Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, we were, like many of our friends, caught up in the Pokémon hype. We wanted to “catch ’em all,” as the show’s theme song invited — and when Pokémon GO! was released in Canada in the summer of 2016, we both joined the virtual Pokémon game.
Recently, we presented our research on the AR game Pokémon GO! at the virtual Canadian Society for Digital Humanities (CSDH) conference. Initially, we sought to explore how AR games have changed and evolved over the years, focusing on three AR games in particular: Pokémon GO!, Zombies, Run! and Tendar. However, in March of this year most of Canada and the world shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the conference shifted to a virtual environment, we found our research questions and interests changing as well.
Our presentation addressed current pitfalls within AR mobile game design, and offered up a set of guidelines for future game designs with the hopes of moving towards the production of games that account for an intersectional understanding of identity with regards to personal risk in public spaces. To do so, we drew on intersectional understandings of digital redlining, universal design, and the social ecology of public space. In particular, we sought to consider the ways in which Pokémon GO! has changed and evolved in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how these changes have been framed in the context of focusing on user safety and well-being.
Given the changes to AR game play during the pandemic, the questions we posed for our research project include: What insights can be gleaned from AR mobile game updates during a global pandemic? How are AR worlds being reimagined in response to COVID-19? And how does this increased attention paid to “user safety” prompt questions like: what about the general safety of women, people of colour, queer and trans folk, and disabled people who play “open world” AR games like Pokémon GO?
TL;DR: Members of the Black and Latinx community have been talking about the disproportionate risk marginalized players face when playing Pokémon GO since the game came out — but to not avail. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, Niantic has rolled out in-game safety measures to keep players out of harms way during lockdown. This article suggests that Niantic could extend their remote play feature in addition to a few others we list below in order to protect *all* players.
Quick Recap: What is Pokémon GO?
Pokémon GO is a location-based augmented reality mobile game developed by American software company Niantic, Inc. in 2016. It uses mobile device GPS and encourages users to walk outside to complete actions like capturing and battling Pokémon, visiting PokéStops and Gyms, and hatching eggs. Although some of these actions can be completed from a user’s home (particularly, catching Pokémon), the ability to engage in certain aspects of the game without walking outside largely depends on whether a user lives close to PokéStops and Gyms.
Pokémon GO during COVID-19
In the midst of the current global COVID-19 pandemic, how users play and experience augmented reality (AR) mobile apps have been pushed to evolve as new ideas of public space and our ability to move safely through them change.
Pokémon GO has been no exception to these changes, as evidenced by the man in Southern England who was stopped by police for playing Pokémon GO in public amidst the lockdown.
Indeed, in response to the pandemic, Niantic, Inc., posted the following on Twitter:
THE SAFETY OF OUR GLOBAL PLAYER COMMUNITY IS OUR TOP PRIORITY. COVID-19 IS CHALLENGING US AND THE WORLD TO ADJUST.
Niantic’s response to COVID-19
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the creators have increasingly implemented a number of features designed to help users play at home and maintain their social distance.
Some updates implemented during COVID-19 have enabled basic remote play without any associated in-app purchases. For example, the updates on March 20 to the GO Battle League enabled players to more easily battle against random remote trainers. Previously, the GO Battle League required users to walk a certain distance to ‘unlock’ battle opportunities; this was removed on March 20. In addition, the updates on March 23 to Gifts enabled your Pokémon ‘buddy’ to travel to nearby PokéStops and bring back gifts for you to send to other players. Typically, gifts include items like Pokéballs, berries, potions, eggs, and more that you send to other players in your friends list.
However, updates like doubling the Gym interaction distance still require users to go outside (unless they happen to live close to a Gym). Additionally, remote play options like remote raid passes and special remote events must be purchased through the app with PokéCoins. PokéCoins can be purchased for a fee in the app or can be collected by walking to a Gym and leaving your Pokémon there to ‘defend’ the Gym (again, requiring users to go outside). The paid remote play options like remote raid passes and special remote events are the primary way for users to catch rare or higher-level Pokémon; users who are able to access these remote play options are, thus, often at an advantage over other players.
What do these updates do?
When we were thinking through what these updates actually do — what they accomplish in terms of game play — we categorized the updates into three groups: good, questionable and bad.
- Good: Instead of focusing on motivating users to move through and interact with each other in the physical world, the developers have shifted to a “play from home” model.
- Questionable: Because it is a commercial game, the motivations for these changes seem more focused on keeping up the Pokémon GO user base (and revenue) than focused on user safety. Pokémon GO’s business model is largely based on in-app purchases, whether through special events or special item bundles you can purchase, and, as noted, a number of the changes made require in-app purchases of some kind. VentureBeat reports “Pokémon GO saw global player spending reach $23 million during the week of March 16, according to mobile market researcher Sensor Tower,” which suggests that these measures have paid off (literally). See VentureBeat and Mobile Marketer for more details.
- Bad: The changes don’t do much to help those who can’t safely access public space and continue to be built on existing problematic structures, so none of the unconscious bias built into the game (in the map, for example) has been addressed. These are one-size-fits-all changes that are meant to help everyone (an example of universal design).
