Why Pokémon Go is good for you

The game draws people outdoors and out of themselves – although as with any social technology there are some risks

‘Pokémon Go is part of an emerging generation of “augmented reality” apps, which allow players to look through the camera on their phone and see a game superimposed on to the world around them.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Pokémon Go is part of an emerging generation of “augmented reality” apps, which allow players to look through the camera on their phone and see a game superimposed on to the world around them.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

Pokémon Go is already being hailed as the “game of the summer”, with players of all ages getting out and about searching for Pokémon creatures of all shapes and sizes on their mobile phones. As is usually the case for those in my line of work, once the game started to pique the interest of the media, I started to get asked about the threat of such games to children and young people.

Pokémon Go is part of an emerging generation of “augmented reality” apps, which allow players to look through the camera on their phone and see a game superimposed on to the world around them. In the case of Pokémon Go, the game overlays Pokémon over real locations for gamers to capture, collect, evolve and fight. Players can also follow maps of the world around them that show where they might find new Pokémon.

It should be stressed there are a lot of positives around these types of apps. For one, they get gamers, traditionally quite a sedentary group, out of their houses and walking around their neighbourhoods. There have been many stories of people with social anxiety disorders coming out and interacting with the world, and people, in positive ways. In addition, it provides plenty of opportunity for exercise.

Traffic dangers

However, as with any piece of social technology, there are risks. Given the outdoor nature of the game, with a physical environment superimposed with creatures you are trying to chase and catch, there is a risk you might not be looking where you are going! There have already been stories of people wandering into traffic and getting lost. AA Roadwatch has warned the Irish public not to use the app when crossing the road and when driving. Haven’t we already seen this, however, through general mobile phone use, where people are more engrossed in an email, message or Facebook than being aware of the world?

There are other elements of the game that do present risk for children. One of the fundamental aspects is to meet with others, to interact with them, to “battle” them and to share information of Pokémon locations. As such, this is an environment where there is common interest – this certainly raises concerns around strangers approaching young people with offers of sharing locations of Pokémon, suggesting places they might go to look for them, and similar. “Pokestops”, places where Pokemon can be found, and “gyms”, where trainers can battle each other, are real-world locations and therefore there is a risk those wishing to meet children might lurk around them. However, these are generally very public places and, given the number of players, often busy.

Mitigating against such risks falls back on common sense more than technical knowhow. One would hope we would not be happy with our children running off on their own all over a town, playing near main roads, or being free to speak to whomever they wish without parental supervision. There is nothing technological in the game that raises risk beyond what we might normally see around “stranger danger”, and setting boundaries around where to play.

Commercial threats

An aspect of the game that can present some challenges is the potential for expensive in-app purchases. Players can purchase in-game currency to buy items that improve their prospects. This can be managed effectively by changing the settings to not allow in-game purchases, as, without such measures, it is possible to make sizeable purchases (the most expensive is £79.99 for “Pokecoins”).

Finally, there are issues related to personal data. It requires a Google account, which means each gamer needs to register personal information such as date of birth and email addresses, and the game also collects information about players’ locations. In addition, gamers using their real names for their character would be identifiable to others. Under data protection law, however, parents can request organisations do not use their children’s data for advertising and marketing.

Nevertheless, the most important thing is the game is great fun and children and young people want to play it. Being aware of the potential pitfalls helps mitigate the potential harm. It presents a great opportunity to have a conversation within families about the game. For younger children, it is an opportunity to play together and to incorporate the game into family outings. But even for older children, who would probably not want to be seen out looking for Pokémon with their mum, showing an interest in what they are doing is going to result in a far stronger understanding of the game than worrying.

Andy Phippen is professor of children and technology at Plymouth University and a special adviser to CybersafeIreland (cybersafeireland.org)

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