Augmented reality has been around for a while but recently it has taken the world by storm through the smartphone app Pokémon Go. (For those unaware of this craze, Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game on smartphones in which players hunt for Pokémon characters in real world locations and train them to fight each other.) Being accessible on devices that most people already have in their pockets rather than requiring £1000 headsets has certainly helped increase the game’s popularity, but by interacting with the real world, Pokémon have had to start interacting with real world issues.
Most noticeably, Pokémon Go has shattered the image of gamers sitting in darkened rooms moving nothing more than their thumbs. At a time when there are frequent reports into how lack of physical activity is bad for our health, Pokémon Go has been getting players to walk around and do more than their recommended daily exercise. There are also reports of Pokémon Go providing the motivation for people with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety to get up and go outside. Masking the real world in a game has made the world more accessible.
The game has also encouraged many to explore places they otherwise wouldn’t go to. Some churches have used this as an opportunity to welcome those that are usually strangers to church-going. However, other places have asked players to stay away or even for Pokémon characters to be removed from their sites. In particular several sites including Auschwitz, the US Holocaust Memorial and Hiroshima want to remain places for remembrance and not for games. Players also aren’t welcome cluttering up the A&E department at the Royal Stoke Hospital which is reportedly a gym for training Pokémon. As well as Pokémon Go, or at least players absorbed in the game, apparently not appreciating the sensitive nature of some sites, it has also been criticised for leading players to dangerous locations such as railways, caves and, in Bosnia, minefields. Even in normal places, players have become so engrossed in the game they have forgotten their real surroundings and ended up stepping into roads.
Sometimes there are good reasons people usually avoid the places where Pokémon Go is leading them but the game is causing them to forget those reasons, including laws. Some players have been found trespassing and several affected landowners are blaming the game’s developers for disregarding private property. Numerous police forces have re-iterated basic advice about personal safety aimed at those playing Pokémon Go. However this has not stopped one player in Manchester being robbed at knifepoint for the phone on which he was playing. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has reminded people chasing Pokémon in the Cairngorms about general mountain safety. One of their concerns, and a real danger, is a Pokémon leading players to unfamiliar locations and the game, which uses the power intensive GPS and camera on their phone, draining their phone’s battery leaving them lost and without the device they rely on to navigate.
There have been calls for game developers to take responsibility for players’ safety. But with so many potential pitfalls of players ending up in dangerous or inappropriate locations how can developers avoid them all? It appears the algorithm that determines where the Pokémon in Pokémon Go are spawned, does prevent them being generated in certain areas such as army training camps, known dangerous areas and locations reported as inappropriate. However, some of the characters have certain associations such as water based characters being near ponds, lakes, rivers and the sea, and ghost-type characters being near graveyards and cemeteries. The game can also collect location data from players and feed that back into the algorithm that spawns Pokémon. This may lead to extra Pokémon being generated in busy areas and Pokémon dying out in less appropriate or less accessible areas. However the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive - people may gather at war memorials or on grid-locked roads but that doesn’t make a busy road an appropriate place to play.
One thing developers certainly should be taking responsibility for is data security. Players are entrusting the game with significant amounts of personal data. Some happily agreed to the original statement that implied that the game had full access to the details on their Google account. Even though this was an error in the text of the agreement, the app does give developers full access to location and camera data from the phone and many people are giving this away without a second thought about possible consequences.
Although there are potential risks in signing up for and playing augmented reality games, it’s not all doom and gloom. Pokémon Go has also led players to places they wouldn’t otherwise have been where they have observed and reported suspicious activity that has led to criminals being identified and found. Police in the US have made use of Pokémon Go to lure fugitives to where they can be caught. A dog rescue centre in the US has used the craze to its advantage by encouraging those walking around searching for Pokémon to take a canine companion with them. The initiative was such a success that the centre ended up having to buy more leads. Meanwhile closer to home, Reading University has welcomed the advertising opportunity and has been trying to recruit those hunting for Pokémon on their campus to their online courses, a drive that is surely more effective than a popup in a normal mobile game.
Even outside of the game, various organisations have been trying to cash in on the game’s popularity. Tweets have been full of references to the game. Alongside police tweets reminding players to stay safe and on the right side of the law, the fire service has been using it to encourage people to test their fire alarms by circulating a rumour that testing them may spawn Pokémon. Pokémon Go has already got people more active; maybe as augmented reality games develop further, they will reward us for performing other important tasks.
Photo acknowledgement: Eduardo Woo, https://flic.kr/p/HXJkVc