Monday, July 18, 2016

Watch Where You're Pokémon Go-ing

The Japanese megacorporation Nintendo was founded way back in 1889 to sell playing cards, and when I hear the word "Pokémon" I think of the collection of cards one of my nephews accumulated when he was about eight years old.  They showed bizarre-looking fantasy creatures that had complicated made-up genealogies and quirks that he committed to memory.  I figured Pokémon was one of those things that kids go through like a phase, and while it seemed important to him at the time, I couldn't imagine him, or anyone else, taking such things seriously as an adult.

Well, I was wrong, and not for the first time.  On July 6, Nintendo released a smart-app aspect of their Pokémon universe called Pokémon Go.  From what I can tell from Wikipedia and other sources, the idea is this.  You pick an avatar to represent you, and show up on a map of your vicinity, courtesy of the GPS function of your phone.  Then if you choose the augmented-reality mode, you can scan around certain special places shown on the map where the Pokémon critters typically hang out.  Spotting one, you can throw a (digital) Poké Ball at it, and if you hit it, you get points or go to bed happy or something good happens in the game, I'm not sure quite what.  There are good things and not so good things about this game, which has proved to be one of the instant hits of the smart-phone app world, allegedly being loaded onto 5% of all Android devices within two days of its release.

The nice thing I like about this game is that it encourages people to get off the couch and outside the house.  Nintendo is using the GPS database of another game company called Niantic, whose augmented-reality game Ingress did other things with the long list of physical sites that somebody had to compile manually.  There are apparently enough special spots in Pokémon Go to keep most players happy, at least in larger cities.  I'm not sure how many Pokémon Go enthusiasts live in Wyoming, for example, or Alaska.  But a number of national parks are included, as well as museums, city parks, lakes, and other publicly accessible sites, including the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is reportedly not amused at the crowds of people with cellphones around their entrance shooting imaginary balls at imaginary beings. 

Anyway, that aspect of the game looks like an improvement over the usual zone-out-into-cyberspace effect that happens to millions of kids (and adults) when they play the usual type of electronic game. 

Now for the bad news.  Not everyone who plays Pokémon Go exercises good judgment in the old-fashioned real world that we all live in by default.  Maybe the most spectacular example of this problem came when two twenty-something guys near San Diego, California (one of whom might have been drinking) chased a Pokémon that appeared to be on the other side of a fence between them and the unstable edge of a cliff.  They climbed the fence anyway and fell off the cliff, landing 50 feet and 90 feet below.  Both survived, but with injuries.  Other reports include that of a girl who chased a Pokémon critter into busy traffic and got hit by a car, fortunately suffering only minor injuries, and numerous people walking into trees, driving into trees, or even driving into a police car while chasing a Pokémon in a parking lot.  Driving while chasing an augmented-reality Pokémon is bad judgment, but that apparently doesn't stop some people, until hitting something hard and unyielding in old-fashioned real reality does.

People have played games ever since there were people, and it's not for me to say how much time any individual should spend working versus burning calories and gasoline on chasing down fictional digital animals.  It's a little troubling that so many accidents have been reported in less than two weeks since the game's release.  Maybe it's just a startup glitch, and as those who haven't got the sense to put down their Pokémon Go games at appropriate times either wise up or possibly eliminate themselves from the gene pool, we will hear less about such accidents.  Something similar happened when the first smart phones came out, folks walking into swimming pools while watching the Weather Channel and so on, and we've somehow adapted to those hazards. 

I do expect that Nintendo is under a lot of pressure to make Pokémon beings show up at places that would like more people traffic, which is namely every retail business with walk-in outlets in the world.  So far, you mainly hunt the critters at parks, memorials, and other non-profit places.  If Nintendo caves to this temptation , you'll be finding Pokémon gyms at the nearest shopping mall, McDonald's, or Home Depot.  There would be nothing wrong with that, I suppose, as long as the game players know that certain Pokémon hangouts are "sponsored," I guess you'd call it.

What is of more concern is the accident aspect.  I'm not that coordinated, so I'm not sure what would happen if I was looking at a smart phone screen and trying to track some animated whatever-it-is and throw a digital ball at it.  The whole operation requires a kind of interaction with reality that is really a novel thing for most people, which is why it's so popular.  But it can be dangerous to the user and people nearby, too.  Maybe some fairly minor changes in the way the augmented-reality feature works will minimize the chance that you'll walk into a tree or a manhole or something while in hot pursuit of your extra ten points in the game. 

All in all, it seems like Nintendo has scored a hit with their latest variation on Pokémon.  If it gives millions an excuse to get outside among other people, that's a good thing, and if they can work out a way to minimize the occasional safety problems, that's even better.  While you won't be seeing yours truly watching a smart phone and following an imaginary critter around (first I'd have to buy a smart phone), I will understand what's going on if I see people glued to their phones while crowding around certain locales from now on.  But I'll also know to stay out of their way.

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