Of all the various Nintendo properties, Pokemon is one of their most popular. The children that have grown up with the games or the anime have now become adults in their own right and still go berserk at the idea of a new game in the series. So it came as no surprise when the world collectively lost its mind at the idea of Nintendo working with Niantic to release Pokemon GO for iOS and Android. In just a week of existence, it’s managed to become one of the biggest games of the year, dominating the internet with crazy high user numbers . It’s made parents into first time gamers, friends out of common strangers, and everyone into a low key exercise nut with all the walking they do (How long will it be before there’s integrations with FitBits?).
Outside of just being what’s apparently a really fun game, it’s also proven to be a good way of getting people to interact with each other to form friendships. There have been countless stories of random strangers becoming fast friends as they search for an Abra or Onyx, and Facebook is already littered with various groups in different cities looking for other Trainers to go on adventures with. It’s only a matter of time before we start hearing tales about how two players have fallen in love with each other, despite their separate team alliances. For people with social anxieties, it’s also proving to help them get out and form bonds with others like them by allowing players to matter of fact state that they need help searching for a particular Pokemon with little to no hassle.
Despite the pretty much universal love it’s gotten, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows for the mobile game, outside of its various connection issues and troubled release schedule. Just days after release, stories have been popping up about teenagers exploring and finding dead bodies and people using this as a way to lure potential victims to rob or harm them (Yes, there’s the Snopes article debunking this, but even if it’s not happening now, it’s going to happen eventually.). People have posted on Twitter about how much they just drive around with their phone in hand, prompting official Twitter accounts from transportation services to straight up tell people not to play the game while driving, which you would reasonably think was an obvious idea. There’s also some discussion to be had about it having permission to access your Google account, particularly with emails, which still apparently hasn’t been fully solved.
The shine of the game hasn’t worn off, because that’d be ridiculous so early in its life cycle, but it does probably set a new record for the speed of something on the internet going from “cute” to “wow, that’s kinda messed up.” While players have the ability to opt-in, the locations for Pokemon gyms do not. Pokemon GO chooses locations in a city at random to make gyms, from many, many, many churches to stores and shops around town. On more than one occasion, tweets have gone out showing stores with signs flat out saying “If you want to use us as a gym, you’re paying for something”. More recently, both the Holocaust museum and Arlington cemetery have had to ask people to not play, which you think would be sort of obvious.
While definitely good for a couple of laughs, it does bring up a more problematic aspect of the game, which is that there doesn’t seem to be a way for stores and public areas to choose whether or not they want to become a gym. Yes, players don’t have to be directly in the location (you can be in its radius to find the Pokemon), but that isn’t clear right away, and in general, not every store is just going to allow a bunch of people to hang around their sidewalk all hours of the day. One can imagine that if the option was there, a lot of the current areas would opt out almost immediately, but that’s at least preferable to a mom and pop store, for example, getting kids and young adults standing outside their parking lot looking shady or standing near the door, completely absorbed in their phone.
The internet in general loves the idea of privacy and maintaining that, especially for gamers in particular. While public areas like parks and actual gyms are fair game, other areas probably should’ve been considered as off limits by Niantic. Public service areas such as hospitals and police stations come to mind. A hospital in Ohio has had to inform their staff to be watchful for players exploring restricted areas and like with the robberies (especially considering you can throw Lures to any Pokestop and attract nearby users to that area), it’s only a matter of time before it becomes more and more of a widespread concern. Over the weekend, a designer named Boon Sheridan talked on Twitter about how, because he lives in an old church, players were lingering around his home. Sheridan eventually touched upon the topic of rights privacy, wondering if he even has any due to the game placing a virtual location on his actual home, along with some speculation about his home’s monetary value and what, if anything, Niantic could do to set up an appropriate “schedule” for trainers.
None of this is to take away from the good that Pokemon GO is currently or will be doing in terms of relationships and health, but these are important concerns that’ll need to be addressed, if for no other sake than to avoid bad publicity. All it’ll take will be a story about someone getting kidnapped for months because of the game or using it as an excuse to case a store in the process of robbing it for things to go south for the company. If Niantic can allow for some kind of privacy with stores and churches, that’ll be in their benefit. Much like Overwatch, this game has hyperevolved from a game (however debatable that may be) to basically its own social platform thanks to its devoted fanbase. This game is going to live and die by its fans and its content. The latter part is going to be a cinch, but if they don’t ensure that the former is happy and safe while exploring, that may be what ultimately drives them away.