The collision of real and virtual worlds will cause problems as AR gaming grows
When a virtual space overlaps a real-world space, then whose space is it, and who controls what is created as a result? The success of augmented-reality game Pokémon Go has forced this question into focus. Since its launch less than a week ago, groups worldwide have struggled with the game’s unforeseen ramifications.
Washington DC’s Holocaust Museum has asked Pokémon Go players to stay away: the museum was designated a Pokéstop, where players can pick up items like Pokéballs and revives, forcing its communications director to point out that playing a game inside a memorial to victims of Nazism is “extremely inappropriate”.
In the Sydney suburb of Rhodes, a chance confluence of Pokéstops has led to “hundreds” of players milling around a small outdoor area. “The place is in complete chaos with crowds of well over 1,000 per night. There is a massive level of noise after midnight, uncontrollable traffic, excessive rubbish, smokers, drunk people, people who are ‘camping’ in the site, and even people peddling mobile phone chargers,” a resident told Buzzfeed.
Boon Sheridan, a Massachusetts man who lives in a converted church, has found his house has been designated a Pokémon Gym, the most important category of locations in the game. For days, people have been loitering outside his house, leaving him concerned it “could easily make this place look like a dealer’s house”.
Some of these problems can be pegged to the unexpected, astronomical success of Pokémon Go. Back in June, I spoke to John Hanke, the chief executive and cofounder of the game’s developers, Niantic Labs. He was cautiously optimistic about the game’s potential, saying that the mixture of augmented reality (AR) and Pokémon “felt like a very natural combination on both sides”, but nowhere in our discussion did he suggest he was planning to ride the wave of a multinational phenomenon.
When asked about future plans, Hanke instead discussed licensing the core technology behind Pokémon Go to other brands looking to make their own AR games. That’s likely to still be on the cards, but for now, the company has their hands full dealing with the monster they’ve unleashed.
Naivety can’t be the only excuse, though. Niantic Labs has been doing this for a long time. Ingress, a science fiction-tinged game developed back when the company was still a subsidiary of Google, has been running for six and half years. In July 2015, the company faced an almost identical controversy, after the German magazine Zeit reported that concentration and death camps including Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz-Birkenau were all set up as in-game “portals”. Some were deleted the day after Zeit contacted Google; others remained, including a portal specifically located at the notorious “Arbeit Macht Frei” gates in Auschwitz.
Pokémon Go and Ingress share a database, built over half a decade from a mixture of public information sources and volunteer contributions. In a technical sense, it’s little different from Wikipedia: a database of geotagged entries on points of interest dotted around the world. Ingress players can even read brief summaries of why the point of interest is actually interesting, a feature which is yet to roll out to Pokémon players. (Do they think we don’t want to learn?)
Wikipedia, of course, can be edited by anyone. Niantic’s database cannot. For the first few days, the company would only accept reports about physical locations “that present immediate physical danger (for example, they are in the middle of a road or on railroad tracks)”. Now, the company has widened it out, and users can report an issue for a number of reasons, including, notably, to highlight a Pokéstop “on private property”.
The language is telling, and may give more ground – real or virtual – than Niantic intended. A Pokéstop cannot be “on private property”. A Pokéstop does not exist: it is a latitude and longitude stored on Niantic’s servers, interpreted by the Pokémon Go client which then represents it as a circle hovering over a stylised Google Map of the area surrounding the player.
In the short term, it clearly makes sense for Niantic to offer this control to landowners. It doesn’t result in great press for your megaviral casual game if players are arrested for trespassing due to the instructions the game gives them.
Niantic can also comfort itself with the fact that a number of properties are quite happy with their inclusion in the game. Churches have been reported making the most of the sudden influx of young secular players; signs have popped up outside shops reading “No purchase, no Pokémon” and “come for the Pokémon, stay for the selection of retro clothes at affordable prices”; and bars and pubs have found that even if they aren’t an official Pokéstop, dropping a lure on-site results in a short-lived flood of Pokémon. Those lures can be bought for between £0.45 and £0.79 in real money, already offering Niantic a nice way of monetising commercial interest in the game. The nature of capitalism being what it is, of course, you can bet that slicker iterations of the same idea, such as sponsored Pokéstops and Gyms, will arrive sooner or later.
But even though the interests of Niantic and landowners happen to coincide for now, there’s no guarantee that state of affairs is universal. And if – or rather, when – the edge-case arrives, it’s not entirely clear what the right response is. Who does own the virtual space around you? I can’t put a billboard on your house without asking you; but is it so obvious that I should be allowed to put a virtual billboard “on” your house without giving you any say in the matter?
Those questions are only going to get more pressing as the real and virtual merge. Already, Pokémon Go is making the leap from a smartphone app to something with a physical presence, in the form of Pokémon Go Plus, a fancy pedometer built by Nintendo to allow players to stay connected to Niantic’s virtual world even when they aren’t looking at their phones.
Perhaps the best thing to do is to look backwards, not forward, for solutions. In the early days of the 20th century, another technological revolution raised questions of control, trespass and oversight: the aeroplane.
Who owns the air above the land? For millennia, the answer had been both obvious and irrelevant. Suddenly, as airports sprang up, and noisy machines crossed first fields, then nations, then the globe, the question crystallised into something requiring an urgent and definitive answer. The pressure was increased by the (literal) rise of the skyscraper; just as airspace became useful, it also became valuable.
The specifics of that answer vary around the world, but the generalities are the same: above a certain height, the airspace is owned by the state. Landowners can’t charge pilots for the privilege of flying over their land, nor can they block it off entirely.
But there’s a quid pro quo. States enforce a responsibility to the people on the ground, ensuring that unsafe vehicles don’t fly overhead, limiting the noise emitted by low-flying planes, particularly overnight, and ideally ensuring that access to the skies isn’t held hostage for private profit.
In the virtual world, nations are already approaching the same compromise. Data protection laws, particularly in Europe, allow for the freedom to innovate while still offering individuals the choice to object. It’s not a stretch that soon you’ll be able to denote your home a sort of digital no-fly zone, requesting its exemption from databases like Niantic’s without requiring you to individually negotiate a deal with every single AR company.
Technology has typically outpaced legislation, and even with tens of millions of downloads it doesn’t look like Pokémon Go will be the tipping point that causes that trend to change. But the questions raised over the past few days aren’t going away, and while a wild west may work for some, it’s ultimately unsustainable.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Image: A Pokémon Go player in front of Flinders Street in Melbourne, Australia. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images