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July 26, 2016

Pokémon Go-Augmenting Reality for Better or Worse?

Pokemon Go Image Final

If you haven’t seen or read numerous articles or blog posts on Pokémon Go by now, then you must be living in an augmented reality (AR) of your own. With more active daily users than mobile app juggernauts Twitter and Tinder, and more engagement than Facebook, this phenomenon has taken the world (or at least the parts with access to it) by storm. In less than three weeks, and with a limited initial release in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, the game has taken over discussions and news cycles across technology, gaming, finance and pop culture.

For the Pokémon brand, now 20 years old and worth billions after widespread popularity across video games, trading cards, television shows, and movies, this is the latest success story. The mobile game comes at a time when the original generation (my Millennial generation) that fell in love with the franchise is flocking to mobile and now has disposable income to spend. For newer, younger fans, the ability to see your favorite character jump off the playing card right into your living room is a dream come true.

Around for years, the technology behind the game – AR — overlays gameplay with real world visuals. Niantic, the publisher of Pokémon Go, is a former subsidiary of Google. The game itself, is based on an AR game Niantic produced called Ingress, which also used Google maps data and gps location during gameplay. By partnering with Nintendo and the Pokémon Company, Niantic has been able to strike gold by combining their gameplay with the brand power and built in user base of Pokémon.

For society as a whole, the game presents some clear benefits, but also some potential problems that could attract unwanted legal and regulatory attention for AR publishers like Niantic. Let’s take a look at both to gain a better understanding of the impact this new style of gaming is having.

Breaking the Gaming Mold

Pokémon Go encourages players to get out of the house in search of characters to capture, train, and eventually battle other gamers. The search, whether intended or not, leads to exercise and, given the games popularity, in person social interaction with other players. Two benefits that have never been associated with playing traditional console gaming inside the house.

For example, in my own experience playing Pokémon Go, I saw dozens of grown adults walking around Washington D.C. playing this game on their lunch hour. For me personally, that was the only exercise I was able to get that day and one of the few interactions I have had with complete strangers on the streets of D.C. in my nearly four years of working here. It was also the only time I have strolled around the city in search of anything other than a bite to eat.

Potential Economic Impact

Dozens or hundreds of players gathering in a specific area presents an economic benefit to businesses in the vicinity. For example, McDonald’s Japan is sponsoring nearly 3,000 “gyms” where players compete against each other in Japan where the game was finally released after intense anticipation. Gyms are the most popular locations for players to gather and some of the dozens or hundreds that come in to play for hours on end are bound to get hungry right?

Location sponsorships will most likely only continue to grow as the game spreads into Asia and companies around the world see the potential of this type of marketing and advertising. It is another revenue stream for Niantic and co. to add to the nearly $1.6 million per day the game is grossing and help businesses capitalize on the foot traffic the game is creating. A topic that is the perfect segue way into the negative effects Pokémon Go has had on players and those who happen to get in their way.

Personal Injury and Liability

Despite the initial warning screen when the game opens, many players fail to stay aware of their surroundings while glued to their screens. Mishaps and injuries include those who have fallen off of cliffs, crashed into a police vehicle while playing and driving, and players wondering into still active mine fields to call out a few. Many of the incidents seem silly on their face, while others are quite serious, but they all pose important questions for localities and cities where the game is played.

In addition, the landmarks, businesses, buildings, and, in some cases, personal residences are designated as “training gyms” or “Pokestops” without the owners’ consent. Add the two together and you have a recipe for trespassing, loitering, and a legal gray area surrounding liability when someone gets injured on private property. Is a homeowner or land owner responsible for injuries, or even the death, of someone who wanders onto their property?

At a minimum, you have a major nuisance to places like Arlington National Cemetery and The Holocaust Museum, who had to specifically announce that players were not welcome at their locations. On the other end you have the potential for nearly deadly misunderstandings like a man shooting at two Pokémon Go players he thought were trying to rob his house late at night. These types of interactions speak to the disruptive nature of AR and location based games that will only continue as they grow in popularity.

Niantic should at the very least warn businesses and individuals that their game could affect them. It could also give them the option to opt in or out of the game.

If AR continues to grow in popularity and drive players to the intersection of the virtual and physical, regulators curiosity will lead to action. Niantic would be wise to make changes on its own to prevent that from disrupting its business model.

Data Concerns

One area in which Niantic and Pokémon Go has irrefutably failed is data privacy. Whether intentional or not, the apps initial settings when a user signed up with a Google account granted Niantic access to read and send email as the player, access their private photos, see their location history, and access their Google docs.
Niantic addressed the problem quickly, but not before it caught the attention of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). who sent a letter to the developer inquiring about their policies regarding user data. Specifically, whether they would allow players to opt out of the data collection, what third parties they share player’s data with, and how the company protects the data of children.

Additionally, last week the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a separate letter to Niantic’s CEO John Hanke questioning the game’s impact on users mobile data usage. Questions include if the company ensures consumers are aware of the game’s potential mobile data usage and what best practices the company follows to minimize data usage. The letter claims that some players have consumed an entire month’s worth of data (on both individuals and family plans) in just a handful of days.

While Niantic has yet to respond to either letter, these inquiries are a good indicator of the type of scrutiny they, and other AR developers, can expect from law makers and regulators as data intensive games like Pokémon Go continue to evolve.

Ensuring that both the privacy and the best interests of users are protected must be the top two goals for any AR game developer. Without data privacy and security, trust will be lost, users will leave and regulators and legislators with aggressively act.

If AR, in general, and Niantic, specifically, wants to be more than a passing fad, they need to implement policies, procedures and investments that prepare them for the long haul.

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