It is early summer, 2018. I am a Virginian, but I have just moved to Charlottesville, Virginia after many years living in the North. I have brought with me my habit of playing Pokémon Go.
In Pokémon Go, players use a smartphone app to track cartoon animals around physical space. The game populates its digital world using historical markers, so old headstones or memorials can become pilgrimage sites for Pokémon-seekers. All over the country, I’ve walked through rows of graves, immersed in my phone, searching out locations called “Praying Angel” or “Lady in Mourning.”
In Charlottesville, however, Pokémon Go reveals a landscape of racial devastation. Just up the block from the pleasant street on which I live, the game directs me to a site called “Unmarked Slave Graveyard.” On my phone, I read the app’s descriptive text, which must come from a historical marker so small that I can’t locate it anywhere in the physical world. The game teaches me that “This area contains unmarked graves believed to be those of slaves of the Maury family, owners of Piedmont in the nineteenth century.”
“Unmarked Slave Graveyard” is not a cemetery; it is the absence of one. It is a public space that marks a group of people who were never permitted to constitute the public. If I continue to walk closer into town, I can also play at “Civil War Confederate Dead Memorial,” which is unmistakably a cemetery. The game text here reads, pulling from another historical marker, “Fate denied them victory but crowned them with glorious immortality.” Whatever immortality the enslaved people of Charlottesville may have, it is only because their descendants, those who still live in town, have willed it.
At the time of General Lee’s surrender, Albemarle County, where the city of Charlottesville is located, was about 54 percent black — mostly enslaved people, some free. But as is the case across the U.S. South, white terror decimated that majority. Now residential neighborhoods have been carved out of plantations, reshaping landscapes of pillage into chunks of twentieth-century ranch-houses as if from a blood-stained clay. This haphazard reconstruction did little to bury the horrors — rape, lynching, dehumanization, sterilization — beneath the soil. Instead, the opposite: it is pro-Confederate historical markers and statues that rise up from the earth, towering over the landscape.
I am ashamed to play Pokémon Go at an Unmarked Slave Graveyard, and I am also ashamed that without Pokémon Go, I may never have known that there is this small memorial in my neighborhood.
When Pokémon Go became an overnight phenomenon in 2016, it immediately spawned a number of valid human geography critiques: wandering around strange neighborhoods is fun for whites but can be deadly if you’re black. In addition, because the game’s map pulls user-generated data from the majority white-and-affluent player base, there are far fewer Pokémon and in-game items on “the other side of the tracks.” Perhaps most memorably, DC’s Holocaust Museum was forced to request that visitors not treat sacred sites like a summer-camp scavenger hunt.
And indeed, the appearance of the game itself plays a role in evaporating violent histories from the human landscape. Unlike in the physical world, almost all sites in Pokémon Go’s digital architecture are the same size and shape: light blue squares. There is a visual equivalence between, say, the apologetic plaque about the triumph of Virginia’s eugenicist sterilization law in the Buck v. Bell decision, or the Rio Hill 1864 Skirmish (the site of a Confederate victory, now a shopping center), or, down McIntire Road, an inexplicable statue of a polar bear. All of these sites blend together, a series of indistinguishable icons on the digital horizon.
And yet, this virtual transmutation of scale also marks possibility. In Pokémon Go, Lost-Cause Confederate memorials have been shrunk. They are no grander, no more prominent, than any other site in town. They do not cast a shadow. It is easy to imagine the city without them.
By early July, my fellow Pokémon Go players are becoming anxious about the upcoming anniversary of what they call “August 11th and 12th,” what the rest of the country simply calls “Charlottesville.” Since moving here, I’ve noticed that everyone in town wants to tell me their stories of last year. There’s a trauma-response to repeat it, to describe how close you were to Water Street, where Heather Heyer was killed when a white supremacist drove his vehicle into a crowd of protesters. (“I was just down the street, at the church;” “I was at home, but really, that’s only like ten blocks away”). In town, there are basically two political parties: those who believe that last year’s events were perpetrated by “outsiders,” and those who see them as expressions of the city’s own white supremacist foundations.
But this year, August 11th and 12th is already shaping up to be different. Presumably, in an attempt to avoid the lawsuits that would erupt if last year’s violence repeated itself, the City of Charlottesville is trying to make sure that no one goes to these sites next weekend. Or, indeed, goes anywhere in town. City parks will be closed. Rec centers will be closed. Large swaths of UVa’s campus will be closed. Downtown streets will be rerouted. And everywhere there will be cops and cameras. I — a white man, who is never questioned about my circuitous and distracted paths through town — usually spend my weekends traveling by foot through these spaces, looking for creatures. But next week, to keep me safe from white supremacy, the city wants me to stay away from itself.
