From the reports of people’s experiences with the new augmented-reality game Pokémon Go, it would be easy to conclude that a dangerous technology has been foisted upon us. Pokémon Go has been blamed for a all sorts of problems, from people disrespecting memorials to hazardous driving.
The problem isn’t the technology, but rather how some people use it. But with technological and cultural innovations, you can pretty much cue the naysayers. While it’s true that some people engage in questionable actions while playing the game, blaming an app for so many issues vilifies a technology with positive potential — and also lets players off the hook for bad decisions in using it.
When I visited the 9/11 memorial in New York City last year, I was mortified to see people taking smiling selfies at such a somber place. My first thought, however, was not that cameras should be banned from such sites. Rather, I wondered how it is possible that a person could find anything to smile about at such a location and pondered what efforts could help convey the seriousness of the memorial and the historical events it commemorates.
Perhaps motivated by similar discomfort at the dissonance between location and activity, critics have called on the makers of Pokémon Go to remove in-game pieces from certain places where players congregate, such as cemeteries and memorials. They wonder how these locations ended up on the game map in the first place.
But Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go’s technology, did not randomly plop game pieces onto the map. The map of the game is essentially a Pokémon-branded remake of the map in another Niantic product, a game called Ingress. Players of Ingress submitted locations as sites of interest (or “portals” as they are called in the game) for approval by Niantic. They included parks, sculptures, murals, memorials, museums, churches, synagogues and historic markers. From these, the developers chose which sites would constitute Pokéstops and trainer gyms in Pokémon Go, locations where players can interact with gaming elements.
For the past two years, players of Ingress have been regularly visiting the locations that are now relevant in Pokémon Go. They have spent considerable time at these spots, staring at their phones. I know, as I am one of them. Yet Ingress has not attracted the ire that Pokémon fans interacting with little virtual animals has. Why not? True, Ingress gained users gradually, rather than catapulting to instant popularity, but it does have millions of players globally with the potential for affecting game locations. What is the difference?
The most important way the games vary in terms of explaining the location of game play is that the virtual creatures people try to catch in Pokémon Go can show up anywhere. Although there are specific, fixed locations for Pokéstops and gyms, Pokémon roam in the wild and thus might show up as you are entering a place of worship or driving on a highway. Without knowing in advance where a game piece may be, people can easily be caught off guard as one pops up on the map. In Ingress and GPS-based treasure-hunt games like geocaching and Munzee, players know exactly where to go to play and can get in the right frame of mind to do so, whether that means parking their cars before engaging with the game or looking around to make sure they are not disturbing others. In Pokémon Go, you never know where you may spot a Pokémon and want to catch it immediately before it disappears.
That element of surprise can make for more exciting game play, but it can also prompt players to take actions on a whim that can result in dangerous or disrespectful behavior, such as catching Pokémon at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.
One solution to this problem? Remove the random element of where Pokémon can turn up. This would not simply make the game less exciting; it would also further disadvantage players in suburban and rural areas and some urban neighborhoods where Pokéstops and gyms are much less common, already allowing fewer options for game play.
The moral panic surrounding Pokémon Go has been unfortunate, as it taints a technology as the culprit for much bad behavior that is ultimately the player’s responsibility.
There is no shortage of articles trivializing the game, making fun of it or painting a dire picture of the new hobby. But these critiques ignore the potential upsides of such technologies, like getting people outside to walk more and encouraging people to socialize with others. Cynics like to emphasize that players are glued to their phones, but some game features benefit from social coordination and thus encourage meeting up with others for game play. Indeed, this is one reason you see groups of teens playing the game together.
Just as drivers shouldn’t text while they’re behind the wheel, and people should not stare at their phones and send snaps while crossing the street, Pokémon Go players should not run after game pieces in potentially dangerous situations. Over time, we have agreed on some reasonable social norms for the use of mobile devices in public. Don’t be rude and don’t be oblivious to your surroundings. Play the game according to those norms, and it should be no worse than anything else you might do on your phone.
So yes, let’s encourage safe and respectful use of technologies. But let’s not throw out the Pikachu with the bathwater.