Confessions of a Pokémon Go Grinch: Ethical Questions About World’s Most Popular App

Joshua Boucher/The Texarkana Gazette via AP

Jaydon Sanders, 12, and Sarah Pilgreen, 13, play "Pokemon Go" at Christus St. Michael on Thursday, July 14, 2016, in Texarkana, Texas. 

My favorite 16-year-old and I spent several happy hours playing Pokémon Go the other day. We joined the throngs tapping and swiping away while meandering through historic Boston in sweltering heat. I felt a fleeting yet mysteriously intense connection with other players, pride in my single-handed capture of a rare Squirtle, and vague anxiety waiting for the phone vibrations signaling a nearby Pokémon. And I was oblivious to everything but the thrill of the chase as I stopped dead in the middle of a busy sidewalk to catch one.  

Was it fun? Yes. Do I wish I was writing one of those blogs saying “I was skeptical about Pokémon Go, one of the most downloaded apps ever, but now I’m a big fan?” Yes. Am I going to do that? No. Even as technology pundits laud the game for ushering in the age of augmented reality, I’m worried about a host of moral, ethical, and even legal questions that urgently need answers.

Advocates for children are already calling on Niantic, the company that created the game, not to cash in by luring kids to McDonald’s and other commercial enterprises. Others are calling out Pokémon Go for privacy violations. And some seem to have thrown up their hands at the game's staggering popularity and are merely praising it for getting kids outside.

As for me, I am disturbed that the Pokémon Company and its partners have been littering advertising icons absolutely everywhere—even in cemeteries, houses of worship, and national parks, which are traditionally commercial-free. Pokémon are even infiltrating on private property. One young relative recently informed me excitedly that Gastly, a fairly uncommon Pokémon, was lurking in or around my house. Really? Without my permission? 

Every virtual Pokémon placed around the world is free advertising for toys, clothing, accessories, movies, apps, videos, games, and more. As J.C. Smith, the Pokémon Company’s consumer marketing director, told the Associated Press, “We don't need to directly tie anything to ‘Go’ for it to benefit our fans or the brand as a whole. In the end, the characters are the same. Pikachu in our animated series or Pikachu in our upcoming Legendary film or Pikachu in ‘Go’ are all the same.”

Given the game’s wild success in augmenting reality with advertising, we can expect every children’s media company to join in, making it harder than ever for parents to ensure children’s screen-free, commercial-free time. Just like Pokémon Go, these new games will tout their alleged health and education benefits (Gets kids outside and moving! Highlights historical monuments!) and hope no one but investors cares that their actual goal is mega-profits through branded marketing, in-app purchases, and third-party advertising.    

When it comes to augmented reality, my concerns transcend my immediate worries about children and families. Pokémon Go’s success is yet one more example of how technological advances outstrip society’s capacity to adequately address the moral, ethical, and legal consequences of their implementation. Here are some questions we should all be asking about Pokémon Go and the inevitable forthcoming influx of copy-cat games:

·      What are the consequences of corporations arbitrarily inserting virtual advertising anywhere they choose? The Pokémon Company is now saying that it will be respectful of “reality,” and have removed Pokémon from Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Holocaust Museum. But why should a corporation decide what monument, person, or public space is worthy of “respect” and being advertising-free? As I write this, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is still being inundated with Pokémon gamers.

·      Shouldn’t corporations need permission from cities, towns, states, and other public entities to install virtual advertising on their properties? If they agree, shouldn’t they be compensated for it? For that matter, shouldn’t individuals have that right?

·      Is there any legal recourse for public or private entities whose request for removal of virtual advertising icons is denied? 

Policy-makers need to address these concerns about augmented reality, and more. But given the technology industry’s money and influence, policy changes will only come about through a concerted and coordinated effort from advocates currently working on seemingly diverse issues such as protecting children, privacy, and public space, and limiting corporate power, commercialism, and excessive attachment to screens. 

Meanwhile, parents are pretty much on their own to figure out whether or how much augmented reality works for their families. For kids who already own a cell phone, “whether” is probably a moot point. “How much” is different. Having played Pokémon Go, I can testify to how weirdly compelling it is. I’m not minimizing the challenge (nor the need for societal change), but lots of families find ways set time limits on all kinds of screen entertainment. 

I do, however, wish we could all postpone foisting augmented reality on little kids. Young children need endless opportunities for devoting themselves to the fascinating task of exploring actual reality in the way that comes most naturally to them—hands-on, creative, commercial-free play.  

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