Pokémon Stop and Reflect

I’m not a fan of fads.

The last book had long since been released when I finally deigned to read the Harry Potter series. I fell asleep on most of the Star Wars movies, including the originals. I played Nekoatsume for about a minute and really enjoyed it before becoming hopelessly bored and giving up.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a curmudgeon (much). I love video games and all things geek. I’ve played Pokémon on consoles from back when it first came out. I like fun.

But fads in general, and this whole PokémonGo craze in particular, really bother me.


“pokemon” by 5th Luna via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Here’s why: Fads represent what the dominant culture has decided is cool, necessary, important, valued. Fads never come from marginalized communities, never benefit them, never highlight their needs or desires. Fads are always based on what the dominant, privileged group decides is worth focusing on.

Last week, for about a minute, the dominant, privileged group decided to talk a wee bit about #BlackLivesMatter and police violence and racism. The destruction of black and brown, queer and trans lives, which happens ALL THE TIME, was important for a minute last week. But this week, the dominant, privileged group has decided its far more important to catch imaginary beasties. And we’re all falling right in line.

I am totally disheartened to see so many critical librarians, people who care about social justice and reaching out to patrons beyond the mainstream and into the margins, touting the value of PokémonGo as a way to “reach all the patrons!” I’m not concerned about them enjoying the game for themselves. And while I find the privacy concerns worrying, I also realize that those concerns are no worse with PokémonGo than with any other app anyone uses on their smartphone.

What concerns me is the eagerness with which, we, as a profession, jump on the latest fad or bandwagon in the interest of “reaching out to our patrons.” Too often we do so unthinkingly, unreflectively, not taking the time to question and trouble the implications of that latest fad.

The fact is fads are not for everyone. PokémonGo is not for everyone. It’s not for people with deep privacy concerns, perhaps because they are engaged in important activism and already being surveilled by the so-called authorities. It’s not for people who don’t have the financial resources to maintain a smartphone with loads of data, enough to support the endless running of a location-based app as they wander about town. It’s not for people who don’t have the physical ability to wander around town staring at a tiny screen or the manual dexterity to put an augmented reality creature in a red and white ball on that tiny screen. If the focus of our library outreach du jour centers on PokémonGo, then we are effectively telling all these folks that, at best, we’re not thinking of them and, at worst, we don’t care about them.

There’s nothing wrong with bringing popular stuff into the library to draw people in. It’s part of our marketing strategies. But we need to be careful that we do this, as with everything we do, critically, reflectively, constantly asking the key questions: Who is this really for? Who will benefit? Who will be excluded? What message does this send to those in the margins?

By all means, have fun catching your Pokémon. But as we develop new means of outreach in our libraries, let’s also look beyond the fads, beyond the mainstream, and make sure we’re reaching those who are forever on the margins.


  1. cbecker53 · July 13, 2016

    Thank you.


  2. John Mark Ockerbloom · July 14, 2016

    Thanks for writing this. It’s important to remember who’s not being included in an outreach campaign. Most themed campaigns by their nature appeal to some parts of a community more than others, and we in libraries need to make sure that we’re reaching everyone we need to (and that marginalized folks are especially important to reach).

    I’m fine with libraries doing Pokemon-themed outreach *if* that helps better engage some of their community, *and* they don’t overlook other parts of their community in the process. I see two ways this can work. One approach is to engage thoroughly in multiple forms of outreach. As you suggest at the top of the post, we shouldn’t drop #BlackLivesMatter concerns to go out and chase Pokemon. But some libraries may do well engaging in both, and with other interests and concerns as well.

    Another approach is to think broadly about the outreach campaigns we do engage in. Pokemon Go, for instance, may be a new fad appealing mainly to the smartphone set. But Pokemon in general has already proven itself to have staying power, as well as broader appeal. Years before this latest game came out (or we had smartphones), my kids were having fun with Pokemon cards, toys, books, and games. And in my neighborhood I’ve seen both black and white kids, who go to a variety of schools, playing with and trading card sets. A library outreach campaign that offers something for Pokemon fans of all kinds, whether or not they’re playing Pokemon Go specifically, can reach a broader audience than one that only appeals to Pokemon Go players.

    And if some of the folks not currently playing Go due to expense or privacy concerns do want to join in, a library could help them out if it saw fit. Many libraries already lend out games of various kinds, as well as preloaded electronic devices like Playaways. I could imagine some of them also potentially lending devices preloaded with the game, and the option of using a Library-created anonymized character. (Some Android phones and data plans are cheap enough that lending them out for this game would have comparable cost to lending out other library items.) This might or might not be a good investment for a library to make– it depends on the community it serves, their interests, and how the social value of the game plays out. But I can imagine situations where a youth librarian would rightly find it a worthwhile thing to do.

    Whatever we do, though, we need to make sure we’re asking the right questions about what we do. Thanks for raising such important questions and concerns in this post!


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