Augmented Reality. It’s a phrase that’s been bandied about for over a decade. It’s a concept that’s come to life in a myriad of ways. But until the launch of Pokémon Go, the promise and pitfalls of AR hadn’t been laid bare on a grand scale. Now, as Pokémon Go ignites countless Facebook wars, propels Nintendo’s market value by upwards of $7.5B USD, and sees parks and public spaces overrun with children and adults — individually and in groups — running around gathering Pokémon and snagging treats at Pokéstops, we’re seeing the potential for fun, community building, and social engagement on a grand scale. But we’re also witnessing the problems inherent in building a massive AR based upon decisions made long ago, rooted in data collected in part from users, and disconnected from the realities of a changing world.
As a quick overview, Pokémon Go is an augmented reality game1 played via a smartphone or cell-enabled tablet. Players traverse the real world, catching Pokémon, visiting Pokéstops to gather supplies, and battling at Pokégyms. Pokéstops and Pokégyms are ‘anchored’ on the map to actual places, such as statues, fountains, signs, gardens, or specific locations in or near buildings such as churches. Niantic, the company behind Pokémon Go, spun off from Google with investment from Nintendo, the Pokémon Company, and Google, after their successful launch of an earlier AR game called Ingress — and that’s where a number of the issues lie.
The Pokémon Go map is built in large part upon the Ingress map2. Ingress, while it has millions of app downloads (upwards of 7 million), has a relatively small core player base (current estimates range from 350,000-750,000 active, regular users). Its rollout was also staggered, launching on the Android platform first, on December 14, 2013, and then for iOS on July 14, 2014. Without delving into the backstory, much of the action in Ingress revolves around portals — interacting with them to gain items, deploying items to claim or improve them for your chosen faction, defending them against the other faction. It’s this portal map that has seeded much of the Pokémon Go world — those portal locations have formed the basis for the Pokéstops and Pokégyms.
The portal maps were rooted, at first, on popular locations. This included not only obvious choices such as the Washington Monument, but also locations which were frequently geo-tagged in photos — in short, user generated data, where the original creator had no idea their geo-tagging would be used to site a real world game stop. In addition, Ingress players were invited to submit portal suggestions. Niantic was flooded with over 15 million suggestions, and the review and approval process was lengthy, opaque, and prone to inconsistency. One player might suggest a portal location and have it rejected, while another player would suggest the same place and get it approved months later. Over 5 million user suggested portals were placed.
Ingress, however, is a fundamentally and radically different game than Pokémon Go. For one, it didn’t have the power of a decades-long, beloved intellectual property behind it. It has a significantly smaller player base, even in when you compare the first bloom of launch, widespread press, and ‘try it out’ adoption. While it supports social engagement and cooperation, the backstory of Ingress is one of intrigue and shadowy goings-on. It is aimed squarely at adults, and lacks the chance aspect of collecting items out in the real world away from portals that Pokémon Go has with its ‘gotta catch ‘em all’ Pokémon gathering aspect.
And here’s where it all horribly collides. A quick search of geo-tagged photos reveals thousands of photos at places like the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Arlington National Cemetery, and the reflecting pools at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Sure enough, Arlington National Cemetery is littered with Ingress portals, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Medgar Evars’ tomb, the final resting place of Robert F. Kennedy, and more. And that’s translated to Pokéstops in what many consider sacred, hallowed ground.3 Similarly, the area around the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is rife with Pokéstops. But even if there weren’t stops at these places, Pokémon spawn all over the map, regardless of Pokéstops (though players can drop items at stops to lure Pokémon there). People could traipse through America’s iconic graveyard and memorial for service men and women snagging Magikarps and Psyducks. Or, as one New York author put it after visiting a variety of emotionally charged sites in the city, “That is a coffin of nameless orphans and that is a Pokéstop.”4
To put it mildly, it’s a problem with the game. Having the leadership of major memorials and venues come out and say they are trying to get their site delisted as a Pokéstop or gym does not make for great press. Homeowners who live in unusual or iconic buildings that are now private dwellings have found strangers in their yards and on their driveways at all hours of the day and night. And the process of delisting is fraught with challenges — within the game, one can ‘report an issue’ with a stop or gym, but that is a general category of issue. At launch, there was no clear, obvious way for the director of a venue or the owner of a site to make an emergency or high priority request. Interestingly, many of the portals in Ingress at these challenging sites are relatively low level; that is, few people engage with them, perhaps out of a sense of propriety. The older, theoretically more mature audience of Ingress is likely more discerning about where and when it’s appropriate to play a game than an 11-year old chasing a Pikachu, iPhone in hand.
