Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Pokémon GO and public space

 Pokémon GO players gather at Peg Patterson Park in Rhodes, Sydney. Source: ABC

In an earlier post here, I argued that Pokémon GO involves players in a form of 'playbour', because playing the game involves the production of geospatial data that is owned and can be traded by the game's creator, Niantic.

In this post, I want to take a look at a related set of issues that have arisen with the rapid and massive popularity of this game. If Pokémon GO has figured out a way to encourage and then profit from our explorations of public space, what else does the game have to teach us about public space in our digitally 'augmented' urban playgrounds?


Pokémon GO is an 'augmented reality' app, and is by far the most popular application of this technology that we've seen. 'Augmented reality' (AR) makes use of internet connectivity, location awareness and cameras on smartphones to allow people to view digital images and information that have been layered onto the 'real' physical environment.

A few years ago, AR was going to be the next big thing in digital tech. But things didn't quite go as predicted, and more recently, we started seeing more and more commentary on the failure of AR to live up to that hype. Now, with the massive popularity of Pokémon GO, it seems to be back with a bullet.

At least three fascinating issues concerning Pokémon GO and public space have arisen in the past few weeks, and I think they illustrate some broader issues that are pertinent for discussions of augmented reality in urban environments.

1. Where are the Pokémon? On the uneven distribution of digital 'augmentation' across public spaces

So, are there Pokémon in your neighbourhood? Of course, as the game is rolled out across different markets at different times, this will depend in the first instance on whether or not the game has come to your country! (Africa, you're still waiting! You too, India and China. CNET are keeping an updated list of countries where you can (officially) play the game here.)

But even if the game is available in your city, we are seeing that some neighbourhoods are full of Pokémon and PokéStops, while in other places there are less to find.

This interesting article from the US by Christopher Huffaker makes some very interesting observations about the locations of key sites or 'portals' in an augmented reality game called Ingress. This matters for our discussion because Ingress is a predecessor to Pokémon GO, was developed by the same operator (Niantic), and its geospatial data has been used to set locations for key sites in Pokemon GO like PokéStops and Gyms. Huffaker argues there are fewer portals in predominantly African-American neighbourhoods of large US cities like Detroit, New York and Chicago. Researchers at the Urban Institute in Washington DC have done their own maps, and have come to similar conclusions.

Now, no-one is suggesting that a group of nasty people working for Niantic sat down and plotted out an uneven, racialised distribution of Pokémon GO sites to make it harder to play in predominantly African-American neighbourhoods. But that's the whole point. When crowds are used to source data, the data is only as inclusive as the crowd. And because Ingress tends to be played by a quite specific kinds of people, Pokémon data reflects those demographics.

More broadly, we might also observe that when algorithms are used to turn such data in geospatial information, the data is only as inclusive as the parameters that have been coded for the algorithms. The algorithmic nature of the game information is also most likely the explanation for the various stories appearing about 'inappropriate' game locations, like memorials and some secure sites -- not to mention suburban parks that might not have the infrastructure to cope with hoards of people trying to hang out there (more on that one below).

For most of us, it's very difficult to get a grip on the way such algorithms work. Even if we could get corporations or governments to share their code, those lines of code only make sense to those with the specialist skills to understand how they work. There's a growing literature on the role of algorithms in the governance of cities and populations. That literature suggests that as algorithms become ever more important in informing and even automating decision-making and resource allocation, we might want to know a little more about how they work, and how their injustices can be made visible and contested. The discussion about the location of key sites in Pokémon GO certainly illustrates the kinds of things that are at stake.

There are two more points to note about the location of important sites in the game. First, the geography of the game is likely to change as more sponsorship deals are done between Niantic and those seeking to lure players to their location. As has been widely reported, the first of these major deals was done with McDonalds in Japan, and many more are set to follow - Niantic's John Hanke says that this is his preferred means of raising revenue. Shops and advertisers can also spend money to buy and then set lures for players. So, for all the hype about the way that this game is encouraging people to explore their urban environment, we might want to ask some questions about how those explorations are being guided as the digital geography of the game is further commercialised.

Second, a conflict has emerged between Niantic and a numbers of fan websites that had been providing real-time maps of Pokémon locations, by scraping data from the game. As reported by CNET and others, it appears that Niantic have found a way to prevent tracking sites like Pokevision accessing their locational data, and made a few legal threats to those sites while they are at it. The operators of Pokevision wrote an open letter to Hanke and Niantic about the shut down. Hanke and Niantic responded with a blog post claiming that they'd taken the action to reduce pressure on their servers, which have been melting down frequently. This conflict over the openness of the game's location data is an interesting one. This is a game operated by a commercial gaming company, so to what extent do the usual arguments about 'open data' apply? Interestingly, those running the tracking sites are arguing that their access should be maintained because it will enhance the playability of the game, especially while the tracking feature continues to have problems. This interesting conflict is to be continued, I'm sure...

2. Who can access the Pokémon? On uneven access to public space in cities of inequality

Not everyone who walks around a city staring at their phone searching for Pokémon will have the same experience of this 'play'. To play this game is to walk around an urban environment in search of Pokémon, PokéStops and Gyms. Indeed, the game also rewards you for the steps you take while playing it, with those steps helping you to hatch eggs. (A brilliant way to ensure that your geographical data can be captured, by the way ... but that's another story.)

