Prepare For Free Market, And Make It Double! – Pokémon GO and Libertarianism

von Iván Goldman

The world seems to be witnesing a rise in the popularity of an historically marginal ideology: Libertarianism. Specifically, right-wing libertarianism, an ideology that although traces its origins to ancient philosopy took its current form in the United States in second half of the XXth century. Libertarians mainly believe in an almost complete lack of regulations to the economy, free market capitalism, individual freedoms and the reduction of the State to its smallest possible form (Bherer, 2023).

The victory of Javier Milei in Argentina’s presidential election (Buschschlüter, 2023), the rise in popularity of Vivek Ramaswamy in the political arena of the Republican Party in the United States (Reid, 2024) or even Elon Musk’s posts in the X social media platform (Robertson, 2022) are some of the most resounding examples of this trend. But libertarianism has probably been around in a widely consumed media for close to a decade through a videogame that was widely popular – and still is: Pokemon Go.

Although it would be too much to say that Pokemon is a libertarian video game, we could use it for a thought experiment. An experiment that could help us understand better why libertarianism is growing more widespread worldwide, and how some of its elements may have been around for longer than we thought.

Since its release in 2016 Pokemon Go has had a resounding success, amounting to 71 million players in 2021, six years after its original release by Niantic (Iqbal, 2022). Even though this game has inspired several lookalike games – with varied success – through its mixed reality functioning, trying to introduce widely popular fictional worlds to our reality. but the focus of this article is not that aspect. It is another remarkable element of Pokemon Go: the autonomy of the player.

Pokemon Go is a game where the player fully dictates the amount of multiplayer involvement it gives to the game. There is no requirement to go to a certain amount of gyms, capture certain pokemon or win a certain amount of fights to advance This element, which could be considered a casual element of the game, is also an element that could be understood as an element of libertarianism that constitutes the base of the gameplay mechanic, if we where to follow our thought experiment.

We will not be focusing on other possible avenues of analysis that could certainly deserve a second thought. Such as if the parent company intervening to fight hackers does not constitute a form of a Hobbesian Leviathan incarnated into Pokemon Go, where players exchange their data to protect their private property from outsider threats. Or the quite valid worries about the excess of freedom Pokemon Go gives the player potentially being harmful to the personal health of the players through addiction (Lemmens & Weergang, 2023). And if so, who is to take responsibility for that: the player or the company.

Instead, I will focus on another aspect of Pokemon Go that seems to show – in the framework of this thought experiment – that the relationship between this videogame and libertarianism seems to run profound, as it seems to be embedded in the matrix itself of the game mechanics.

Specifically, we could ask if a particular aspect of libertarian political thought – different from liberalism and neo-liberalism, its sister ideologies, in the ammount of central authority they are willing to tolerate, with libertarianism being the most extreme in this aspect (Coates, 2022) – appears to influence the gameplay dynamics of Pokemon Go: namely spontaneous order.

The idea is that in a chaotic world, free individuals could eventually arrive to order by themselves, through their actions (Smith, 2016). Spontaneous order is a concept central to libertarian political thought, that indicates there is no need for a central authority to exists for order to be established within a group of people. The voluntary free association of individuals could – again according to libertarians – lead to the creation of a cooperative order to achieve a common set of purposes without a central directorate imposing that order. (Boaz, 2019)

This may sound like an overly optimistic line of thought when it comes to the nature of human relations -if not naive-, but for the sake of our experiment let us try to follow these thoughts.

Following the theory of Friedrich Hayek, the intervention of an outside power would potentially limit the arrival of that order, even though those are not their intentions. As Smith (2016) recalls quoting Hayek (1974) “Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims.”

According to authors such as Smith (2016), Pokemon Go is driven by the voluntary association of players, without necessarily pushing them in this direction. Players meet up in the public space  -influenced also by the incentives and prizes the game gives for multiplayer interaction such as gymnasiums, raids and the possibility of obtaining experience or objects through other PvP and PvE actions -, but driven by their own will without any clear limits or demands imposed by the game itself. Players link up (in many cases without really knowing each other) to take on several challenges the Pokemon Go offers for those willing to dig into the multiplayer aspect of the game.

There is no specific game element that pushes players to interact, no closed spaces nor any obligation to inverse in the multiplayer aspect of the videogame. Just incentives to form interactions driven by human actions.

The game does not force you to cooperate or interact with others, but it does create incentives for the player to do so. As Boehm (2016) claims, “People freely chose the play the game and, in the course of playing it, they freely choose to associate with other people. You can play Pokemon Go alone in your bedroom, but you won’t be very successful. The game, like society at large, requires an individual player to seek out co-operation and competition in order to prosper.”

