Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Intersect

What happens when Pokémon Go turns your home into a gym

By Abby Ohlheiser

July 11, 2016 at 5:26 PM

Boon Sheridan looked out the window of his Holyoke, Mass., home on Saturday and saw a small group of people standing together, holding their phones up, cameras aimed at the converted former 19th-century church where he lives. The group stood together, and it was concentrating.

Related: [Tell us: Where has Pokemon Go taken you?]

Courtesy of Boon Sheridan

Slowly, Sheridan began to recall the night before, the one that left him recovering that morning with an iced coffee as he watched the strangers staring at his home. He'd downloaded Pokémon Go, a new game that superimposes the art of catching and training Pokemon on top of the real world, while out with friends. He caught a Squirtle at the bar, and then put the game away. Once home late that evening, Sheridan checked the game a final time. "Huh," he thought as he started to fall asleep, "It looks like there's a gym on top of my house."

In the virtual world of Pokémon Go, a gym is where players (in game parlance, "trainers") gather to battle against each other. Trainers join one of three teams at an early stage of the game, and those teams fight for control of the gyms. If your team controls a gym, you get perks and bragging rights at that location. In the physical world, battling trainers look a lot like those three strangers standing outside of Sheridan's home. Soon, a car pulled up and parked in front of the house, too. Another trainer.

Gyms are supposed to be located in public places, where it would be less weird to see groups of silent, gathered people. But not in Sheridan's case: His home was definitely a gym, attracting dozens of visitors a day, and he had no idea why.

"This could easily have been a horror story," Sheridan said by phone on Monday morning, "if someone who didn't know what the game was lived here."

The situation, brought to the attention of many through Sheridan's viral tweetstorm about the whole thing, raises an interesting question: What happens when someone (in this case, the developers of a mobile game) place a virtual property on top of a physical one? Pokémon Go is quickly taking this ethical quandary about augmented reality into the real world.

The reason why Sheridan's private home is also a gym remains a mystery, for now. But the most likely explanation seems to be connected to an earlier game produced by Niantic, the same company behind Pokémon Go. Like Pokémon Go, Ingress used real landmarks and a map as the basis of its game.

"We basically defined the kinds of places that we wanted to be part of the game,"  Niantic chief executive John Hanke said to Mashable about the original locations picked for Ingress's portals, "things that were public artwork, that were historical sites, that were buildings with some unique architectural history or characteristic, or a unique local businesses." The company also crowdsourced additional locations for portals through the game.

According to Hanke's comments to Mashable, the data collected for Ingress was the starting point for Pokemon Go; locations that were more popular in Ingress were more likely to become gyms in Pokémon Go. The runners-up became PokeStops.

"Ingress was a small game," said Sheridan, who happens to be a UX designer. "But now, the context has changed. It's the context of the data. The size of the game changes everything."

For Sheridan, that could mean dozens of visitors outside his home each and every week, unless Niantic agrees to change the location of the gym pegged to his house.

Related: [21 pro Pokémon Go tips, from people who spent the whole weekend playing it]

Niantic has surprisingly few procedures in place for reporting issues with the locations picked for the game. Their site has a form for reporting issues with gyms or PokeStops and advises players who feel that a situation poses an urgent safety threat to contact law enforcement — and then reach out to the company.

For now, the experience has been positive. Sheridan met many of the gamers congregating outside his house on Sunday while working on his garden. He has a fenced-in yard, so people can't sit on his lawn. And those players who can't seem to get the GPS to let them access the gym at a park bench across the street from his home have been respectful as they've sat closer to his property.

Still, the situation raises many what-ifs, both for those observing Sheridan's situation from afar, and for him. Because of this, Sheridan will eventually ask Niantic to consider moving the gym location, unless the company implements additional features to keep players safe (for instance, Sheridan suggested, having gyms remain "open" for business only for set times, instead of being accessible for play 24 hours a day).

In the meantime, Sheridan hopes that the hypothetical questions about what could go wrong at his home gym remain just that, until some sort of solution can be worked out.

"It's a virtual location that Niantic manages, but if anything happens, I'm going to deal with the repercussions," he said. "It would break my heart to know somebody got hurt in front of my house."

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Abby Ohlheiser is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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