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Back in 2006, I remember wondering how many people were literally walking to their doom at any given time because their eyes were glued downwards onto their BlackBerries while they crossed a busy street. Fast-forward 10 years and now it’s an augmented reality game that has many of us completely oblivious to our surroundings.
Pokémon Go has managed to grab the whole world’s attention almost overnight, making augmented reality mainstream much sooner than analysts expected. But, along with all the excitement, the blockbuster game is causing unexpected and unintended collateral damage wherever it finds a pool of players — which is seemingly everywhere. Accidents, death, trespassing, and inappropriate behavior are all being attributed to the game.
It seems impossible to pause the whirlwind that is Pokémon Go long enough for society to address the challenges it brings. But we’re beginning to see some scattered responses.
Bans on the game have already been issued by an ancient shrine in Japan, the Auschwitz Museum in Poland, and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, where the game’s presence is, understandably, seen as inappropriate.
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Authorities at military bases and other controlled locations are having to warn their personnel not play the game while on duty. And they’re also facing Pokémon-playing trespassers: A French player in Indonesia was arrested for trespassing into a military complex and fleeing the scene when confronted by guards.
The IDF in Israel has banned the app in military bases because of concerns about AR’s inherent always-on state that could result in video and audio recordings of highly sensitive areas. And the Pentagon has reminded civilians not to use the game as an excuse to break the law or put themselves in unnecessary risk.
Meanwhile, Canada is on the watch for fence-hoppers trying to access military zones. Speaking of Canada, a couple of Canadian teenagers are apparently the first to have illegally crossed an international border in pursuit of Pokémon.
A few countries have taken a much broader stance against the game. Saudi Arabia has issued a fresh fatwah, reviving a 15-year old edict that damns the Pokémon animated universe as containing symbols of “deviant religions” and organizations. And in Iran, where players are using a VPN in order to download the game, the government has said that if Niantic wants an official launch of the game in the local market, it will have to host the game inside the Islamic Republic and consult with the government on where to place Pokéstops or Gyms.
In Russia, the Kremlin has preemptively warned against Pokémon being captured anywhere near Putin’s lofty abode, and some high officials have even condemned the game as a clever ploy for spying by the CIA. A formal ban is imminent, they say.
On the other end of the spectrum, private citizens may soon seek restrictions on the game too. The owner of one home mislabeled as a Gym has been caught off guard by the large number of people suddenly wandering around his property, including unwelcome late-night visitors.
And then there’s the question of safety.
Reports of crimes, injuries, and deaths are piling up, and the first Pokémon Go murder has been reported in Guatemala, where two players were ambushed and shot while playing the game at night. Stories like this abound worldwide and are a serious cause for concern.
Policy makers will likely have to respond to the problem. Which begs the question, where does the responsibility lie: The players who forget themselves and cross through dangerous traffic or stumble off cliffs in order to capture a ‘Pikachu’, the developers who inadvertently invite the potential collision, or the app store distributors like Apple and Google that need to adjust their submission guidelines for AR games that disrupt reality?
“Should a sports equipment company be responsible if a baseball flies into a neighbor’s yard and one of the kids runs over to get it?” said Kevin Pomfret, a partner at law firm Williams Mullen who focuses on geospatial technology. Clearly not. But, he said, “That is very different than placing a Pokémon in a dangerous place or on private property.”
Still, Pomfret told me that the rules for AR games shouldn’t be hard to establish. “If there are restrictions in the real world, consideration should be given to their applicability to the augmented world,” he said. “I believe that many, if not all of the concerns associated with Pokémon Go can be addressed with those that already exist, or with some minor changes.”
However, some are saying that the game’s developer, Niantic, needs to do a better job of addressing the many butterfly effects resulting from the game.
“Children do all sorts of dangerous things because someone told them to. Augmented reality is no different,” Ben Gamble, a lead developer at location-based mapping company Augmentra told me. “With the added context and rewards, the immersion can lead to serious consequences.”
Niantic’s trainers guide does caution players, but is it mere lip service? The game will naturally invite players to do irrational things, given how emotionally invested they are in the experience. A segment of its fans will simply not practice common sense and mindfulness of their surroundings, and this fact needs to be recognized.
One action Niantic could take immediately would be to provide an easy way for locations — such as homes, churches, or military bases — to opt out of the game. The company does currently have an opt-out request form, but the process is unnecessarily obscure and doesn’t guarantee a location’s removal from the game.
What’s for sure is that we have officially entered a brave new world. It may soon be commonplace to see residential tenants, businesses, and public institutions errect augmented geofences to keep unwelcome guests out, with signs reading “Augmented Reality Free Zone.”
Amir-Esmaeil Bozorgzadeh is currently working on Virtuleap, a VR startup in the EdTech space. He is Managing Partner at Gameguise, a Dubai-based publisher of online games in the Middle East and a consultancy to global game developers and publishers that need local help in understanding and operating in the market.
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