“To The Lighthouse”: How Pokémon GO created community in Wollongong

The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now—
James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?
No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.
– Virginia Woolf

Pokemon GO has been available in Australia for just a little over two weeks now, but at time of writing it’s hard to remember what life was like before its release. In these two weeks the augmented reality game has surpassed the download rate of apps like Tinder. New friendships have been forged. Introverts have ventured cautiously outside. Thousands of think pieces and hot takes have been written as the country – and the world – grapples with the new social and cultural paradigms being constructed in the wake of Pokemon GO. For myself, it has meant investing in a robust spare battery pack (the likes of which have been flying off the shelves) and spending most of my afternoons and evenings at the lighthouse in Wollongong.

The lighthouse and its nearby café have become the local focal points for hundreds of Illawarra residents who want to catch as many Pokémon as they can. From the game’s day of release, this local tourist spot has seen a substantial boost in activity. Of an evening, the more devoted players come out with milk crates, chairs, and rugs to set up a comfortable spot next to the lures . You see familiar faces as you return each day. You learn who’s on what level and who’s playing for what team. Everyone knows who’s on Team Valor because they’re sure to boast it quite quickly, while the quiet one listening in on the rivalry between Mystic and Valor will eventually reveal they’re in the underdog faction Team Instinct when pressed. But here the teams don’t matter a whole lot; everyone is here to catch Pokémon. Some people set themselves up and settle in for the long haul, while others walk between Pokéstops on the hunt for some of the more elusive species. It feels a lot like a music festival.

The lighthouse has become a place of multiple realities overlapping. Tourists and young families enjoying the beach co-existing alongside the many new people milling about on their phones – observing them as they participate in a strange, massively multiplayer cultural hallucination that remains completely invisible to onlookers. To the uninitiated or fed-up (or ‘Pokémuggles’ as I like to call them), these players seem like victims of a strange new drug. As is alluded to in the quote from Virginia Woolf, both of these realities are true for this place.

Before Pokémon GO, the lighthouse was a place with a nightlife in its own right. Overlooking the beach, with the distant lights of Port Kembla Steel Works dancing over the churning waves, the car park at the foot of the lighthouse has enjoyed popularity as a spot for young adults and teenagers to eat fast food, smoke, and have sex.
Pokémon GO has disrupted this ritual.

Now, these same car parks are filled with the vehicles of prospective trainers – some hoping to secure parks that are close enough to the lures that they don’t have to get out and endure the chilling winter winds – but this disruption hasn’t occurred quietly.
The loop roads and roundabouts that engulf this Pokémon Go hotspot are now frequented by cars full of killjoys, frustrated youths, and your average garden variety jerks. I have never before had a stranger yelling at me as I quietly played a game – minding my own business – but here it’s the norm. “Get a life,” these people yell as they loop around honking horns, yelling from megaphones and even throwing eggs at players on the side of the road.

“Get a life” is a strange thing to have yelled at you on a nightly basis, especially when the community we’ve built together is so full of it.

During normal business hours, the proliferation of Pokémon GO has had it’s own unprecedented effect on the area. Levendi’s, the café situated right at the intersection between four Pokestops, always has a sizable line in order to get served. As I waited for my order, a frustrated middle-aged man made a comment about it being so busy. The young waitress replied, “It’s been like this all week. It’s because of Pokémon.” The man tucked his newspaper under his arm to sort through the change for his coffee, before declaring the whole thing was ridiculous. Meanwhile further up the hill, next to the lighthouse, an ice-cream van has been seeing a sharp spike in its sales during its typically slow winter season. Normally people aren’t at the harbour buying ice cream this time of year, but for Pokémon GO players these spots are essential for sustenance without having to leave the area and risk missing out on a rare Lapras or Blastoise.
This kind of experience is something that won’t quite be the same in any other cities or towns of the world. Wollongong has a high student population, but it’s also quite easy to get around in. The commute is easy enough by car, free city bus, or even walking from a lot of places – which is great for egg hatching. Thanks to the efforts of local Ingress players of yesteryear, there are four Pokéstops that are close enough together to be within range at the same time.

Much like any other festival, this layer of meaning for the area is only temporary. The cafes, the lighthouse, the cars of horny teens – these will all persevere long after the droves of Pokémon GO players begin to pursue other interests. It’s fleeting, but it has been a pretty amazing and unexpected thing to be a part of. As a regular attendee, the drop in numbers over the weeks is noticeable – the abuse yelled from cars, less passionate. The university semester is starting up again and life is pulling us all away again in different directions.

But the Pokéstops will still be there, and even when the hype dies down I’m sure that Pokémon GO players in the area will continue to be drawn to this spot. Pokémon GO has an invisible history here – the lighthouse and the harbour digitally haunted by the game that once brought a community of hundreds here for weeks at a time.
For players of Pokémon GO, this space will always have an augmented reality to it – even when the app is off.


3 thoughts on ““To The Lighthouse”: How Pokémon GO created community in Wollongong

  1. Pingback: Digital Haunting and Asynchronous Mourning – Angus Baillie

  2. Pingback: Episode 3: Gotta catch ’em all! Pokémon GO | Select Start Media

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s