All of this is not to say there aren’t positive aspects of Pokémon Go — far from it. Many libraries are reporting a surge in usage; colleges are cheerfully offering Pokémon tours, posting maps of Pokéstops and gyms on their campuses, and encouraging students to play together and responsibly. Players are self-reporting significant upswings in their physical activity levels (in order to incubate eggs that you can get at Pokéstops, you have to walk varying distances, in addition to the need to get out there and explore to find Pokémon, stops, and gyms). Kids and parents are frequently seen playing together in parks and playgrounds. Players are voluntarily leaving lures near children’s hospitals, so the kids inside who can’t walk the necessary blocks outside can still play the game. Within the Autism Spectrum parent community, there are already innumerable reports of children who typically avoid changes in routine and social engagement being willing to go to parks, engage with others, and try new things in the service of playing Pokémon Go. As a social experience, Pokémon Go is breaking barriers and getting people out and about — something many experience designers strive to achieve.
As designers of location-based entertainment and educational experiences, Thinkwell has long touted the promise — and challenges — of technologies such as AR, and the idea of using a mobile device to enhance and augment a visit to a theme park, museum, or attraction with gamification and social interaction. The experience since the launch of Pokémon Go highlights the need for owners and operators considering an AR overlay or component to take some serious precautionary and planning steps:
- Think about your audience. As we’ve shown, part of the underlying issue with Pokémon is not just the different gameplay, but also the radically different and bigger audience. Creators need to think about who will be playing the game and how they engage with the world. One very smart thing that Niantic did relates to safety: if a Pokémon appears on your map, it can be caught from where you are (you can even switching from AR mode to on-screen play mode to make it easier). There’s no need to cross a busy street or hop a fence. Given that children and teens are playing, this was a savvy design choice.
- Consider where engagements happen. Choose wisely, to be blunt about it — and if you are in essence outsourcing the location selection to data someone else has generated, have a review process and standards in place prior to launch and scrub your map accordingly. You cannot rely on user generated data to make responsible, thoughtful, mindful, or empathetic choices.
- Have a clear process for handling people roped unwittingly into the game. It took over a week from launch for Niantic to unveil a way for ‘owners’ of questionable locations to quickly and permanently delist their locations; it’s unclear how the new system will prioritize delisting or how quickly requests will be addressed. Until Niantic quietly rolled out this system, the bad press and angry location owners continued to churn, and the damage is done.
- Think through the ramifications of open world play. Pokémon can spawn almost anywhere, and this is a problem. A site such as a cemetery or memorial should be able to request that theirs is a ‘clear zone’ where no Pokémon spawn; currently they cannot. If you are developing a game that extends beyond the boundaries of your site, it behooves you to think about where gameplay is appropriate and inappropriate, and structure the game accordingly.
- Work with location owners. While some location owners, such as small businesses benefitting from an uptick in traffic, welcome Pokémon Go players, others are still trying to figure out what to do about the fact that a fountain on their property is suddenly attracting people. Consider developing an informational kit that provides these location owners with contacts for reporting issues, ideas for how to capitalize on player presence, and an explanation of the game itself.
- Be prepared to capitalize on unexpected positive outcomes. The positive effect of Pokémon Go on some children with ASD is an unforeseen, yet fantastic, effect of the game, that Niantic could build upon, perhaps by partnering with advocacy groups to develop targeted materials around the game. The active exercise aspect of Pokémon Go is another aspect that could be highlighted — imagine an ongoing tally of gross distance walked, or calories burned, by all current players? Groups developing new ARs should be willing to leverage unforeseen positive outcomes.
Much of the issue with Pokémon Go and AR in general boils down to the fact that it’s just new, uncharted territory. Or is it? It seems with any new technology and subsequent pop-culture craze that emerges from that technology, there is bound to be challenges, pitfalls, and hand-wringing. Before Pokémon Go, Sony Walkmans were distracting people into accidents — and now headphone-listening in public is something we’ve all adjusted to responsibly. Before Pokémon Go, videogames were “rotting our brains” and keeping kids indoors — and now it’s a burgeoning artform creating all new forms of social storytelling. There will always be folks in the herd whose bad behavior will ultimately get them thinned from said herd — but as designers, we can help craft experiences that will guide the audience in the right direction, with the right motivation — slowly creating audiences that are thoughtful, engaged, and maybe, hopefully, even more community-minded.
1 For an overview of AR, see http://www.explainthatstuff.com/how-augmented-reality-works.html