When Pokémon Go first appeared, many Christians were optimistic about where it might lead.
The game was “a great opportunity” to reach out to non-churchgoers, said the Church of England, which suggested parishes might offer players drinks and snacks and recharge their phone batteries.
“#PokemonGO is drawing people to churches,” tweeted Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay. “Great! What an excellent opportunity to share the love and mercy of Jesus in this Year of Mercy!”
But the designation of churches as PokéStops – sites where players can collect virtual items and catch Pokémon creatures – has not always worked out as anticipated.
Last week, a funeral at St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Brisbane was interrupted by two teenagers out hunting. The widow of the deceased told ABC: “My friend Geoffrey, he saw the young fellow put his phone up and take a Pokémon photo.”
Reports like these have provoked something of a backlash. Anna Turley, MP for Redcar, has asked the game’s manufacturers to remove places of worship and cemeteries from the list of sites. Toowoomba diocese in Australia has warned players that they could be committing trespass.
At their motherhouse in Milwaukee, the Sisters of St Francis of Assisi have put up a notice: “We ask out of consideration for both our sisters, as well as the serenity of the property, to please stop trying to ‘catch ’em all’ on our grounds.”
The sisters’ concern – that the character of the grounds was being changed by players wandering around looking for Pokémon – is a common one: by changing the physical landscape into a computer game, Pokémon Go can lead players to treat sacred places as if they were any other landmark.
But it’s not just a question of taste and decorum.
Stephen Morgan, a deacon in Portsmouth diocese, lives in a presbytery, and points out that many churches are also places where people live.
“While we always want to be available and welcoming to people, there’s being available and welcoming on the one hand, and there’s not being able to actually lead your life on the other,” Morgan says.
“When I find myself sitting in the garden on a Sunday afternoon trying to relax, and half a dozen people decide they’re going to come into your garden – well, I’m sorry, that is actually pretty intrusive.”
Morgan accepts that, living in a presbytery, you’re never going to have much privacy anyway. But he says he’s spoken to half a dozen priests of the diocese who’ve also found Pokémon Go presents a new level of disturbance.
One player, when Morgan pointed out that the garden was private property, responded: “No it isn’t. It’s a church.”
Morgan says his complaint isn’t with the players, but with the game’s manufacturers. In theory, it is easy for a PokéStop to resolve the problem: just fill out a form and they can take you off the list.
But to Morgan that system seems presumptuous. “We have 158 churches in the diocese of Portsmouth, not to mention convents and various other places. The idea that we should have to notify them which of those places we do and don’t want to be engaged is a nonsense.”
He says Niantic should have checked beforehand. “Why on earth didn’t they ask us?”
Even notifying the manufacturers doesn’t always resolve the issue. Cologne Cathedral is taking legal action against Niantic: they were overrun with Pokéhunters, and claim the company didn’t respond when asked to remove them from the list.
Caroline Farrow, whose husband is a priest, agrees that there have been unintended consequences. “The game designers obviously did not realise that many residential properties are attached to churches, and therefore players end up loitering in what is our front garden, and even attempting to gain access into our rear garden.”
Especially since Fr Jacques Hamel’s murder, she says, it can be unsettling to see people loitering around the church, or pulling up in cars and sitting for long periods of time. It creates unease and makes the church a less welcoming site to the general public.
And when you do engage with Pokémon players, they can be difficult.
“Computer games often prove frustrating and can cause people to get very aggressive, so together with groups of competitive young boisterous people, there is the tendency for things to get out of hand, or for people to be quite loud.”
Farrow says the prospects for evangelisation can be overstated: “It’s very difficult to approach someone who has their head buried in their phone, who is probably not going to be interested in learning about Jesus and is likely to be impatient about being interrupted.”
But a friendly and welcoming approach can get somewhere. “As ever, it’s about evangelising through gentle witness,” she says. “I have gone up to some young people and asked them whether or not they are ‘poking’ which has always raised a smile and begun some general conversation about the game.”
By their very nature, churches should be open to everyone; but they are also supposed to be prayerful and peaceful. So Pokémon presents an awkward judgment call.
The players’ manufacturers, Niantic, did not reply to a request for comment.
But given that their game relies so much on church properties, they may soon need to take steps to preserve a friendly relationship.