In other words, what we found is that many of the updates intended to address the COVID-19 pandemic use a one-size-fits-all approach to enabling safe play in public spaces and continue to be built on existing problematic structures that privilege the safety of some players over others.
Oh no, Pokemon GO!
So, what are some of the “problematic structures” we’re talking about?
When they were developing Pokémon GO!, Niantic used a map from a previous AR game called Ingress, which was built from a combination of crowdsourced data from a Historical Marker Database, and crowdsourced data from early Ingress players. Both the database volunteers and Ingress players tended to be young, English-speaking males (Huffaker). Huffaker explains:
[T]he locations of pokéstops and gyms are taken from the locations of ‘portals’ in Niantic’s previous augmented-reality GPS-based game, Ingress. And Ingress’s portals, while not available as an exportable list, are viewable on a world map, making it possible to compare city demographics to the distribution of Ingress portals.
Recently, Niantic expanded their Wayfarer restrictions to allow players level 38 and higher to review and approve new location nominations; however, users still must reach level 40 — the highest level in the game — to submit new locations for review.
The result is that there tend to be significantly more “locations” — PokéStops and Gyms — in White, affluent neighbourhoods (and in downtown cores) than in Black neighbourhoods and rural areas. Living in an area with lots of PokéStops and Gyms means that you can gain more experience points, collect items, fight in Gyms, leave your pokemon to defend a Gym (which gives you PokéCoins, which can then be exchanged for items in the in-app store), and more. In other words, it gives you an advantage over players who don’t live in areas with many PokéStops or Gyms.
For players who have to travel to different neighbourhoods in order to access PokéStops or Gyms, this can present a number of problems — from accessibility issues to fear of being stopped by police, as Omari Akil wrote in 2016:
WHEN MY BRAIN STARTED COMBINING THE COMPLEXITY OF BEING BLACK IN AMERICA WITH THE REAL WORLD PROPOSAL OF WANDERING AND EXPLORATION THAT IS DESIGNED INTO THE GAMEPLAY OF POKÉMON GO, THERE WAS ONLY ONE CONCLUSION. I MIGHT DIE IF I KEEP PLAYING.
Critiques over the structural inequalities and unconscious bias built into the game are certainly not new, and a number of users and scholars have previously critiqued how Pokémon GO engages in digital redlining (Juhász, Levente, and Hartwig; Akhtar; Bogado).
Digital Redlining & Pokémon GO
Back in 2016, Aura Bogado pointed out on Twitter that there are way more PokéStops and Gyms in areas that do not look like her predominantly Latinx/Black neighbourhood back in Los Angeles, and asked others to share their neighbourhoods and racial identities using #mypokehood. (Reported in Allana Akhtar, USA TODAY.)
Data vis. from Urban Institute demonstrating the unequal distribution of gaming opportunities in Black & Latinx communities.
Researchers have also taken up this question of the location of PokéStops in various neighbourhoods. According to Urban Institute researchers, there is an average of 55 PokéStops in predominantly White neighborhoods, in stark contrast to the 19 in predominantly Black neighborhoods. This pattern was also found to repeat itself in Black neighbourhoods within Detroit, Miami, and Chicago. (Allana Akhtar, USA TODAY)
In 2017, Juhász and Hartwig conducted a geographic analysis of Pokémon GO locations, demonstrating a lack of PokéStops (yellow dots) and Gyms (red dots) in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, effectively restricting gameplay for residents (pictured above). The map compares metropolitan Downtown Miami (a) and Hialeah, a closeby municipality with a significantly higher Hispanic population (b) (Juhász and Hartwig, 2017).
What these reports indicate is that that crowd-sourced map used by Niantic to develop Pokémon GO engages in digital redlining, or when digital technologies perpetuate inequalities and inequities between already marginalized groups. For our purposes, we want to expand on these important critiques to highlight that although the developers have made changes to Pokémon GO designed to make game play safer during the COVID-19 pandemic, these changes continue to be built on an unequal playing field and don’t account for the lived realities of marginalized players.
When we began considering how an AR game might take into consideration the lived experiences of marginalized players, we started by asking a number of questions. What would it mean to take crime data, historically employed by law enforcement bodies, and use it to serve those who are denied protection from, or explicitly brutalized by, the state?
What if Pokémon GO had some of the functionality of an app like SpotCrime, coupled with a setting that players could turn on or off depending on whether they are interested in playing in heavily policed areas?
SpotCrime is a “public facing crime map and crime alert service” that draws police agencies and validated sources, and also allows for users to submit a crime tip. (SpotCrime)
What if we could expand the prompts Niantic issues in order to better protect their community of players to include prompts that better protect marginalized members of their community?
Hold The Phone
But then we asked ourselves, do these changes do more good than harm? Do these added features actually increase wellbeing? Here’s what we came up with:
All players can equally engage with the game and play safely.
- Promotes neighbourhood stereotypes
- Encourages ‘digital redlining’ (ie. racial segregation) to continue
- Constant reminder of oppression & exclusion
- False sense of security
An app “designed to do good” that instead harms without actually fixing the problem Black men in America, for example, face when playing Pokémon GO in certain neighbourhoods . . . or indeed the threat posed to them by virtue of existing anywhere in the United States.