The game does have a lack of regulations that nudges the player to freely roam through the world while still being inside the game – this may be one of the most remarkable elements of the mixed reality focus of Pokemon Go -, or capture as many Pokemons as they want, in the end, it is still Pokemon, you have to catch ‘em all-, but no rule coerces them to act in a determined way.

Continuing with our thought experiment, we could argue that the aforementioned libertarian principle of spontaneous order is strongly present in in-game mechanics. The interaction between players in Pokemon Go is indeed player driven, with no “central authority” forcing it. As it also is Pokemon trading with a friend or other player in-game, it is a direct contact between two parts for their supposed mutual interests and benefit.

But if one were to look closer, there is another libertarian idea that seems to fit even better to  the gameplay mechanics of the massively successful Pokemon Go. A concept to seems to better explain the central research topic of our thought experiment: libertarian paternalism.

Cass Sunstein’s concept of libertarian paternalism proposes that the best way for State intervention in public affairs is the one that keeps the freedom of a person to decide not to follow a certain path. The State takes measures to influence the decisions of a person in a certain direction -which is assumed to be for the public good or the own benefit of the individual-but never forces the individual to take a certain position. It makes it easier to take the State-wanted position, but an individual would not be forced to do so necessarily. It is a form of paternalism that assumes that this practice is “good” to a degree and that the best way to pursue is preserving the autonomy of choice of the individual (Sunstein, 2017).

In our case, we do not have a state acting in Pokemon Go through incentives. We have a company – Niantic – playing that role and offering these incentives so the player takes certain actions and links to other players both in-game and in the real world, but it never forces you to do so. The Pokemon Go “overlords” never force us to interact with other players, but strongly incentivise us to do so. Because the company knows that multiplayer links are a key component to keeping an active player base, willing to spend on microtransactions this free-to-play game offers to become stronger and more efficient members of these spontaneous communities. Poke Balls, eggs, and incense are among the items the player can obtain – although not necessarily exclusively – with real-world money or through the in-game currency, PokeCoins.

There is a certain pattern of behaviours that the company is trying to push the player into, but it does so through incentives, not by forcing the player to do so. A certain way to play the game, following defined patterns of actions, but that are never imposed on the player. And of course, Niantic – and probably also Nintendo, Game Freak and The Pokemon company, the other three biggest Pokemon shareholders (Hilliard, 2023) – were probably not ignoring this mechanic when they came up with Pokemon Go. In fact, we could argue that Pokemon has always been a franchise based on capitalist logics. It could be said that the franchise has always been about competing with other players/characters, generally obtaining money when beating them so we can afterwards buy the best items to improve our Pokémon and then continue our capture-competing-profiting cycle. This, of course, could be a bit of a stretch and we may be overanalyzing things, but for the sake of this thought experiment, it is a perspective worth mentioning.

So it’s probably not the libertarian spontaneous order theory that explains best how Pokemon Go makes us act with other players, but the libertarian concept of paternalism which best seems to apply.

Critiquing political libertarianism and its ideas of a laissez faire capitalism and individual freedom above all is certainly valid. And the same people that are gaining popularity as the main exponents of this ideology surely will have to put to proof their theories against reality. A reality where it is not a game, but millions of livelihoods who are at stake when decision makers chose the path of a nation. The overtly free market and lack of regulations is effectively an extreme position, that probably has not found yet many examples outside of the books it was proposed in. But if we want to understand what libertarians believe and how they want to put to practice their ideals we will need better tools, regardless of what we want to do with this ideology.

The Pokemon go thought experiment is an attempt to understand in its broader terms, through the didactic capacity of videogames, libertarian ideology. And in this line, it is not the libertarian spontaneous order theory that explains best how Pokemon Go makes us act with other players, it is another form of libertarianism -libertarian paternalism- which best seems to apply to the case.

At the end of the day, you gotta catch ’em all, but you are not obliged to do so.


Bild: “Pokémon Go traffic advisory” by Cyclonebiskit via wikicommons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pok%C3%A9mon_Go_traffic_advisory.jpg).


Empfohlene Zitierweise : Iván Goldman, “Prepare For Free Market, And Make It Double! – Pokémon GO and Libertarianism” in: Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, <http://spielkult.hypotheses.org/5858> 04.06.2024


Bibliography


OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Eugen Pfister (4. Juni 2024). Prepare For Free Market, And Make It Double! – Pokémon GO and Libertarianism. Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaft. Abgerufen am 25. Juli 2024 von https://doi.org/10.58079/11rkj


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