New worlds in your pocket
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