To Catch ’em All, Campus Needs to be Accessible

One afternoon sometime in the middle of our summer, in need of a little sun—the glow of a monitor only goes so far—I picked up my laptop and headed out to the UT turtle pond to work underneath one of the shadier trees. While this spot is usually among the less crowded on our 50,000+ person campus, on that day it was bustling with more bodies than just those with shells. “Catch anything good out here?” a youngish voice asked me; another chimed in: “Only a 150 more Magikarp candy, and I’ll have me a Gyarados.”

Ah, yes, I thought as a flood of middle school memories rushed back to me, gotta catch ‘em all.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, these students were talking about Pokémon Go, the massively popular mobile app released this past July, and which raises a number of issues of interest to lab members and others attuned to accessibility. Based on the Ingress platform—which DWRL members explored previously—the augmented reality game allows users to “catch” classic Pokémon characters like Pikachu and Pidgey with their smartphones by overlaying cartoonish digital avatars onto a player’s real-world surroundings, the goal of course being to collect all 150 species. Because different ecologies spawn different types of creatures (water-type, such as Slowpoke, are more likely to be found near a lake), Pokémon Go functionally encourages players to set out and explore their world; and honestly, I have never seen Austin parks as full of faces as they have been the past couple months.

Listening to students, clearly total strangers to each other, talking about the game that day reminded me of Richard McCormick’s article from The Escapist on the growing importance of multiplayer games for social interaction, especially for incoming undergraduates:

Thrust into the strange new world of dormitory living, I sought refuge. Clustered around a small portable television, I found kindred spirits, drawn, like myself, to the noble art of GoldenEye. Spare controllers beckoned; I grabbed one and joined the fray with the comparative strangers. Would this work? Reassurance came immediately:

“No Oddjobs, yeah?”

I was home! Any anxiety about my new start melted away. These people weren’t strange freaks. They understood GoldenEye, so I understood them. It became more than a game; it was a social bridge between almost total strangers, a reference point so solid that it persisted despite other differences.Richard McCormick

Undoubtedly, such technologically assisted camaraderie is a good thing; yet what sets Pokémon Go apart from console classics like GoldenEye or Mario Kart is where and how the game gets played. To fully experience what the app has to offer, not only does a player need the right equipment—and cellphones can cost significantly more than top-of-the-line gaming platforms—but, perhaps more problematically, the game requires users to move around and travel to spaces simply not accessible to everyone. An Onix hanging out up high on a rocky ledge might make for a lively (even dangerous) climb for some, but that space would be out of reach for players who are older or who confined to a wheelchair.

While UT may not have (m)any cliffs like that, with dozens of Pokéstops and Gyms and spawning points on and around campus—to say nothing of the thousands of freshmen—accessibility and safety are obviously of major concern. With the DWRL’s extensive focus on and commitment to accessibility this year, our researchers will be keeping an eye out for those problematic parts of campus that might remain unfeasible or impassible for some players. And with any luck, our accessibility mapping project might ultimately help those students to be the very best, like no one ever was.

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