Pokémon Go, the digital craze that has swept the world in the last few weeks, is being enjoyed by millions of people; but it is not without its dangers, and players are warned to be aware of safety and privacy issues surrounding the game.
The game is a free downloadable app that combines classic Pokémon animated characters with augmented reality and geocaching. Players who have downloaded the app “capture” the Pokémon characters that pop up in real-world locations, then look after and feed the characters they have gathered.
Because players are focused on their smartphones or tablets in order to spot the creatures, and can be oblivious to their surroundings, accidents are becoming more common. A 19-year-old Australian man is facing charges after he drove into a school while trying to capture one of the creatures. He lost control of his car on a roundabout and crashed through a fence and into a school building in Berwick, near Melbourne.
No one was injured, but the driver will likely be charged with careless driving. Australian police are warning drivers that they face a fine of up to Aus$466 and demerit points if they are caught chasing Pokémon characters while driving. Warning signs reading “Don’t drive and Pokémon” have also gone up on some Australian highways.
Here in B.C., chasing the characters while driving would trigger a charge of distracted driving, with a minimum fine of $543 and four demerit points. The RCMP are also reminding players to be mindful of their surroundings in order to avoid walking into stationary objects and other people, falling into ditches, or walking off structures. “We are most concerned about the safety of potential players,” says RCMP Corp. Dennis Hwang. “This type of gaming is novel, and its early adoption is rather unprecedented. It can be very easy to get caught up in something and ignore safety entirely.”
The fears for safety are not unfounded. Six young players were almost cut off by a rising tide in Weston-super-Mare, England, while rescue crews and firefighters had to come to the aid of players in the county of Wiltshire, who became lost in a network of caves. There have also been reports of players unknowingly (and illegally) crossing the border between Canada and the U.S. while engrossed in the game.
The RCMP and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) also warn players to be aware of privacy and trespass concerns. PokéStops and Pokémon gyms (where players can gather to train and fight their creatures) are supposed to be on public property (or private sites where the owner has given consent), but at least one homeowner has reported that his historic house is an unauthorized site.
There are also issues surrounding the appropriateness of PokéStops in some locations. Many historic landmarks have been designated as PokéStops, including the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to the dismay of staff there.
“Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism,” says Andrew Hollinger, the museum’s communications director. There are three PokéStops located within the museum, and a request has been made to Niantic, the app’s developer, to remove the Holocaust Museum from its list of PokéStops. Particularly troubling is the report that one of the creatures that can be caught there is the Koffing, which emits a cloud of poisonous gas.
Staff at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. are trying to dissuade people from trying to capture creatures within the building.
There is little opportunity for owners to have a say about whether a PokéStop can be set up on or within their property, and no way for them to remove their location from the game. PokéStops have also been reported in Auschwitz, and at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Meanwhile, the craze has been denounced by one Russian official as a “corrupting influence” on the nation’s youth (even though the app has not officially been launched there, Russian players are finding ways to download it). “It feels like the devil arrived through [Pokémon] and is trying to tear our morality apart from the inside,” said the official.
The BBB warns that while the app is free, in-app purchases that cost real money are available, so people should be aware of what they are spending. The app also needs constant GPS access and uses a lot of data, so those with limited data plans might find themselves with a hefty bill at the end of the month.
Players should also be cautious about where their searches take them, especially strange or secluded locations. A Missouri police department reported that robbers were using a secluded PokéStop location to rob players, and last week three teenagers who were playing the game in a park in London, England were robbed of their smartphones by suspects who appeared to have a handgun. Pokémon gyms that attract crowds of people have been reported to the police as suspicious gatherings by those not in the know, tying up valuable resources.
“We do not wish to be spoilsports, as many of our officers enjoy gaming too,” says Hwang, “but we want to make sure that our resources are not tied up investigating Pokémon players or gatherings, especially when our assistance can be wisely allocated elsewhere.”
One positive aspect to the game is the number of players who, in their search for imaginary creatures, have found real ones in need of help. One woman in New York state who was out playing the game with her daughter came across a baby bat in obvious distress. She called a nearby animal hospital, who took the bat in and nursed it back to health.
The same hospital has, in the last three weeks, rescued a screech owl, rabbits, an opossum, and a baby squirrel which were all in need of help and which were discovered by Pokémon Go players. A man in Rochester, New York who was playing the game found eight ducklings stuck in a storm drain, and flagged down a passing police officer, who opened the grate and freed the ducklings.
The woman who found the bat is pleased her virtual search allowed her to help a real creature. “If I wasn’t playing then I would never have found him,” she says. “So I’m really happy that I’m so addicted to this game.”