Sunday, August 7, 2016

Pokémon GO: Geospatial data and digital labour in the urban playground

So ... Pokémon GO has been a thing, right?!

The article below was published as an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald last week. It's included here with active links for anyone who's interested. It's about the way the game turns play into a kind of 'digital labour', through the collection and monetisation of data about our movements through the urban environment.

I've got a bit more to say about the game ... I really do think it has plenty to teach us about the on-going digitalisation of everyday urban life. More to follow soon.


As Pokémon GO maintains its place at the top of the app charts, and as our streets and parks are increasingly populated by screen-illuminated trainers trying to find and evolve their digital critters, it’s time to ask a few questions about the kind of ‘play’ that is going on here.

For many, this this game is great fun. And it is free to download. But Niantic (the game’s creator, a spin-off company from Google), Google, Nintendo and others have invested cold hard cash in developing the game and trying to maintain the infrastructure that supports it. A closer look at how the app might provide some return on that investment tells us something important about the nature of ‘free play’ in our digitally-augmented urban playground.

How does Pokémon GO make money for its creator and investors? Of course, as with many free apps, there are ‘in-app purchases’ that will be attractive to some (if not all) players. Some analysts estimate earnings of over $1 million per day from such purchases. These in-app purchases are the most visible form of revenue from the game, but they are by no means the only or even the most lucrative revenue source.

At present, the real-world location of most important places for players like PokéStops and Gyms have been set by Niantic – based on spatial data acquired from another of their augmented reality games, Ingress. In that game, retailers and others can pay Niantic to have portals located in or near their premises. This has now occurred with Pokémon GO in Japan, where McDonalds has become the first company to do a deal with Niantic to sponsor Gym locations. Such deals are expected to occur elsewhere very soon.

But the revenue potential does not stop there. As the saying goes, “surveillance is the business model of the internet”. Augmented reality games like Ingress and Pokémon GO have the potential open up a very lucrative new revenue stream based on the acquisition and sale of data – not just personal data, but aggregated spatial data about urban activity patterns.

There has already been some controversy about the terms of service for players, which give Niantic access to all manner of data on their phones – including email contacts and social media profiles. This data could potentially be sold to third parties with an interest in targeted advertising. Concerns about this arrangement resulted in a modification of those initial terms of service – but this modification has not satisfied the likes of Senator Al Franken in the United States or consumer advocates in Germany, both of whom have raised on-going concerns with Niantic.

But it is not only individually-identifiable personal data that interests Niantic. They are also interested in the spatial data that is generated by Pokémon GO players. As has been widely observed, playing the game rapidly drains phone batteries, because when the game is open your phone is constantly in touch with Niantic servers and providing detailed spatial information about your movements. The Privacy Policy notifies players that locational data will be collected during game play, and that “We may share aggregated information and non-identifying information with third parties for research and analysis, demographic profiling, and other similar purposes”. It goes on to note that “Information that we collect from our users is considered to be a business asset”.

This not only has the potential for surveillance of an individual gamer’s movements through the city (a potential which is of course inherent in smartphones anyway). Aggregated data about players’ movements through the city also has the potential to be incredibly lucrative.

Niantic is now harvesting geospatial data about millions of people’s routes from one place to another, about how far they are prepared to travel as part of game play, about the kinds of places they stop during game play, about the groups they travel with and the connections they make during game play, and much more besides.

The commercial potential of such information is huge. These markets for personal and geospatial data are closely guarded, and notoriously difficult to track by interested observers. While Niantic CEO John Hanke has remained tight-lipped in response to questions about the game’s revenue model, the collection and ‘sharing’ of such data is undoubtedly a core part of the business model of the app.

So, even gamers who never spend a cent on in-app purchases or promotions are effectively producing information that becomes a commodity owned by Niantic. The free distribution of Pokémon GO can be likened to the free distribution of a tool that lets us make stuff that then belongs to someone else.

Of course, this tool happens to be pretty fun to use. But this should not distract us completely from what’s at stake here. Work might be fun. But that doesn’t make it any less a form of labour. And as our everyday urban lives are increasingly commodified in this way, it’s time to start seeking answers to serious questions about how the spoils of our labour (or ‘playbour’) are collected and distributed.

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