Dancing in the Cemetery

Pokemon Go has taken over the Internet. I can’t open my Facebook Feed without information, invitations, and articles jumping out every couple of lines. I’ve seen a lot of favorable reactions to the game. Gamers are becoming more social, more active, people are seeing more of my city than they would have at any other time. I’ve also seen negative reactions. A chain coffee shop downtown had property vandalized due to the proximity to game locations. Friends have posted about race discrimination toward players. One of the most interesting discussion I’ve seen involves the use of cemeteries in the game.

I’m Michigan based, so when I saw local news reporting on community reactions I took notice. Several of the locals expressed dissatisfaction with both the players and the cemetery management in the article linked below. However, one of the players countered that the cemetery is getting more public use than ever before because of Pokemon Go.

“That is so disrespectful. My parents paid good money to be resting here in peace,” Jill Marek said. “And to have strangers walk all over their grave sites? No.”

The reason I am so fascinated by Pokemon Go and this discussion of game play in cemeteries dates back to a book I read in 2011 Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. In the book McGonigal explains a controversial game she invented call Tombstone Hold ‘Em. Which is poker played in cemeteries. She ran in to similar issues with communities:

To say that some people find the idea of playing games in a real-world cemetery inappropriate would be putting it mildly. In the United States in particular, we have a culture of grieving as quietly, and solemnly as possible.

She used the activity to “hack happiness” because cogitating about death has been shown to improve ease anxiety and stress. While her game differs from Pokemon Go in the level of interaction with the gravestones and grounds, cultivating more knowledge about the area and deceased, she points out there are other benefits in regard to playing in cemeteries.

[L]ack of participation in cemetery spaces has become a huge problem from an industry standpoint (cemeteries are running out of money), a community standpoint (the less visited a cemetery is, the more likely it is to be poorly maintained and vandalized), and, perhaps most of all, from a happiness stand point (according to the research, the less time we spend in cemeteries, the more likely we are to suffer from fear and anxiety about death).

Reality is Broken has changed my perspective on making the most of the cemetery (among other things). I would encourage those who feel their loved ones are being disturbed by otherwise respectful players to consider if the dead would really want such a peaceful place or if bringing happiness to others may be a better alternative.

For more information about the use of games to improve lives I recommend the book. McGonigal also review some of the highlights in her TED Talk below.

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