Pokémon Go: What Happens to Non-Players when the Real World becomes a Game World?

Pokémon Go has revitalised the ARG genre and has brought the franchise back to the public consciousness. But with Pokémon popping up everywhere, who owns the digital version of your physical real estate? Can you avoid the Poke-players?

Pokémon Go has now been out in the world for about a week and the internet is full of people posting about it. All of my social media feeds have been inundated with chatter about the game and I’d casually suggest it’s taking up an entire third of my newsfeed and Twitter stream - it’s actually featured in every 1 in 3 stories I read, but that might just be my feed. Players are posting screenshots of Pokémon in their living rooms, on their food and on monuments. Within a lightning flash, everyone is talking about this game on a scale unseen before in the world.

As an augmented reality game, developer Niantic has created a digital overlay of our world. This means that wherever you go with the app open you can find wild Pokémon to catch; Pokéstops which are landmarks that players swipe for items; and Pokémon gyms, landmarks where players battle each other asynchronously. And they are everywhere. For the first time, Nintendo has managed to bring a worldwide mega franchise into the real world, and players old and new, from the first generation of the RPGs to the latest, are going outside to play.

News outlets, whether it’s online or television, games specific or mainstream, are all discussing the game. There are stories of players using the game to catch criminals and of public disturbances, robberies, accidents and deaths related to the game.

I’m in Copenhagen, Denmark and the game officially released here this morning, though many people have been playing for several days now. I took a walk around town and already encountered several groups of people walking around the streets, phones in hand, trying to catch ‘em all. I’ve spoken to several people who don’t play the game and have heard some of the stories and there is a common concern: what happens to our public spaces when it’s full of Pokémon players?

Niantic has chosen a wide range of physical world landmarks to act as permanent bases for players can visit. These range from famous statues and buildings to individual graves and people’s homes. This has led to sites like Mashable posting articles about the most “inappropriate” Pokéstop locations.

The public disturbance story above relates to a Pokémon Go Facebook Group based in Sydney, Australia which currently has over 6000 members. A couple of days after the game’s release, Kotaku posted about a gathering of over 2000 players in a park near the Sydney Opera House. While this was a somewhat organised event, it shows just how crowded these places can get. Subsequent gatherings of players numbering at around 1000 in the Sydney suburb of Rhodes are not so organised and are causing distress to the residents of the area due to the noise and crowding of their neighbourhoods. Some players even took megaphones which exacerbate the situation. Such gatherings occur because of a grouping of Pokéstops and gyms, or because of the species of Pokémon that appear in such places.

Now, even assuming large scale meetups like the Sydney examples above are going to be uncommon, those that do occur could very well become a nuisance to the local population, local wildlife and the services in those regions. The Rhodes residents have complained about the amount of trash now being littered in the area, and the local council have increased services to compensate which will obviously have a cost. Smaller meetups in local parks can still cause congestion and raise the noise level, affecting the environment around them in the short term. Will non-players be able to walk through their local park without having to avoid crowds - small and large - who are now out in an area they usually wouldn’t be? There are a million reasons to visit a park: walking the dog, having a picnic, jogging, feeding ducks, flying kites - the list goes on. Until now, you could pretty much anticipate the level of activity at these public spaces, and Pokémon Go has the potential to overwhelm those levels. For the first time, it’s not only the players who can be affected by the game, it’s the non-players around them that are too.

While a lot of this sounds like hyperbole, stories to this effect are readily available. Your front door could, potentially, become an attraction to a large number of strangers. Most players may stop by and move on, some may stay for longer and loiter. And this is bringing up some potential risks. While the US National Park service posted a video welcoming players to the parks in search of Pokémon, horror stories such as those noted above highlight the potential risks, namely that players are not fully aware of their surroundings and are getting into accidents both minor and serious.


Niantic has turned the entire world into a game board. But do they have the moral right?


It’s true that location based games are nothing new, Niantic’s own Ingress is a great example. But due to the large popularity of the Pokémon franchise, the new game is highlighting an issue never seen before in our media. With Pokémon Go, players aren’t the only ones affected by playing the game, the people around them are too. Whether you’re a Pokémon fan or not, this game can affect your experience. With any luck, it either won’t affect you or won’t bother you. You’ll see some players sitting on a bench playing with their phones like Candy Crush players before them on a bus. However, if a particular location you frequent, be it your home, your workplace or somewhere recreational, becomes attractive to a large number of Pokémon players, it could have a negative effect on your experience of such places. Already, some institutions like the U.S Holocaust National Museum have contacted Niantic to request that the data around the museum be altered so that the gas Pokémon Koffing doesn’t appear there. I think it’s easy to see how that kind of Pokémon at that particular museum can seem insensitive or offensive.

While a person or location can own property, it seems that ARGs like Pokémon can avoid such ownership rights. Nobody has been asked if they would like Pokémon to appear in or near their house, but yet they are everywhere. Who owns the digital space in this augmented reality? If someone is negatively affected by the digital representation of their real world location, what can they do about it?

Niantic has created a online form where anyone can request a Pokéstop or Gym to be removed, but how long does this take, what reasons are enough to justify a removal? How many people and places would do this and how would it affect the game? If a Pokémon Gym is attracting a large number of people and this causes a public disturbance, where does the fault lie? Obviously, it is up to people to monitor and judge their own behaviour, and there are consequences for those who break the law and players can report those who cause trouble to Niantic. But when we have a developer choosing these locations, either manually or by a system, we have a game that is directing players into specific locations for a number of reasons. If this kind of post-event support system enough to ensure a good experience for players and non-players alike? Where does the developer’s moral and legal responsibility begin for what happens at these locations?

So whether it’s large groups of players or individuals, or inappropriate Pokémon locations and overcrowded Gym locations, Niantic has created a game which merges the physical and digital worlds together that does not obey any physical restrictions or ownership rights. The consequences of this are yet to play out, and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing either local or regional bans before too long. Legislation about ownership of digital space might be next, if Pokémon Go finally gets the ARG genre trending.

This post originally appeared on my blog You can find more articles about Free-To-Play games and games in general there. 

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