Why augmented reality is triggering cultural conflict and religious controversy

A Russian man was recently given a three-and-a-half year suspended sentence for inciting religious hatred. His crime? Playing the popular augmented reality (AR) game Pokémon Go on his smartphone in a church.

Sacred spaces and games have long had an uneasy relationship. In 2002, a setting resembling Amritsar’s Golden Temple appeared in the violent video game Hitman 2. Controversy ensued. But more than digitally recreating sacred places, we now have games that physically encroach on those spaces, incorporating them into location-based AR systems. Inside Gujarati temples where eggs are forbidden, were found some of Pokémon Go’s “virtual eggs”. Controversy ensued, again.

AR is a simple idea with endlessly complicated implications – look around using special glasses or a smartphone camera, add software with location awareness, and the software can overlay information on a scene or even make things appear to be located “in” physical space. AR turns physical sites into raw materials for the creation of new media, producing hybrids that are simultaneously everyday places and digital wonderlands.

As its popularity increases AR comes up against established norms and interests. Legal systems have to try to get to grips with new technology, there is cultural confusion about “virtual” items located in physical spaces and questions are raised as to who should have control when public or private or holy places meet digital culture.

Much is heard nowadays about the “cultural appropriation” of styles and images, but here we have software that bypasses that kind of appropriation by making use of physical sites as part of a game. Owing something to traditions of appropriation art, AR borrows and recontextualises what it finds in its path.

This brings to the physical world something nearer the slippery aesthetics of video games: a meeting of creators’ intent and players’ freedom, where environments are hybrids of artwork and playground. The design of physical sites conveys intent already, from statues telling us about notable people to walls obliging us to keep out – but AR adds an extra, optional, transformational layer, and it makes changing the meaning of that layer merely a matter of switching between apps.

Think that statues in public places are too seldom of notable women? Augment your reality to change that. Sickened by the pervasive commercialism of adverts on the subway? Use an AR app on your phone to see artworks in their place. Feel that a mark of acceptance of homosexuality would look nice in the (notoriously intolerant) Westboro Baptist Church? It’s been done.

Mass adoption of technology brings mass culture with it and grassroots cultural transformations emerge

This too evokes older practices in gaming culture, especially the parts of it that alter games with hacks and mods. Using AR to erect statues of women has a similar motive to hacking Donkey Kong to switch the hero with the damsel. AR quietly enables people to edit their environments – on a personal, virtual level, without the intrusive downsides of normal graffiti. But nothing remains personal for long in the age of sharing apps and social media. Something that might initially be a personal virtual world can quickly go viral. 

Previous debates concerning culture and virtual or augmented reality have involved what museums and other institutions might do with the technology – and what it can do for preservation and public access to artefacts. Mass adoption of technology brings mass culture with it and grassroots cultural transformations emerge.

The legal disputes show that this is not always a simple, happy tale of technology empowering individuals and subcultures. Neither is controversy confined to arguments about what is done in sacred spaces. In Milwaukee another legal case is being fought after unauthorised AR was banned from public parks following damage by hordes of Pokémon hunters. The makers of an AR poker game called Texas Rope ’Em have objected to the restriction on free speech grounds.

Those in charge of Milwaukee’s public parks can point to the literal grass roots in their care. For Russian churches and Gujarati temples, something subtler seems to be at stake – not physical damage or pollution, but an unease with the implications when holy ground becomes enmeshed in the profane geography of an AR game, even when nothing is visible to those not choosing to play. Religion, after all, is a part of life particularly well attuned to the thought that there can be important realities which we cannot normally perceive.

Cultural controversies are often struggles for control and a sense of ownership – sometimes of physical sites or artefacts, but often of subtler trappings of identity. Technology has frequently brought with it the end of traditional ways of life. In augmented reality all three come together: the use of connected technologies to blend the physical and digital worlds in ways still weakly understood.

If you like this era of guerrilla statuary and ad-blocking on the subway, enjoy it while it lasts. AR has its commercial dimension, as the Pokémon Go craze has proved, and has been touted for some time as virgin territory for the advertising industry.

 is an Honorary Fellow (Philosophy), Durham University. This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

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