Could the virtual world of Pokémon Go be used to help rich Indians see real struggles of the poor?

By Dr. Reetika Khera
If users could be made to hunt for Pokémon characters in slum clusters and fair-price shops, maybe the elite would become more aware of those on the margins

Image credit: Jessica Pudussery | Image for representation purposes only
I spent the period between January and March reading about the rise of the welfare state in many parts of the world, especially in England, where it was cemented in the 1940s and ’50s. An important thread in my reading was around the evolution of a consensus – fragile and difficult, though it may have been – across conflicting sections of society. One factor, among many, that led to the creation of the welfare state in many parts of the world was World War II. In the case of England, it brought home the fact that when the bombs fell, they would not distinguish between the rich and the poor and that everyone was in it together. Another side plot related to the consensus and World War II was that in September 1939, a few days before England declared war, 3.5 million children were billeted, or housed in safer places, away from the cities that could be targeted by bombers. This meant that poor London kids went to live with posh families in the rural England and so on. Among them were children who refused to drink milk, because they had seen a cow being milked and thought it was urine. Other children were unaccustomed to using toilets, so they would soil the carpets of affluent. For the first time, England's rich encountered the conditions of the poor, and to some extent, this helped them develop empathy towards their condition. Closer home In theory, India is a welfare state, one in which the government is to play a key role in the well-being of the people through provisions regarding health, education and the like. However, the hostile atmosphere in which the debate on a welfare state in India is conducted is quite striking. The lack of empathy is among the powerful elite is bewildering – for instance, most recently, viewers and readers accused media of politicising the issue when they reported on Dalit atrocities in Una, Gujarat, where four Dalit tanners had been publicly flogged by self-styled cow protection vigilantes. I wondered about this lack of empathy among Indians who have made it towards those who are struggling. One reason for this seems to be that they are shielded from the harsh reality of a large part of the population. We live in our busy little bubbles. The media, caught in the race for TRPs and controlled by corporations, is not able to adequately perform the role of information sharing. Social media, which can potentially be more democratic, is sadly not within the reach of ordinary people.No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald, on American whistleblower Edward Snowden, I was struck by one remark in the book. Greenwald says that for Snowden (and apparently, for others in his generation), video games have played an important role in the development of a moral compass. Game on When Pokémon Go – a“location-based, augmented reality game”in which players are alerted to virtual Pokémon characters in their vicinity, using GPS – hit the headlines and generated wide discussion, I wondered: couldn't the developers use the game to draw privileged Indians out of their air-conditioned bubbles and be forced to confront an ordinary Indian’s life? Couldn’t the characters be hiding in bastis and settlements rather than in Delhi’s malls, forcing players to (wait-wait-wait) for DTC buses to get there and walk among basti residents as they queue up for water suppliers? Or maybe, Ivysaur could be tucked under one of Delhi’s flyovers so that players can see the variety of people and activities they shelter? What if a judge (who is hooked to Pokémon Go) could be dragged to a Public Distribution System outlet to catch Butterfree, so that he can see that biometric authentication based on Aadhar numbers, instead of reducing corruption in the system, is actually opening the doors to it? Couldn’t Charmander appear in a local anganwadi, say, in Odisha, where children are fed nutritious eggs and provided pre-school education? In Uttar Pradesh, Zizagoon could hide in a local government school, where a privileged Pokémon Goplayer shows up to see a teacher pacing the classroom, a cane in hand, or where a Dalit child is beaten up without reason. What if Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist were to sit in a field levelled by labourers who worked under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, so that gamers may see that “gaddhe khodna”, (or digging holes, a term that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had used last year to criticise the United Progressive Alliance's flagship scheme) can be productive in some contexts? The lives of others The possibilities are endless. These are just some of the wide range of experiences in store for privileged people if the game was slightly tweaked. In some places, we see how government interventions are working, and in others, they might be a disaster. Many members of the online troll armies feel embittered and cheated as tax payers.As the trolls try to swell their armies in search for Pikachu, they may have a chance to see that sometimes, tax money is put to good use. And when it isn’t, who knows, this may compel them to engage in more constructive ways? Though the social media campaign to by Syrian activists to tap into the popularity of Pokémon Go may not to go too far in saving the war-torn country's children – the economic interests in dropping bombs are stacked high against Syrian babies – perhaps the game may help in pushing some Indians out of their cosy cocoons. Could Pokémon Go do for us in contemporary India, what the billeting of kids did for England during the Second World War?
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