New worlds in your pocket

Hyper - - NEWS - JOHN ROBERT­SON has caught 'em all

The im­age of a 21st-cen­tury hu­man star­ing into their phone screen is noth­ing new. Ever since Ap­ple re­leased the orig­i­nal iPhone in 2007 our species has adopted smart phone de­vices as a new limb. We see it as the gate­way into some­thing big­ger than what we can phys­i­cally per­ceive in front of us. It's our con­nec­tion to the wider world, a com­fort blan­ket link­ing us to ab­sent friends and fam­ily, re­tail ther­apy, and so­cial media nar­cis­sism. It's a young in­ven­tion, but its pres­ence has changed the fab­ric of so­ci­ety dra­mat­i­cally and to the point where much of our mod­ern ex­is­tence re­lies on its func­tion­al­ity.

Evo­lu­tion is not lim­ited to the or­ganic, with our re­la­tion­ship to the de­vice al­ter­ing cul­tural norms as tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances open new av­enues to ex­plore. The smart phone, and the in­ter­ac­tions it al­lows, has changed the fab­ric of our lives and how we ap­proach and ap­pre­ci­ate it. Dat­ing apps have dras­ti­cally al­tered what we think of as nor­mal when it comes to meet­ing new peo­ple, taxi hail­ing services are dis­rupt­ing the en­tire au­to­mo­bile in­dus­try, and shop­ping apps con­tinue to un­der­mine high street re­tail. Given the preva­lence and suc­cess of voice call­ing sys­tems that use the ever more ef­fi­cient and ex­pand­ing mo­bile in­ter­net in­fra­struc­ture, some econ­o­mists are even pre­dict­ing the im­mi­nent end of tra­di­tional phone calls.

Smart phones are not just forc­ing us to re­think how we take ad­van­tage of them, they're forc­ing us to re­think what we con­sider ex­is­tence. In 2016, no app has high­lighted the ac­tive power of these de­vices more suc­cinctly and suc­cess­fully than Poké­mon GO. Un­less you've just emerged from an ex­tended stay in a sen­sory de­pri­va­tion cham­ber, in which case all of the above is go­ing to be news to you, you'll know that Poké­mon Go uses aug­mented re­al­ity to bring Poke­mon into ex­is­tence in the world as viewed through your phone.

As per the fran­chise's TV shows and "tra­di­tional" videogames that pre­ceded it, Poké­mon GO uses the 'Gotta Catch 'Em All' tagline to tempt you into trav­el­ling around our world to cap­ture all of the dif­fer­ent species of poké­mon. The suc­cess of the idea high­lights just how deep-seated the le­gacy of ear­lier Poké­mon prod­ucts is in our cul­ture. This is an app played by mil­len­ni­als the world over, it is not merely a chil­dren's toy, and it's this le­gacy that has cre­ated the enor­mous

num­ber of peo­ple that re­fer to them­selves as Poké­mon Train­ers.

The speed and wide­spread na­ture of the app's suc­cess is caus­ing a prob­lem, though. So­ci­ety has sim­ply not been able to keep pace with the cul­tural changes that Poké­mon hunt­ing in the real world has brought with it and, as such, fric­tion be­tween users and non-users of the app has ex­isted since the day it launched.

One of the high-pro­file ex­am­ples of the cul­tural be­hav­iours pro­moted by Poké­mon GO hav­ing an un­wanted ef­fect in re­al­ity in­volves the US Holo­caust Me­mo­rial Mu­seum in Wash­ing­ton DC and the vol­ume of train­ers that de­scended on the build­ing seek­ing to catch new poké­mon. The foot traf­fic was gen­er­ated by the ex­is­tence of a Pokéstop within mu­seum grounds, a lo­ca­tion marker placed on the app's real world map that pro­vides play­ers with free in-game items such as Pokéballs. Lures that tempt poké­mon to the area can also be at­tached to a Pokéstop. Un­der­stand­ably, the mu­seum was hardly im­pressed by what it saw as vis­i­tors un­der­min­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of the lo­ca­tion by turn­ing up to catch colour­ful, imag­i­nary an­i­mals.

