem. I would be equally appalled if I saw visitors taking selfies.

          • Shoshana Bee Jul 14, 2016 @ 7:47

            I 100% agree with you on this.

            And for those inferring that I am “old” and out of touch, I suggest a quick glance at my Twitter picture — my stand has nothing to do with age.

    • Blake Lindsey Jul 14, 2016 @ 6:05

      This is what older generation alarmism and paranoia looks like. It happens to every generation, they see changes and thinks it means the end of the world.

      • Kevin Levin Jul 14, 2016 @ 7:33

        Absolutely. We now sound like our parents.

      • Al Mackey Jul 15, 2016 @ 16:25

        “Alarmism and paranoia” isn’t right. It’s indignation that someone could be so self-absorbed and disrespectful they would interrupt a performance or trivialize a hallowed place. I agree it’s not the fault of the game. It’s the players’ fault. And it’s also not a function of age. It’s a function of having or not having respect. I think we can comment without the offensive ageist remarks. I enjoy games as much as anyone else, but I can do so without rampaging through and over a national cemetery or a museum, and I can do so without barging into and disrupting a performance.

        There are a number of national park sites who are harnessing Pokemon Go and making it a positive experience, helping players “find their park.” Historical sites that can do so ought to participate, welcome these new visitors, and try to engage them while they’re there. That’s a smart way to seize an opportunity. There are some places, though, where it’s clearly inappropriate, and the players need to respect that, and when someone is brave enough to share an emotional connection to these places we ought to have respect for their connection and not even appear to be ridiculing it.

  • David Kent Jul 13, 2016 @ 15:59
  • HankC Jul 13, 2016 @ 9:06

    give the new craze a month or so.

    Reminds me of the kerfuffle during the jogging craze of the 80s when people started running on Gettysburg’s park roads.

    I suggest a chill pill.

  • Woodrowfan Jul 13, 2016 @ 9:02

    I do not know if the musuem where I volunteer has a PokeStop. But we do have a Geocache on the property and people doing Geocaching have come in and spent time looking at exhibits. But then, we’re not a national cemetery or other such solemn location.

    • Josh Liller Jul 13, 2016 @ 16:35

      I think geocaching tends to attract a narrower audience that is more receptive to the significance of the area. Geocaches are often placed and design to bring someone’s attention to the location and geocachers often use caches as a way to explore interesting areas (I know I do). The geocache webpage may provide background on the site or the geocacher may have to answer questions from the site to locate the cache.

      Pokemon Go uses significant locations like parks and historic sites, but there is no integration or connection between the two. When you capture Pikachu he doesn’t tell you why he’s there.

      (I’m speaking generally, of course. Some geocachers have tunnel vision and some Pokemon Go players will explore places they encounter.)

  • Chris Graham Jul 13, 2016 @ 8:47

    A friend who works at a rural colonial site that has Pokestops and Pokegyms is planning to create a meetup for a “Pokemon hunt” that he will lead with his hunting frock and flintlock.

    I’m sure that museums that measure only attendance are happy af right now, but we agree that attendance is a terrible measure of success.

    You are right to observe that how a museum defines its relationship to audiences will suggest how it might be positioned better to take advantage of this, and I like that you hint that it’s more than a policy, but an institutional culture. Part of that institutional culture that makes responsiveness possible is the existence of established relationships with community partners. Sure, one-off flexibility can happen, but the kind of responsiveness that reflects institutional values has to be in place first. I’m sure there are a number of art galleries, science museums, etc., that have relationships with gamers that they can exploit right now, but I suspect that most history museums don’t.

    One thing I’m curious about… Entrance to USHMM is paid. Did PokemonGo players pay to get in? Sounds like it. Right now, we haven’t discovered any Pokemons inside our main building at Historic Tredegar, but our courtyard has them and Brown’s Island right out our front door is swarming with them. Last evening the place looked like a Walking Dead episode. I haven’t tried it, but to circulate through the crowd with flyers (or coupons) inviting them to pay the $8 to get in would be, idk, awkward, at least, because…

    …One thing that the game offers is a content-based platform for social interaction within teams and between them. This is a key element in attracting audience and satisfying visitor expectations and behaviors that I’m not sure most folks consider when developing “core missions” in museums. In fact, it is probably a higher priority consideration for visitors than for the museum, so how do we say—drop the satisfactory experience you came here for and pay attention to our thing…?

    Or are we just talking about buying a “lure” to place in your gallery, or putting up an A-frame chalk board with a drawing of a Bulbasaur with a kepi inviting players to escape the heat by coming inside our exhibit?

    • Pat Toung Jul 16, 2016 @ 18:52

      The Holocaust Museum does not charge for admission last I checked.

  • Michael Lynch Jul 13, 2016 @ 7:07

    Marble Springs State Historic Site, where I’m on the board, posted a Facebook message letting people know that there are two “PokeStops” on the grounds and asking politely that they take note of the site’s hours. Since it’s an outdoor site with a picnic pavilion, a trail, and an arboretum in addition to the historic buildings, having people wander the grounds with their phones going isn’t as problematic as it would be for a museum gallery or a memorial. As you said, getting people to come is half the battle, especially for smaller, out-of-the-way sites.

