I remember very clearly, one of the first times I played Wizards Unite. The highly-anticipated (at least highly anticipated for Potter fans) Harry Potter mobile phone game to be released by Niantic, a videogame design firm I knew from Pokemon Go (which I have never played) and Ingress (which I have.) Part of Niantic’s claim-to-fame is their ability to produce games that overlay gameplay onto google maps: to engage with the “game world,” you literally walk to locations in the “real world” and interact with game elements that are geo-tagged to be located there.
A few days into playing the game, I visited the National Gallery of Art for an exhibit on renaissance paintings. As I wandered into a different wing of photorealistic oil paintings, my attention had waned, and so I turned on the game to see if any Harry Potter creatures were geo-tagged to the museum. Several were.
I then began to surreptitiously play the game while in the sparsely populated area. I would look at a painting of the seaside while the game loaded, then battle an Erkling (a spindly, thin goblin creature.) Erkling defeated and map reloading, I turned my attention to a still life with water shimmering through a translucent glass vase, and then looked at my phone to rescue a Mooncalf (a short, stubby, blue-furred, llama-like creature with overly large eyes) from its shackled chain. I glanced up to see to portrait woman lounged on a settee with a book. I could almost smell the light dust of forgotten past and the pine oil pressed into the glowing wood of the table where her book rested. A howler harassed two goblins. I wandered by an oversized landscape painting, which was taller than me and yet so finely detailed. I could hear the ducks as they cause small splashes as they skitted across the distant lake. I could hear to munching and soft grunting of the moose in the foreground as they grazed on the forest greens.
Alternating between the flat yet layered experience of the game with its limited pixels and yet fluid movement, and the static but deeply rich and real oil paintings caused my brain to kick into a higher gear. While one would think that playing a game would distract me from the paintings, playing the game immersed me in them more. By stimulating my brain’s flow and triggering my imagination, the game opened my mind to receive and mentally create more stimuli than were present in reality.
If playing the game increased my brain activity to such an extent that static, artistic depictions felt, sounded, and even smelled more real, then what exactly is being communicated by that game, and what augmented realities are finding their way into my mind without my being aware of it?
In the coming days, I’ll publish “Wizards Dis-United: How the Harry Potter Mobile Game Augments Reality to Strengthen White Supremacy.” A colleague, Michelle Ledder, and I are premiering it as a presentation at the Chestnut Hill College Harry Potter Academic Conference this Friday, October 16, 2020.