Poké­mon GO de­vel­oper Niantic Labs lis­tened to the com­plaints of the Holo­caust Me­mo­rial Mu­seum and has since re­moved the Pokéstop, but the case is by no means iso­lated. Over 30 Pokéstops dot Ja­pan's Hiroshima Peace Me­mo­rial, as well as three 'gyms' in which play­ers can bat­tle each other with their poké­mon. Again, Niantic has re­moved these lo­ca­tions from the game, but not be­fore thou­sands of play­ers had al­ready flocked to the site as a prime area for catch­ing new poké­mon to add to their grow­ing col­lec­tions.

Auschwitz, Syd­ney's An­zac Me­mo­rial and Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery are also on the list of lo­ca­tions that have voiced dis­taste over the vis­its of Poké­mon Train­ers.

Whilst Niantic seeks to ad­dress such com­plaints, the slow re­sponse begs the ques­tion of whether or not a cre­ator can ever re­main in full con­trol of some­thing that grows so big so quickly. Upon launch Poké­mon GO was pop­u­lar to the point that it caused enor­mous pres­sure on the servers it uses to con­nect play­ers to the aug­mented re­al­ity world they're mov­ing through. In turn, this server load be­came the pri­or­ity fix for Niantic and is­sues such as show­ing

sen­si­tiv­ity to his­toric lo­ca­tions took a back­seat. As is so of­ten the case with sto­ries of rapid growth and suc­cess, it's en­tirely pos­si­ble that Niantic didn't re­alise that Poké­mon GO would even cause the kinds of con­cerns raised by Auschwitz and the Hiroshima Peace Me­mo­rial.

With Niantic rac­ing to stay on top of such com­plaints whilst also mak­ing sure its cre­ation worked for the users it needs to at­tract and en­gage in or­der to turn a profit, it makes you won­der whether the game is con­trol­ling Niantic or if Niantic is con­trol­ling the game. In just the same way, is Poké­mon GO con­trol­ling the ac­tions and de­sires of its play­ers, or are the play­ers ac­tu­ally in charge of the game they're play­ing?

It's a tough psy­cho­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion to grap­ple with, not least from a de­ter­min­is­tic per­spec­tive. If you're only tak­ing a trip to the Holo­caust Me­mo­rial be­cause you've down­loaded Poké­mon GO, then are you gen­uinely in charge of your own ac­tions and mo­ti­va­tions? You might think that you've cho­sen, com­pletely in­de­pen­dently, to make that trip, but would you have made it with­out the app tempt­ing you there? As such, where does your life and your life in the game be­gin and end? Maybe they're now the same thing?

This is the kind of ques­tion that could be ap­plied to any game, whether on your smart phone or not. Would one choose to level up a Fall­out 4 char­ac­ter if one didn't own Fall­out 4? No, of course not. There­fore, Fall­out 4 is in some part con­trol­ling the thought pro­cesses that dic­tate how one chooses to spend the time they have.

How­ever, the ques­tion of free will has more weight when ap­plied to Poké­mon GO be­cause the act of play­ing it al­ters the life and ac­tions of those with­out any in­ter­est in it and, there­fore, the game is also play­ing a role in the lives of these non­play­ers. The team at the Hiroshima Peace Me­mo­rial wouldn't have been forced to spend their time protest­ing Pokéstops if Poké­mon GO didn't ex­ist. The in­ward look­ing Fall­out 4, con­versely, doesn't have this kind of so­cial im­pact.

Aug­mented re­al­ity of this kind cre­ates a sec­ond na­ture to the re­al­ity that ev­ery­one jointly ex­pe­ri­ences, the dis­con­nect be­tween the two caus­ing prob­lems for all in­volved. In this sec­ond re­al­ity, how are the rules - le­gal and eth­i­cal - en­forced? Can they even be en­forced when the sec­ond re­al­ity in ques­tion is as big and pop­u­lar as Poke­mon Go?

