Shortly after Pokémon Go launched in 2016, as giddy players rushed out into their communities to catch virtual monsters and Hillary Clinton urged voters to “Pokémon Go to the polls,” the game made headlines for the very worst of reasons: Players were finding Pokéstops, a major source of loot, at the official 9/11 Memorial in New York City, among other sensitive landmarks. “Never Forget to Play Pokémon Go at the 9/11 Memorial,” mocked Gothamist, and the New York Post quoted scandalized visitors remarking on how inappropriate it was.
Manhattan’s 9/11 Memorial, with its massive waterfalls and rows of plaques with the names of the victims, is supposed to be awe-inspiring and solemn, not a place to play games. (Worse still, it was reported that a Koffing, one of the poison-gas Pokémon, coincidentally appeared at the site.) But it was also, just a couple of years earlier, on the receiving end of a lecture on what is and isn’t appropriate for such a site, as survivors and families of victims chasisted the accompanying museum for its gaudy gift shop, including dog vests and toy trucks, on ground where human remains aren’t far away. It turns out that remembrance and good taste don’t always go hand in hand.
I’m from New Jersey, where our 9/11 memorials also sometimes struggle to strike that delicate balance. While 9/11 is, for obvious reasons, most commonly associated geographically with the city where the attacks on the Twin Towers took place, more than 700 of the victims—the exact number varies depending on who is counting and how—were from across the river. Small towns in New Jersey experienced 9/11 not only as a national tragedy but also as a series of local ones, as many communities within commuting distance to the World Trade Center saw residents go to work one morning and never come home.
The result is that, while the state’s official memorial in Jersey City is, like the one in New York, a site for awe and solemnity, many of New Jersey’s 9/11 remembrances are scattered throughout in much more mundane settings: in parks, on golf courses, near train platforms, by the side of the road, and even tucked inside shopping malls. (The state’s tourism site helpfully notes that one such landmark in Paramus—which prominently features the mall’s real estate company’s logo under a reminder of “this darkest of days in the United States”—can be found “near Macy’s.”) It is impossible to treat them all with awe and solemnity; you’d have to be awed and solemn most of the time. When reminders are everywhere, it’s easy to forget about them.
The truth is, I never even really thought about these local landmarks all that much until I started playing Pokémon Go. I was a kid on September 11, 2001, so the ubiquitous memorials have been around just about as long as I can remember—they’re one of those things you don’t notice are weird about your hometown until you go out in the world and realize that, actually, most people don’t live the way you do. But because Pokéstops tend to be local landmarks usually selected by other local players, I’ve come across quite a few 9/11 memorials in the game where I live in Central Jersey, and now I think about them much more than I used to.
When you interact with a Pokéstop, you often get a little postcard with a picture of the site that you can send to other players. Many of my Pokémon Go “friends” are actually strangers, often from other countries. Pokémon Go’s lack of any kind of chat feature means these postcards are really the only form of communication: They send me postcards of their local landmarks in their towns in Japan, England, Sudan, and I send them postcards of mine. Every now and then, that means I send them a photo of a little rock with a plaque on it, flanked by American flags, that I pass by a lot. The names of the victims are too small to read in the pictures; without the caption saying as much, it would be hard to tell what these are memorials for. I sometimes wonder what the recipients think, if they think about them at all.
Are 9/11 Pokéstops insensitive? Maybe. Then again, other memorials—monuments to war veterans or benches dedicated to individuals—are Pokéstops, too. Part of the objection to Pokéstops at the 9/11 Memorial in New York was that the massive site is meant to be a place to pay your respects and remember, not play around on your phone. But what if you’re somewhere else, and you’re already playing around on your phone? Pokémon Go’s virtual world is a reflection of the real one, and one of its main appeals is the way it encourages players to engage with and discover new parts of their communities. Those discoveries can be oddly touching—if not always tasteful.