Niantic and the game's supporters are talking up the social and the health benefits of this kind of play -- if millions of people are now out and about in their public spaces, exploring places they have never been, meeting other players and getting exercise at the same time, then everyone wins, right?

Well, sort of. Here's where Pokémon GO interacts with the broader politics of public space. As we know from decades of research on this topic, public spaces in our cities are not equally accessible to everyone.

Again in the United States, there has been some critical discussion about the experience of 'Pokémoning While Black'. In Iowa City, Faith Joseph Ekakite shared this account of being stopped and searched at gunpoint by police while playing the game in a park. Omari Akil wrote this widely-reported account of his unease while playing the game, fearing that Pokémon GO could be a death sentence for black men, given the on-going problem of police shootings in the US.

Not surprisingly, there has also been some discussion of the potential vulnerability of children playing the game, and the potential for them to be 'lured' to locations where they might be targeted for their smartphone or something else. Here,

There seems to have been less discussion of the gendered politics of playing Pokémon in public space. A recent report suggests that female players outnumber male players by a ratio of almost 2 to 1. If that's true, I'll admit that it challenges my own assumptions about the gendered nature of both gaming and public space.

In fact, this finding raises the question of whether Pokémon GO game play might actually help to address, rather than reinforce, some of the exclusionary aspects of public space that I've mentioned above. Anecdotally, some people playing the game tell me that it has given them and their friends a kind of 'license' to be in various places that they would not normally go, like parks and residential streets late at night. They say they can do so because they know there will be other people around also playing, and so places will be less scary than they might otherwise have been. Are the eyes on the screen are also 'eyes on the street', in a Jane Jacobs kinda way? Will this actually help to make public spaces more accessible, by being more used?

3. Whose infrastructure supports the game? On the public-private relationship in augmented urban spaces

Niantic provides the digital data and server infrastructure that enables people to play the game as they move around their environment. But as Pokémon GO turns the streets and parks and malls of the city into a playground, who provides the playground? The game takes-for-granted the existence of 'physical' public spaces and their infrastructures, and makes no particular contribution to their provision or maintenance.

On the surface, this doesn't seem unreasonable -- after all, public space is notionally meant to be accessible to all, right? So why shouldn't it be available for play (or playbour)?

However, it's clear that in some instances, the popularity of the game has actually put some public spaces under considerable pressure. Here in Sydney, an everyday park in suburban Rhodes that most people had never visited or even heard of was inundated with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Pokémon GO players in search of rare Pokémon that were concentrated in the area. Word of the bounty on offer in the park spread quickly through social media, so this was a classic example of a nimble, digitally-connected crowd in formation and action.

Residents complained of noise and litter. At one point, they took to throwing water bombs from their balconies late at night to try to clear the park. Police were called, and they issued parking infringements to try to move people on.

As several players pointed out, there were no fights, no violence, no crime, and this is meant to be public space ... so what's the problem?

But it's also true that the crowds had some impacts on the park. The picture below accompanied an article on one local website about the issue -- the park does seem kinda messed up.

While maintaining local parks is one of the responsibilities of public authorities, and while those parks are there to be used by 'the public', this little episode demonstrates some of the complex geographical dimensions of urban publicness

I think we do need to resist the idea that this park somehow 'belongs' to the 'local' public, and the associated logic that people coming from 'elsewhere' is a problem in itself. Nor would I want to see any kind of 'users pays' logic be introduced to park use in Sydney, or elsewhere.

But what of the private commercial entities who are making lots of money, but who are not actually making any contribution to support the urban environment that supports their game? Yes, there is socialisation going on here, but there is also commercialisation (something can be two things at once!). And where there's commercialisation, it's not necessarily unreasonable for the public authorities to seek some kind of contribution or compensation. Money for growing trees doesn't grow on trees, if you know what I mean.

Earlier this year, Evgeny Morozov made the case in a piece for the Guardian that the tax-dodging and tax-minimising practices of huge digital corporates like Uber and Google was actually contributing to the hollowing out of state capacity to fund public services like transport. It's a question worth asking: while Pokémon GO might be enhancing some people's experience of public space, but should we expect some financial contribution from the game's owners to sustaining the playground for their very profitable game?


So, there you go. Across these three sets of issues, we can see that the game's popularity throws up some new questions about public space in networked cities, but also draws us into some very old questions about the city's streets and their accessibility. It's only a game, I know. But as our experience of public space is increasingly mediated through digital connectivity, it's a game that does have something to teach us about how the urban experience is being transformed through collisions of the digital and the urban.

In finally finishing this piece, I've also come across a few other interesting articles specifically on the issue of Pokémon GO and public space that are worth checking out:


  1. Very interesting!!

    Cool points about a) PokemonGo possibly challenging typical (in)accessibility of public space for certain demographics, and b) the suggestion that Niantic profiting from the use of public space might have a responsibility to give back.

    Got me thinking more about this topic more than "holy shit look where you're walking," so cheers for that ;)



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