Wash­ing­ton DC's Holo­caust Me­mo­rial might have the sta­tus needed to have a Pokéstop re­moved, but pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als don't tend to have the same voice. Dis­grun­tled res­i­dents around the world have been high­light­ing their ir­ri­ta­tion at the fact that their homes and neigh­bour­hoods have be­come epi­cen­tres for hunt­ing poké­mon, with some in­di­vid­u­als re­port­ing that hun­dreds of Poké­mon

GO play­ers ar­rive through­out the day searching for new cap­tures. The vol­ume of peo­ple is ac­com­pa­nied by pol­lu­tion, lit­ter­ing, and even at­tracts en­tre­pre­neur­ial types sell­ing sup­plies to the crowd.

Niantic has a sys­tem set up to al­low for the re­port­ing of Pokéstops lo­cated on pri­vate prop­erty, but that in it­self is not nec­es­sar­ily a fool­proof plan for pre­vent­ing play­ers en­cir­cling a house in search of loot and poké­mon. A Pokéstop might be lo­cated in a park flanked by houses, or at a bus stop on an oth­er­wise quiet res­i­den­tial road. The Pokéstop is not on 'pri­vate prop­erty' but the dis­tur­bance ef­fect of hav­ing hun­dreds of play­ers con­gre­gated in the mid­dle of the night is the same for nearby res­i­dents as it would be it the Pokéstop was right on top of them.

Then there's the is­sue of the lone poké­mon that ex­ist through­out the world in­de­pen­dently of Pokéstops. If you get word that that one poké­mon you've yet to catch has been seen in the gar­den of a house down the street, are you not go­ing to be tempted to make your way there and catch it? After all, you've gotta catch 'em all.

The ques­tion here, then, is one of own­er­ship. Home own­ers own the phys­i­cal bricks and mor­tar of their house, but do they also own the vir­tual space that Niantic has cre­ated around that? It's a ques­tion that hasn't been asked be­fore and, again, given the me­te­oric rise of Poké­mon GO, it's one that so­ci­ety isn't in a po­si­tion to an­swer yet as the le­gal frame­work doesn't ex­ist.

If Niantic de­cides that Pikachu is so com­mon in your area that they're reg­u­larly found wan­der­ing about your kitchen, are you in a po­si­tion to chal­lenge that? Given that catch­ing poké­mon re­quires you to phys­i­cally visit a place to do so, the act of hunt­ing aug­mented re­al­ity crea­tures is akin to searching for some­thing phys­i­cal. Just as you would have to en­ter a build­ing to find a hid­den gold coin, you have to en­ter a build­ing (de­pen­dant on its size) to catch a poké­mon. The vir­tual world cre­ated, then, takes on a very real mean­ing in our phys­i­cally per­ceived world.

Such com­pli­ca­tions are surely only go­ing to be­come more com­mon as other prod­ucts, in­spired by Poké­mon GO's suc­cess, seek to har­ness aug­mented re­al­ity tech­nol­ogy to grow their own brands, de­liver more fans and fol­low­ers. and gen­er­ally in­crease vis­i­bil­ity. For in­stance, should we all start wear­ing aug­mented re­al­ity glasses that are con­nected to the in­ter­net and do away with hav­ing to play the likes of Poké­mon GO through our phones, what's to stop our houses be­ing bom­barded with vir­tual ad­ver­tis­ing boards?

If your house can be seen clearly from a busy road junc­tion or fre­quently crowded area such as a sports sta­dium or shop­ping cen­tre, would ad­ver­tis­ers be able to print their own vir­tual ad­ver­tise­ments across your house? Do you own the vir­tual space around your house, is it sold sep­a­rately (and by who) or is it free for any­body to do as they please with? Per­haps more per­ti­nently, would ad­ver­tis­ers be able to de­liver aug­mented re­al­ity ad­ver­tise­ments to you in your own house? These ques­tions re­late di­rectly to Poké­mon GO in that the app has be­come the cat­a­lyst for se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion to take place around them. Niantic has forced the world to sit up and take no­tice of the in­creas­ingly blurred lines be­tween the real and the vir­tual.

