July 18, 2016

Pokémon Goes to the Hallett Nature Sanctuary in Central Park

Last Wednesday, on a pleasantly warm afternoon with increasing clouds, I set out to explore the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, a densely wooded area in the southeast section of Central Park near the Pond. Recently opened to the public after decades of being off limits, the area once known as “the Promontory” features a waterfall, scenic views, and thick woods inhabited by many birds. I also thought I would use the occasion of visiting the wild and unfamiliar landscape as a good place to try out Pokémon Go.

The rustic gates at the entrance to Hallett Nature Sanctuary in Central Park

Let me explain. Sharing my field notes of a relatively unknown section of Central Park seemed perfectly in tune with the mission of this website - to inspire people to connect with their city through walking and to explore new places. Pokémon Go, a wildly popular app-based game that overlays the natural landscape with a chase involving virtual cartoon monsters, is also said to inspire people to connect with their city through walking and to discover new things. At one point this past week, thousands of enthusiasts of the game rushed en masse to Central Park in order to capture a rare Pokémon, an incident characterized in media outlets as a “stampede.”

Reviews and commentary have noted several positive social aspects of the game. For an opinion piece in The New York Times, editor Sarah Jeong shares her experience playing the game in San Francisco: "Pokémon Go gave me new eyes with which to look at my city. It pushed me to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air, and to strike up conversations with strangers." (Pokémon Go Connects Us to Our Cities and Neighbors. July 13, 2016)  For The Atlantic's CityLab, writer Laura Bliss offers that Pokémon Go "has created a new class of urban explorers, roaming busy streets and sidewalks—where there's more density, there's more game action—with phones in hand, occasionally lifting their eyes to register actual surroundings." (Pokémon Go Has Created a New Kind of Flâneur, July 12, 2016).

On the negative side, distracted Pokémon Go “trainers” have bumped into lampposts and fallen off cliffs, among other hazards. Certainly, a walk is best undertaken with full attention to the surroundings, at the very least for safety reasons. The game’s startup screen includes such a reminder. Anyone with a tendency to daydream while in motion understands the safety risk. A fully mindful walk should involve as many senses as possible – for example, the sight of sunlight through tree branches, the sounds of chirping birds, the sensation of walking on fallen leaves. Playing a phone game while walking usually distracts from being fully present.

View from the top of a waterfall in the Hallett Nature Sanctuary in Central Park

In Central Park, designers have long tried to educate visitors about the surrounding landscape. Tree-identification signs, historical markers, and real-life volunteers all help introduce wanderers to the wonders of Central Park. To the game’s credit, Pokémon Go includes stops at city landmarks, including many within the park, some of which may be unfamiliar and surprising.   

In the early days of Central Park, designer Frederick Law Olmsted was keenly aware that visitors often ignored the uplifting elements of the park. They routinely trashed it. Olmsted instructed that hundreds of signs be put in place to warn people not to throw stones, harm birds, and trample on the grass, among other things. He advocated for more park policing. Imagine Olmsted's bewilderment at the sight of thousands of visitors roaming through his scenic landscape for the purpose of capturing imaginary species of birds, rats, insects, and other sorts of creatures.

A path in the sanctuary
When I arrived at Hallett Nature Sanctuary, I was curious how Pokémon Go would shape my explorations. Would playing the game detract from an "authentic" mindful experience? How would a stroll based on my own whims or impulses differ from a highly mediated game experience, even one with lots of options? Would playing Pokémon Go violate the spirit of Frederick Law Olmsted's warnings against throwing stones and annoying the birds? How guilty would I feel playing a game on my phone while walking in a quiet nature sanctuary? 

After greeting a park volunteer who inquired where I was from and made note of it on his clipboard, I entered the sanctuary through the rustic gates and proceeded to walk up a path leading to the top of a waterfall. There, as I wandered near the edge, another park volunteer said she wanted to make sure I was wearing sturdy shoes. I was then given directions about where to walk next. At this point, I had not reached for my phone to chase imaginary monsters.

While stopping at the next overlook, and encountering yet another park volunteer, I met a fellow explorer. Michael Schulman, a writer for The New Yorker, said he was also interested in the phenomenon of Pokémon Go, particularly its parallels to birding. He asked if I would be interested in talking about his idea. A lively and inspiring conversation ensued as we strolled the paths of the sanctuary and decided to play the game together. We alternated our attempts to identify real birds and plants with discovering and capturing various Pokémon. We talked about what it all meant. We no doubt befuddled a park volunteer here and there through our game-playing antics. The whole experience was a little Wonderland-ish, and it was completely charming. We laughed a whole lot.

In meeting such a congenial walking companion, I could hardly hold any resentment toward the game. The reviewers who noted that it was possible to make friends playing Pokémon Go were absolutely right.

Playing Pokémon Go while trying to appreciate the sanctuary at the same time nevertheless confounded my perceptions. The real world and a virtual one became one flat surface, like blending layers in Photoshop. When a horned chubby little creature called Pinsir, a Stag Beetle Pokémon with a large mandible, suddenly appeared through my phone’s camera, the vision struck me as hilarious and absurd. At some point, though, we have to wonder how such virtual distractions might detract from the immediate and critical needs of our shared natural environment.  

Other thoughts came to mind while contemplating this new type of game. Even without phone apps and digital interfaces, I thought, we naturally tend to augment our own reality by exercising our imaginations. We’re always carrying our own baggage. Memories of novels, plays, histories, music, and art, along with the stardust of personal experiences (a game reference here), can enhance the experience of a walk by superimposing fragments of the imagination on the surroundings. I suppose certain herbal concoctions would also do the trick. On this summer mid-day walk in the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, I said to Michael that our playful experience reminded me of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. I could see Puck, Titania, Bottom, and Oberon in the nature sanctuary before me, if only in my mind’s eye, the way I imagined them long ago when I first read the play.

Of course, Shakespeare can be found in several places in Central Park, including the Delacorte Theater, the nearby Shakespeare Garden, and a statue in the Mall, and he was there long before Pokémon. Beyond the Bard, many park attractions are designed to augment the visitor’s experience by celebrating works of the imagination. For example, Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of A Secret Garden (1911), is commemorated with a fountain in the park's Conservatory Garden. Alice in Wonderland is here, too, represented in a statue of Alice and her friends near the Conservatory Water. Maybe, someday soon, someone hurriedly chasing a Pokémon on the park’s east side near 74th Street will have the occasion to stumble across Alice and company. I just hope they watch out for any rabbit holes.

The sanctuary is located near The Pond (above) in the southeast section of Central Park.

Additional:

For directions to Hallett Nature Sanctuary in Central Park, see the official website for Central Park.

Michael Schulman’s account of our walk may be found in the July 25, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from July 13, 2016.

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