Who owns the playground?: Urban gamification and spatial politics in Pokémon GO

On: November 14, 2016
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About Stefani Mans


“Sydney park destroyed as thousands of Pokémon Go players descend” wrote Irish news website TheJournal.ie on the first of August.
This is just one example of a situation wherein Niantic’s popular augmented reality game Pokémon GO puts a considerable strain on public places within the urban environment.

Pokémon GO

For all of you who are late to the party, let me get you up to speed real fast. Pokémon GO is the very popular augmented reality (AR) app created by Niantic.

    AR allows users of the app to view digital information and images that have been layered onto the “real physical” environment (Verhoeff & Cooley 209).
During gameplay users are exploring the urban environment searching for Pokémon to catch and looking for important in-game locations, so called PokéStops and Poké Gyms (Pokémon GO).
Recently Niantic finalized a sponsor deals with McDonald’s, and more are on the way. The partnership enables these commercial companies to attract more customers to their businesses by making the premises of their business an important in-app location.

Participatory democracy?

In a piece for The Guardian, Francesca Perry quotes Patrick Lynch who suggests that a Pokémon GO space is easy accessible open and completely democratic “unlike traditional plazas, whose development is often dictated by historical or economic motives” (Perry)

The game has been praised for its social- and health benefits. Pokémon GO supposedly is free to use and stimulates people to go outside to explore their urban environment.

Unfortunately the benefits that this game is said to provide are not equally accessible to everyone. For one, important in-game locations were chosen based on crowd sourced data from Ingress; Niantic’s previous AR game.

The problem here is that Pokémon GO has a far broader reach than Ingress, which was only used by a very select demographic. This led to various problems like uneven distribution of points of interest amongst different neighborhoods: “crowdsourcing is only as representative as the crowd doing the sourcing” (Huffaker).

Also, not everybody can just safely roam around the city at any given time, Huffaker wrote an interesting piece about the experience of black men playing Pokémon GO: “multiple black players have worried that they will face racial profiling while wandering in circles playing the game” (Huffaker). Also for women in general there are some safety concerns in regards to wondering true the city at any given time.

Issues & responsibility

In their article ‘Layar-ed Places’, Liao and Humphreys argue that there has been little empirical research concerning the way that people are using mobile AR technologies and forming social practices around them. They stress that there is more interest in building AR technologies than studying their social implications (Liao and Humphreys 1419).

In the case of Pokémon GO the social implications were huge and not all favorable.

Niantic launched the game without providing the possibility to ‘opt-out’.
Public spaces have been flooded with gamers due to the in-game locations that are attached to real-life city landmarks. Also spatial practices within hospitals have been disturbed and inappropriate behaviour at memorial centers has been reported.
As a result of this several public places have requested to be excluded from the game (Schiffer).

This leads us to the question: Who is responsible for the unfavorable consequences of the popularity of Niantic’s popular AR game?

Julia Ask, a media analyst at Forrester Inc., states that it is not Niantic’s place to tell people how to experience their space and how to behave in it (Schiffer).

This statement is questionable considering the fact that the commercialized geography of the game is also guiding the exploration of the urban environment and therefore influencing the way people experience the public spaces within it.
Arguably the way that people experience public spaces is actually already guided by Niantic’s economical interests and the agency of Pokémon GO users is limited.

So, if Niantic is not responsible; who is?

Of course there is the argument that Pokémon GO players are responsible for their own conduct during gameplay and that common sense should rule. Unfortunately, most of the time it doesn’t.
News reports of the past months can attest to the fact that when playing AR games people are not exactly acting like the homo economicus that neoliberal society wants them to be (Read), but rather like a moth that is going into a flame (Schiffer).


Damage to public spaces

The responsibility to fix damage doesn’t fall on Niantic’s plate, but instead on the public authorities.

In his article ‘Pokémon GO and public space’, Iveson points out that Niantic turns the physical public spaces of the urban environment into a playground without making any contribution to their provision or maintenance. He argues that Niantic, a private commercial entity, is making money of the public spaces by utilizing them as a playground for their very lucrative AR game but in turn does nothing to support them or even take responsibility for damage resulting from their game. (Iveson)
Morisov argues in his article for The Guardian that the inability of governments to tax profits made by big digital corporates actually contributes to hollowing of state capacity to fund public services (Morisov).

This puts the ‘free to use’ claim of Niantic in a whole different perspective.

When Lynch suggests that a Pokémon GO space is completely democratic, he is clearly forgetting about the sponsor deals that are being made between Niantic and companies like McDonald’s which enables them to make the premises of their business an important in-game location, and about the so called lures business owners can buy to attract a lot of Pokémon to their business during a timespan of 30 minutes thereby making their business temporarily a point of interest.

The concerns about reducing the agency of augmented reality users and thereby affecting the democracy of the public spaces are questionable concerning the fact that this assumed agency is already limited by the commercialized geography of the game.

As far as the ‘let common sense rule’ argument goes: is it really common sense to let a commercial entity like Niantic be able to to let public authorities clean up after their mess while they are making money off of it?


Works Cited

Ingress. Computer software. Apple App Store. Niantic, Inc., 14 July 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2016. <https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ingress/id576505181?mt=8>.

“Ingress.” Ingress. Niantic, Inc., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2016. <https://www.ingress.com/>.

Iveson, Kurt. “Pokémon GO and Public Space.” Cities and Citizenship. N.p., 17 Aug. 2016. Web. 20 Oct. 2016. <http://citiesandcitizenship.blogspot.nl/2016/08/pokemon-go-and-public-space.html>.

Iveson, Kurt. “Pokémon GO: Geospatial Data and Digital Labour in the Urban Playground.” Cities and Citizenship. N.p., 07 Aug. 2016. Web. 20 Oct. 2016. <http://citiesandcitizenship.blogspot.nl/2016/08/pokemon-go-geospatial-data-and-digital.html>.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000. Print.

Huffaker, Christopher. “There Are Fewer Pokemon Go Locations in Black Neighborhoods, but Why?” BND. Belleville News-Democrat, 14 July 2016. Web. 20 Oct. 2016. <http://www.bnd.com/news/nation-world/national/article89562297.html>.

Morozov, Evgeny. “Cheap Cab Ride? You Must Have Missed Uber’s True Cost | Evgeny Morozov.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 30 Jan. 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/31/cheap-cab-ride-uber-true-cost-google-wealth-taxation>.

Perry, Francesca. “Urban Gamification: Can Pokémon Go Transform Our Public Spaces?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 22 July 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/jul/22/urban-gamification-pokemon-go-transform-public-spaces>.

Pokémon GO. Computer software. Apple App Store. Niantic, Inc., 6 July 2016. Web. 20 Oct. 2016. <https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/pokemon-go/id1094591345?mt=8>.

Read, Jason. “A Genealogy of Homo Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity.” A Foucault for the 21st Century: Governmentality, Biopolitics and Discipline in the New Millennium. By Sam Binkley and Jorge Capetillo Ponce. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Pub., 2009. 215. Print.

Schiffer, Alex. “Should Augmented-reality Games like ‘Pokémon Go’ Place Limits on the Real-world Locations They Include?” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 20 July 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. <http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-tn-pokemon-opt-out-20160715-snap-story.html>  

“Sydney Park Destroyed as Thousands of Pokémon Go Players Descend.” TheJournal.ie. Journal Media Ltd., 2 Aug. 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. <http://www.thejournal.ie/pokemon-go-park-destroyed-2905891-Aug2016/>.

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