Pokémon GO Unveils the Good, Bad & Weird Sides of Gaming in Augmented Reality
Pokémon GO made waves as the first augmented reality game to gain popular adoption. In fact, it was so popular that it only took a few days to uncover some the benefits and serious issues with combining physical and digital worlds.
The game always aimed to get players out into the real world and explore. Niantic, the company behind Pokémon GO's development, achieved that goal to an excess where they couldn't with Ingress.
As we previously noted, many players have wound up with sore legs and sunburns from all the physical activity the game provided. While it's no CrossFit (thankfully), the physical activity generated by Pokémon GO is a big step up from lounging on the couch.
As writer and entrepreneur Walter Chen notes, roaming players have a positive impact on local businesses as well:
As Pokemon Go users traverse their towns in search of Pokemon, local stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and other businesses are capitalizing on this massive opportunity, driving huge amounts of foot traffic and conversions both with simple in-app purchases and creative marketing campaigns.
This works thanks to in-app purchases. Businesses can purchases "lures" that draw Pokémon and players to a specific area, and it only costs about $1.19 per hour. They place the lure on Pokéstops (locations in the game where players pick up items that help them catch Pokémon) near their storefronts, which draw a higher concentration of Pokémon to the area. The Pokéstops with lures attached are visible on the game map, so this leads to more foot traffic and ultimately more customers.
On a more personal level, the game brings players together in a way we've never seen before. People find each other playing the game, meet, and talk. I exercise daily, mostly in public parks, I've seen this happen multiple times in multiple locations since the release of the game. You don't have to go out into the real world to see this, either. Budding romances are already popping up on Twitter. Although different and unusual, it's truly incredible to see people coming together because of their smartphones after so many years of the exact opposite.
While Pokémon GO does a lot of good, it quickly uncovered many of the growing pains we'll face with massive multiplayer augmented reality experiences. Some of the issues, such as one player encountering a corpse, are likely inevitable. Nevertheless, several large and small problems alike demonstrate that we need to refine our approach to the way these kind of games work.
In the same way businesses have lured players, thieves have done the same. With the Pokéstop lure module in place as a digital beacon, criminals simply wait for victims to walk up, heads down in the game, rob them, and repeat the process—sometimes violently. But this malicious crime is not even clever since the game tracks players' purchases, item usage, and location data, as these arrests make news. Regardless, we need to start considering additional safety measures as future AR games have the potential to create this kind of risk.
The pendulum swings the other way as well. Aside from police stations ending up as Pokéstops and players wandering inside to play, cops have misunderstood and assumed some gamers were actually drug dealers, as one Reddit user discovered (language censorship ours):
So I wander over by the truck and sure enough there's a f*king onyx there. Awesome. So I end up chatting with the guys for a bit, told em where I got my evee, they convinced me to join red team when I hit level five so we could "lock s*t down" in the neighbourhood.
Then the cop shows up.
Yeah, so it turns out two twenty-something black dudes and a forty year old white guy chilling in the park at 3am looks strange. It took a bit of talking to convince the cop we weren't doing a drug deal, and a bit longer to explain the game. Then the cop downloaded the f*king game on his phone and asked us how to get started.
Go red team.
All new technologies come with growing pains as well as a need for education and safety practices. As a society, we've yet to formulate any kind of plan to cope with these issues. It's a hard problem to solve, but it's important to recognize the concerns and think about how we can enjoy augmented experiences responsibly.
It's wrong to demonize the technology for the problems it causes, while ignoring all the benefits. But at the same time we need to take the time to consider how people may abuse the platform. Pokémon GO is one of the first games of its kind, and certainly the most popular, so mistakes were inevitable. We just need to ensure we learn from them as we move forward.
In some cases, it would seem Niantic didn't vet all the locations used for Pokéstops and gyms. Aside from choosing problematic locations like police stations, developers appear to have missed at least one Seattle location that should've been left off the map in a kid-friendly game: Club Z, the city's only 24/7 glory hole maze. If you don't know why that shouldn't be in a game for players of all ages, google it after work.
This is in addition to several other inappropriate—or, at least, insensitive—chosen locations that range from strip clubs and abortion memorials to the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Arlington National Cemetery. Some are just plain weird, like an abandoned hot dog cart and Croatia's abandoned dreams.
While you can't avoid moving around when playing Pokémon GO, you can only walk so far. If you don't live near Seattle's best glory hole maze—or, perhaps, a more appropriate Pokéstop—you can hire a driver to take you around town. While only one of several examples, Gizmodo points to a Craigslist ad in Portland that offers a very affordable deal:
RIDES FOR POKEMON GO!
I will drive you around Portland Metro area while you play Pokemon Go.
Rides will include snacks and beverages.
Includes 2 hours of driving around to all the PokeStops and Gym Trainers.
Perhaps that's a lazy approach or just an efficient one, but regardless players continue to test the boundaries of AR gaming etiquette. Some have learned that catching Pokémon in the Holocaust museum is inappropriate, while others forgot about the geolocation features of the game and were caught cheating on their significant other.
We still have yet to figure out how to battle a Blastoise appropriately at the White House or respect the privacy of homeowners, though players seem to have a handle on trolling bigots. Proper etiquette and safety when gaming in augmented reality will take us time, as a global society, to learn. When you bring the internet into meatspace, you're going to have a few growing pains.
Despite all the bad and bizarre occurrences that Pokémon GO inspired in under a week, we should not overlook the immense good the simple game has created as well. Anything new will create problems, but only something special can get lazy people off their butts and transform otherwise isolating technology into a game that brings people together.