  • Eric Wittenberg Jul 13, 2016 @ 6:41

    I am a member of the board of trustees of Actors Theatre of Columbus, which is our public Shakespeare-in-the-park company. Our stage is in the middle of a substantial municipal park. The assnozzles that make this idiotic Pokemon Go thing made our stage one of the destinations for their asinine game. Over the weekend, in the middle of our performances, some of the zombies who play this asinine game were so oblivious that they tried to get up on our stage in the middle of a performance. We’ve asked the developers of this idiotic piece of crap to change the game so our stage is not a focus of it, but it remains to be seen whether they will actually do so. Some of the zombies sat down to watch the show once they realized where they were, but it’s tough enough to stage theater outdoors without having a bunch of mindless video idiot zombies trying to climb up on stage in the middle of a performance.

    I hate Pokemon Go and think it’s the worst thing to come down the pike in many, many years.

    • Josh Liller Jul 13, 2016 @ 16:25

      “Over the weekend, in the middle of our performances, some of the zombies who play this asinine game were so oblivious that they tried to get up on our stage in the middle of a performance.”

      This says as much about the players as the game. It’s the same oblivious mentality that causes people to follow their GPS over cliffs.

  • Ben Butina Jul 13, 2016 @ 6:06

    Augmented reality technology holds massive potential for historical sites. Imagine going to a battlefield and “seeing” troop movements over the actual terrain. Imagine a statue “coming to life” (a la “Night at the Museum”). Imagine a GPS-enabled guided tour of the local cemetery with stops to learn about prominent local historical figures.

    If we must focus so narrowly on Pokemon Go, however, why not reach out to the creators and see if a partnership can be struck. Perhaps museum visitors can earn certain specialty objects or bonuses in the game by answering questions about exhibits.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 13, 2016 @ 6:11

      I agree with the thrust of your comment. This technology has been used in a number of creative ways to enhance the visitor experience at historic sites. This, in turn, has reinforced the mission of the historic organizations. The concern expressed by some public historians re: Pokemon Go is that it doesn’t appear to compliment the mission, but as you suggest there are certainly ways to leverage the game in ways that are productive.

      I am optimistic. We have seen this before when it comes to other digital media apps/tools.

  • bob carey Jul 13, 2016 @ 5:40

    First of all you should know where I’m coming from. I don’t own a smart phone (or a dumb one for that matter), I still have a rotary phone upstairs in my house so it goes without saying that I am seriously technically challenged. However being a history buff I do appreciate technology and its ability to make the study of history easier, and the internet opens up avenues not available just 20 years ago.
    As far as this Pokemon thing goes I’m not sure whether I would know if someone was playing the game or not based solely on observation and I don’t see real harm in people doing it in the National Parks, if Gettysburg can survive the ghost tours I don’t think Pokemon will be a problem as long as people are aware of their surroundings. There is also a safety factor to consider. Looking down at a cell phone when crossing Hancock Ave. at the High Water Mark is not wise.
    Whenever I see or hear of this type of thing I think of the men who fought and died during the Civil War and I wonder if they know that they are exploited in such a way. Thanks for letting me vent a little.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 13, 2016 @ 5:42


      OK, but the issues or problems you describe are not specific to this game. We have had our heads stuck in our cell phones for quite some time now.

  • Annette Jackson Jul 13, 2016 @ 4:46

    I am not a fan. I think it is disrespectful at sites such as the Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery. Plus I don’t understand why an adult would be playing a kid’s game anyway, but I have never been into video games. I am a geezer! It is the current bright shiny and soon something else will come along to distract the masses.

    • Forester Jul 13, 2016 @ 13:46

      “Plus I don’t understand why an adult would be playing a kid’s game anyway, but I have never been into video games.”

      Yeah, it’s a generational thing. I was born in 1987, so for me, video games are as natural as TV or music. I probably play more games than I watch television, with my favorites being World War II combat (eg, old Call of Duty) and ‘open-world’ historical games (Red Dead Redemption, Assassin’s Creed series, ect). But even the kids games are amazing — in fact, they require a lot more skill than “adult” games and are very creative. Nintendo, Legend of Zelda, Minecraft …. all top notch stuff I could play all day. I can’t wrap my head around why adults would deprive themselves. 😀

      I remember the intro to “The Virginian” by Owen Wister, in 1905. He mentioned telling his fictional story to some actual real-life cowboys, who asked him questions about the work like which Indian reservation it was. When he told them it was all fictional, they were irate and befuddled. “Why would you waste time writing about things that didn’t happen?” They asked him, incredulously. Even prose novels were “new” and perplexing at one time!

      No, I haven’t played Pokemon Go yet, because I don’t have a smartphone. But I can’t wait, I’ve been a steadfast Pokemon fan since 1999.

    • Josh Liller Jul 13, 2016 @ 16:23

      “I don’t understand why an adult would be playing a kid’s game anyway”

      Many games these days are not designed solely for children. In particular, there was a surge of video, computer, and card games in the 1990s that people played at a young age and never lost interest in.

  • Annette Jackson Jul 13, 2016 @ 4:31

    It is asinine! Adults playing games at the Holocaust Museum, Arlington, cemeteries of any type are being selfish and disrespectful. I don’t care if I sound like an old geezer or geezerette. At the National Park where I volunteer we ask people to turn off their cell phones inside the Visitors Center, but do not usually make a big deal over it. Most people go outside if they get a call. This is a little different than just a regular cell phone issue. I have never gotten into online games, just to state in the interest of transparency. This is the current bright shiny that will go away when the next one rolls by.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 13, 2016 @ 5:02

      Most people will agree that it is inappropriate to play the game at certain sites, but there are larger issues that you are not considering. How many people are playing this game and stumbling on historic sites in their own neighborhoods that they may not know existed?

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