Can religion or a religious place be hurt or defiled by elements in virtual reality? Can an egg — considered non-vegetarian by many and thus banned from Hindu and Jain places of worship — in the virtual world hurt the sentiments of believers in the real world?
To many these might appear to be weird questions and absurd correlations, but the Gujarat High Court sees merit in them. On Wednesday it issued notices to the state and central governments and gave them four weeks’ time to reply to a public interest litigation, which stated that the game Pokémon Go hurt the religious sentiments of some communities. A notice was also issued to the Niantic Inc, the San Francisco-based developers of the game.
For those who’re unfamiliar with what’s this hullabaloo, or if you have just crawled out from under a stone, Pokémon Go is a location-based augmented reality game. An augmented reality game places virtual characters and objects in a real world. Often the gamer has to reach the point where the virtual character is placed and interact/capture/kill it to advance in the game. Pokémon Go has monsters that have to be captured, gyms where fights take place and stops where if you reach you’re rewarded.
The name Pokémon is familiar to many who grew up watching the Japanese anime series in the nineties and noughties, and of course there was Pokémon on Game Boy.
Pokémon Go, which was launched in July, became an overnight success with Apple declaring that it was the most downloaded free app in a week. With fame comes controversies and it didn’t take long for Pokémon Go too.
The current controversy surrounding the game in India is over eggs being (virtually) placed in places of worship where it is considered to defile the sanctity of that place of worship.
While religious sentiments that confirm to the laws of the land need to be respected, this PIL is stretching the argument a bit too thin. It’s not that a believer offering prayers at a temple is going to see a Pokémon egg. In that sense, the virtual egg is in the mind of the person — clear the mind and that egg will not hatch.
It’s not the first time Pokémon Go is courting trouble: The game developers have been criticised for keeping PokeStops at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and at the Auschwitz camp in Poland. After gamers were found playing while at the cemetery, the Arlington National Cemetery requested visitors to “refrain” from playing the game while at ANC. Many people have objected to PokeStops and gyms being “located” in their houses. Similar steps to discourage gamers have been taken at the Genocide Museum at Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Iran has banned the game and in many countries, including India, it is yet to be officially launched. All this is in addition to previous controversies, like whether the game allows Niantic to snoop through your Gmail.
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It will be interesting to see the government’s response and the judgment of the court on this matter. However, if the court decides that an egg in the virtual world does hurt religious sentiments, here are some weird questions that could be raised: Should Sachin Tendulkar, Saina Nehwal and Dharmendra, who’ve appeared in advertisements for the National Egg Co-ordination Committee (NECC), be banned from entering temples? What should be done about birds — real birds — that build nests — that might have real eggs — in temple premises? And should animal lovers boycott Erwin Schrödinger for likely killing the cat?
Religion should be the bridge that connects the inner self — the soul which is beyond time and age — with the mortal body in this world. In this case connecting religion with the virtual world is laughable. It’s an HTTP 400 Error.