Every month, Pokémon Go holds a “Community Day.” Across the globe, millions of players have a few hours of their local-time afternoon to acquire special Pokémon. The events are festive; in mid-size cities like Charlottesville, one or two hundred people might congregate downtown, move together in sweet, nerdy clusters: rainbow-haired and grey-haired, wheelchair-users and joggers, mostly-but-not-only white. People huddle together to battle bosses, cheer for each other across the lawn when someone gets a lucky catch. We surely look absurd, living in this alternate world, but for three hours a month, we are doing it together.
In mid-July, we find out that August’s Community Day will be extra special: instead of one day, it will be two back-to-back. All over the world, Pokémon Go players will flood into the streets of their cities, towns, and villages on August 11th and 12th.
Charlottesville’s Pokémon Go community is very organized. On Facebook and GroupMe and Discord, we are trying to figure out what to do. One member emailed Niantic, Pokémon Go’s parent company, and asked if our city could have an alternative event. After all, no one knows yet if there will be another white supremacist rally. No one knows yet if more students will be threatened, if more black residents will be prosecuted for the crime of having been beaten.
Niantic denied the request to reschedule the event for Charlottesville. After all, given the global scale of the event, we’re surely not the first town to experience a Community Day on a day when our community is in mourning, or in hiding, or gearing up to fight. All over the world, Pokémon Go’s benign alternate reality, in which cartoon animals can only faint and can always be revived, must contend with temporal and spatial memories of carnage.
Many of my fellow gamers seem scared. Some people have vowed to play, to defy the Nazis and the KKK and the rest and to seek instead the pleasure of being outdoors in the city where they live. Others are unwilling to risk battery at the hands of protestors or police. Some of those who can afford it are traveling to other cities like Danville or Richmond, where the Confederate memorials, along with the other markers that populate the game, will be unobstructed and open to the public. Being dispersed across the state is such a disappointment to all of us, so antithetical to the idea of a “community day” event. In June and July, we had all gathered on UVA’s campus, across from slaveholder-founder Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda, to play together.
On Community Day, a handful of Charlottesville’s Pokémon Go players ventured to the downtown mall, the site of last year’s fatal attack. On the way to the city center, I passed “Unmarked Slave Graveyard,” which looks abandoned, and “Civil War Confederate War Memorial,” guarded by an officer. To get downtown, I passed through a police checkpoint: my bike helmet was banned, my bag was searched, my external charger was scrutinized. For hours, I toggled between the Pokémon app and my phone’s camera, trying to watch the watchmen. Phones, when you are surrounded by state agents with guns, begin to feel like one’s only defensive weapon.
When the Community Day event began, we huddled together and took small loops within the cordoned-off brick blocks that have served as the public square. The state had parked a dump truck in front of Heather Heyer’s memorial; in chalk, someone had written, “ASK THEM TO MOVE THE DUMP TRUCK.” No one wanted to play Pokemon there. We walked to the Lee statue, following Eevees along the tiny permitted route; it was littered with National Guard. They sat in a ring, facing us, protecting it.
That night, at an anti-racist protest on UVA’s campus, I found myself an arm’s length from the riot police. They looked a little like video game characters themselves, almost comical with their faux-Spartan shields. Behind me, I heard someone scream at the phalanx of helmets. She was close to weeping and sounded like she was begging for her life: “they’re just students! They’re just talking!” Thomas Jefferson’s statue, at that moment perhaps the most heavily-fortified Pokémon Go site in the world, stayed perfectly safe.
The next day, I stayed in bed until noon. I had nightmares about being tear-gassed. It was the second Community Day. We gathered, on campus this time, to walk again in slow circles. I went back to the site of the riot-cop line. It was just a stretch of grass, a colonial-brick sidewalk. The police were moving out, hauling their gear from the classroom they had expropriated, rolling wheeled desks back in. With slow movement and clear voice, I explained to a security guard that we were just here to play Pokémon Go, that we’d just be walking together on grounds. I had taken care not to wear black, not to wear red, not to wear a bandana, not to carry a backpack. She assured me that we could play as much as we wanted, that everything in Charlottesville was back to normal.