At Play in the Carceral State is a week-long series investigating play in, around, and about prisons and prison culture. Learn more here.
Content warning for use of an ethnic slur.
In the summer of 2016, I was in a crazed state of trying to footnote my thesis about the Guantánamo Bay Detainee Library. I desperately wanted to rejoin society, but more specifically, I wanted to rejoin whoever in society was having fun. Yet, when word reached me that Pokémon Go has come to Boston and swallowed it whole, I still tied it back to work.
I began to Google variations of these search terms: "Pokémon Go," "Gitmo," "violation." I find a map that suggests Mewtwos are indeed meandering around the naval base, but I also find a thread on Reddit that says that the game is deactivated on at least some US military bases. (I realize in retrospect that this search was my idea of fun.)
Almost a year after this Google search, I find myself at a table of gamers at Gitmo. They're a hodgepodge of people serving in the U.S. Navy and contractors, and we're about to play a game of Codenames. And, finally, I get to ask my panoply of Pokémon Go questions. It's the focus group I've always wanted.
Maegann Foster, one of my four escorts, works in the U.S. Naval Station's Public Affairs Office. She explains to me that the Harbor Unit at Gitmo, a.k.a. the Water Police, actually found a lot of Pokémon in the middle of the bay during patrols of the Caribbean Sea .
"We got in trouble, 'cause you're supposed to be looking for bad guys, not Pokémon," she says.
Someone else at the table jokes, "Same thing really."
Another player, Petty Officer 2nd Class Zachary Anderson, a mass communication specialist at Gitmo's radio station, chimes in and says, "They had their phones out the whole time, and at one point, they were walking around the building and at one point, I had to yell at them both. I was like, 'If I see the phone one more time with the dang Pokémon Go…' "
"We got in trouble, 'cause you're supposed to be looking for bad guys, not Pokémon…"
Before we dig into Codenames, Foster tells me a bit about her own experiences with games. "I'm a novice when it comes to game night, but I actually grew up with more games. My dad was obsessed with Monopoly, so in turn, I know everything about Monopoly. But my favorite board game is definitely Hit the Beach."
"It's from the 1960s, and it's a World War II game. As an adult, looking back," she laughs, "it's slightly stereotypical of the World War II era, because you have to fight the Japs as the Marines, and you have the plane with the Army and stuff, and it's this odd wargame, but it was always my favorite as a kid."
I ask if anyone at the table has ever heard of GMT Games, the makers of A Distant Plain, The Virgin Queen, and other tabletop strategy wargames that takes hours and hours and hours to figure out and even longer to play.
There's an awkward pause. Anderson leans into the table and says, "GMT? GMT? I don't like that word."
Foster jumps in and clarifies, "Yeah, that means something completely different for military."
Anderson says, "It means, General Military Training."
The exchange is a reminder that there are so many stages of military service that I'm unfamiliar with. Talking at the table becomes a chance to better understand everyone's experiences at Gitmo. And even though, I am accompanied by an escort and am recording gameplay, there's this unexpectedly relaxed atmosphere. As we go around the table, everyone introduces themselves. George Parker, a contractor, is up next.
"I arrived here in August of last year. When I arrived," he explains, "there was internet, but there really wasn't internet. That's a big deal for Gitmo."
He pauses, "So, there was two months with sort of no connection to the real world, and the board game group was way into it."
There's a note of nostalgia in his voice. "It was a lot more active," he reflects.
"I think, T-Mobile made it easier for people to stay home and watch TV instead of forcing themselves to go out and do something on a Saturday night or Friday night. That being said, I really was not into board games before I came here."
Later that week, a petty officer tells me that one of his friends had to keep turning off his phone at night, because a Geodude kept darting around the bedroom. T-Mobile made this possible.
The arrival of improved internet and cellular service in Gitmo completely transformed the social ecosystem of the base. It put some stationed there, particularly those with Sprint, AT&T, or Verizon at a great disadvantage, but it also linked the base to America in a way that was wholly transformative. It made it easier for troops to access digital media and by extension, the many critiques of the detention facilities. It also made it possible for them to communicate with each other via Facebook Messenger during breaks throughout the day.
Suddenly, Navy corpsmen suddenly talk with friends stationed elsewhere—in places like, the Naval Support Activity Bahrain or Naval Base Guam. Even though troops could not (and still cannot) bring their iPhones into the detention facilities, improved cell coverage changed how they could de-stress after leaving the camps for the day. And members of the Joint Task Force could embrace Pokemon Go, a pastime deemed "normal" by American pop culture, even though their jobs were anything but.