More ne­far­i­ous ad­van­tages have al­ready been found for tak­ing ad­van­tage of the blur­ring of lines caused by Poké­mon GO's aug­mented re­al­ity sys­tem, with crim­i­nals set­ting lures at Pokéstops in or­der to at­tract

not poké­mon but peo­ple. As in­di­vid­u­als turn up at Pokéstops cho­sen for their ob­scure, iso­lated lo­ca­tion, they can find them­selves the vic­tim of at­tack by those seek­ing to re­lieve them of their pos­ses­sions. For some­one look­ing to com­mit a rob­bery, then, Poké­mon GO is a pow­er­ful tool as, at the very least, you know those seek­ing out lured Pokéstops are go­ing to be in pos­ses­sion of a rel­a­tively mod­ern smart phone. You don't have to go look­ing for the right kind of vic­tim, they come to you.

Niantic isn't nec­es­sar­ily to blame for this use of their tech­nol­ogy, but the stu­dio is cer­tainly part of the chain that leads to its pos­si­bil­ity. In just the same way that an au­to­mo­bile com­pany is not al­ways at fault when some­one driv­ing one of their cars causes a traf­fic ac­ci­dent, Niantic isn't al­ways re­spon­si­ble for a mug­ging or­ches­trated with Poké­mon GO. The dif­fer­ence, though, is that so­ci­ety has laws and reg­u­la­tions de­tail­ing stan­dards for ve­hi­cle safety, how cars can be used, and how pedes­tri­ans should act around them. These kinds of laws do not ex­ist for services that seek to cre­ate a whole new re­al­ity through which to ex­pe­ri­ence the world and un­til that changes the likes of Poké­mon GO will re­main fer­tile ground for this kind of de­based crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity.

Those that dis­miss Poké­mon GO as a fad might be right, but the cyn­i­cism of the dis­re­gard misses the point and the im­por­tance of the game when it is con­sid­ered as a cul­tural arte­fact. It raises so many ques­tions as to how aug­mented re­al­ity might change our

cul­ture, and whether or not so­ci­ety is ready to em­brace that change, that it has a value that ex­tends far beyond the vast ma­jor­ity of games ever to have been re­leased. With­out ques­tion it's the most im­por­tant game of 2016 and it's on the list of most im­por­tant games ever.

Even once the fad is over the le­gacy will con­tinue in the form of de­bates that sur­round the in­evitable avalanche of sim­i­lar apps, games and tech­nol­ogy that are just around the cor­ner. Poké­mon GO is by no means the first aug­mented re­al­ity game to be re­leased, with Niantic it­self hav­ing cut its teeth on 2012's Field Trip - a lo­ca­tion-based app based on find­ing "unique things in the world around you". They re­leased Ingress soon after, an aug­mented re­al­ity MMO. FourSquare, too, is based around many of the same prin­ci­ples of trav­el­ling to real-world lo­ca­tions and in­ter­act­ing with other users of the app.

Poké­mon GO is in many ways a sim­pli­fied vari­a­tion of those pre­cur­sors, the key dif­fer­ence be­ing the cou­pling of the tech­nol­ogy with such a beloved fran­chise as a means to gen­er­at­ing ini­tial in­ter­est. It has set the blue­print for how to en­gage peo­ple from so­ci­eties all over the world, of all ages and gen­ders, with such earth-shat­ter­ing suc­cess that the rip­ples from its rise will con­tinue to be felt for years to come. The ques­tion now is whether so­ci­ety is ready to al­ter the way it func­tions in or­der to har­ness the power cre­ated when our per­ceived re­al­ity is no longer lim­ited to a sin­gle plane.

Boor­ish be­hav­iour like this tar­nishes the rep­u­ta­tion of all Poké­mon GO play­ers

Note how the en­tire rest of the world fades blur­rily into the back­ground

TFW when you've been chas­ing poké­mon lit­er­ally all day and now you have no idea where you are

Who owns the vir­tual "space" around real world prop­erty?

There's some­thing creepy and dystopic about a group of peo­ple all star­ing mind­lessly at their phones

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