So, we pivoted again and spent some time considering other apps that, in our minds, bop . . . or flop.
Apps That Bop
Hollaback! is a project dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology. The data on the website is entirely crowdsourced, where users share their experience of street harassment (through the website, by email, or through the app) and the submissions are mapped to the nearest location where the harassment took place.
Safe & the City is a crowdsourced personal safety navigation app used to route, share, and rate walks in London, England. Safe & the City claims to have one of the largest community sources of sexual and street harassment incidents.
Apps That Flop
On the other end of the spectrum is TikTok. TikTok, a platform popularly used to share short videos, was caught instructing content moderators to limit the reach of videos from users who were considered too “ugly,” poor, “overweight,” or disabled. Users had no choice to opt in or out of what was later referred to as “part of an internal policy called ‘imagery depicting a subject highly vulnerable to cyberbullying’” (Telegraph, December 3rd 2020).
Even if, for the sake of argument, this policy was drafted in good spirit — which seems highly unlikely (see article in The Guardian for more) — it nonetheless serves as a sobering example of a social media company scrambling to “prevent bullying” on their platform (The Intercept) but instead reinforcing harm by treating the symptoms (cyber bullying) and not the cause (an ableist, fatphobic, classist culture that shames) — a much taller order. The method of intervention here is of course different than the one we are critiquing, but the impulse to protect users without a grasp of what those users actually need from the app in order to act as full participants, without disproportionate personal risk, must be done with stakeholders and specialists at the table.
Alternative approaches to plotting maps, with a more dystopian twist, Proximity Apps leverage safety in order to poll surveillance data from smartphone users (EFF), where every smartphone signals a beating heart.
Pitched as an easy solution for contact tracing, proximity apps, unlike location tracking (which use GPS and cell site information), make use of Bluetooth in order to measure the distance between mobile users with the hopes of tracking viral transmission. The obvious danger is increased government surveillance, a public health tradeoff that lingers beyond the span of the pandemic once users are pressured to opt in — Apple and Google have already rolled out a joint API to this effect, making applications like these readily available on iOS and Android devices, like TraceTogether (Singapore) and COVID Alert (Canada) .
So, where does this leave us?
Niantic’s current model for anti-racism is to “encourage players to explore the world around them and connect with their local community through physical interaction to build a strong body and mind through exercise, and to build positive connections with fellow human beings through real-world social interactions.” They have also committed to “fund[ing] projects from Black creators” so that they may share their own “characters, story, and points of view that validate the lives and experiences of the Black community.”
While Niantic’s push to fund Black creators is no small gesture and certainly a step in the right direction, they seem to be missing in-game changes to be made that could massively impact the quality of play and safety of Black PoGO players. There seems to be a critical blindspot around gaming and politics here, one that ignores biased, built-in game design principles that require immediate attention — something that Black, Hispanic, and other racialized PoGO players have been pointing out since 2013. Indeed, claims that Pokémon GO “build[s] positive connections with fellow human beings through real-world social interactions” by “encouraging players to explore the world around them and connect with their local community through physical interaction” is about as exasperating as back-patting claims like “I don’t see race,” particularly when we consider the lived experiences of POC in public (and private) spaces, the history of colonial violence, slavery, and police brutality.
Although we acknowledge that Niantic has implemented some important in-game changes within Pokémon GO in response to the pandemic and, more recently, corporate changes in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and protests around the world, these changes fail to bring lasting, meaningful change towards safer gameplay if the underlying conditions and unconscious bias built into the map continue to go unaddressed.
To address the bias built into Pokémon GO, we came up with the following suggestions towards a safer gaming experience for all players, now and in a post-COVID-19 landscape:
- Extend all remote play options to non-paying users
- Revise the language on the opening screen
- Extend the ability to suggest new PokéStops and Gyms to all users, regardless of rank
With these changes, our projected outcome would be a more accessible and safe app to play for marginalized members of the Pokémon GO community. In this model, rather than steer players and reinforce digital redlining or neighbourhood stereotypes, players are able to judge for themselves when and where is safest for them to play, and disabled players as well as low-income players in disadvantaged areas are also afforded equal playing opportunity.
A Cautionary Tale
There are many examples of mobile gaming apps that apply principles of intersectional feminism in productive, reparative ways (see: Resources). We are certainly not saying this kind of work is not possible, or meaningful. Far from it!
Instead, we offer up a limitation to the kind of hopeful tinkering we sought to achieve in our critique of Pokémon GO, or indeed any AR app that invites users to treat public spaces as safe and recreational.
We hope this thought experiment raises important questions and concerns when thinking about the design and development of AR mobile games and to what degree these games can be built from an intersectional feminist framework that addresses anti-oppression work, safety, and wellbeing.
For more on the intersections between race and technology, see:
Works Cited & Consulted
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Akil, Omari. “Warning: Pokemon GO Is a Death Sentence If You Are a Black Man.” Medium, 13 July 2016, https://medium.com/mobile-lifestyle/warning-pokemon-go-is-a-death-sentence-if-you-are-a-black-man-acacb4bdae7f.
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