On the grounds of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the site where an estimated 15,000 people were sent to their deaths by the Khmer Rouge, visitors, employees and survivors of the prison were appalled on Tuesday by the placement of virtual Pokemon Go battlegrounds there over the weekend.
Introduced to Cambodia on Saturday, the GPS-based game draws players—using smartphones or tablets—through neighborhoods and to public attractions to catch and fight animated creatures that appear in on-screen replications of the users’ locations.
“They should not come to play here. It is not OK,” Chum Mey, one of the few survivors of the prison, said on Tuesday. “This place is very sorrowful and full of suffering.”
Sitting on a bench at the site, commonly known as S-21 prison, Dutch tourist Caroline Ngo looked out at the courtyard where torture stations from the regime—and now two Pokemon Go “gyms,” or virtual fighting grounds—lay before her.
“In my opinion, it’s crazy to come here and play Pokemon Go,” said the 24-year-old, whose mother was a sponsored refugee to the Netherlands during Pol Pot’s reign. “I don’t think it’s appropriate.”
While she and a majority of Cambodians had family that suffered under the Khmer Rouge, many foreigners failed to recognize that Tuol Sleng was symbolic of that pain, she said.
“They don’t really know the story behind that. It’s just a prison” to them, Ms. Ngo said. “They just make a short observation and then move on to the next activity.”
With the new app—created by U.S. software developer Niantic, which also sets the game’s locations—the next activity can take place at the museum itself.
“People that I was guiding played it,” said Ros Chenda, a 27-year-old tour guide at the museum.
After visiting a few of the museum’s rooms, which detail the torture of prisoners and are lined with their photographs, two foreign children entered the augmented reality to escape the horrors of the setting, she said
“It is so hard to stop them, because it’s their opinion and they are very emotional,” she said. “Some people played after crying over the setting.”
Chann Saochhang, 24, an employee of the museum’s audio tour office, said tourists from abroad were not the only offenders.
“There was a Cambodian guy about my age and he came to the museum just to catch the Pokemon, not to see the museum,” he said. “He was here for about five minutes on Tuesday, and he left right after he caught the Pokemon.”
Tuol Sleng’s director, Chhay Visoth, said that he was unaware that Pokemon Go hubs were located at the museum, or that visitors were playing it on the premises.
“If we knew that, we would not allow them to come here,” he said, adding that accessing an app like Pokemon Go could be tricky on the grounds anyway, since the museum did not offer Wi-Fi to visitors.
But an effort should be made to remove the virtual landmarks to ensure they don’t distract from the lessons that can be learned at the museum, said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“I think it should be forbidden and it should be deleted from the game system,” he said.
Niantic, which has also come under fire for the placement of Pokemon Go attractions inside the Auschwitz concentration camp and U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, did not respond to a request for comment on the gyms in Tuol Sleng.
Elizabeth Hyman, an archivist at the American Jewish History Society in New York, said in an email that Niantic was effectively erasing the meaning of the museum for those using its app.
“Pokemon Go’s gameplay allows users to assert augmented reality over their surroundings. They engage as people on the game board of Pokemon Go, not as people taking in the meaning of the space around them,” she said.
“The game takes what exists, and projects itself over it. Thus, Tuol Sleng is no longer a site commemorating the atrocities which took place under the Khmer Rouge regime, but is simply the setting of a game.”
Sophia Mohan, 11, a tourist from Seattle, said that even Pokemon Go fans like herself should know when to put the game away, although she admitted friends of hers had played in temples in Sri Lanka.
“It’s quite irritating,” she said as she entered the Tuol Sleng courtyard with her father. “It’s kind of not a good setting to be playing in.”