The Brave New World of Pokemon Go

July 25, 2016

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that Nintendo just released Pokemon Go for Android and iOS smart phones.  Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game that is becoming a sensation.  The market value of Nintendo went up by billions of dollars in the first few days following its release.  But there are a few things to keep in mind.

When you download and install Pokemon Go, you give the app permission to access your phone’s camera and GPS, among other things.  You set up your avatar and catch your starter pokemon.  Then you walk.  The game shows your avatar on a cartoonish map using your phone’s GPS.  A small bar at the bottom right lets you know when there’s a pokemon nearby.  Once you’re close enough, the pokemon will show up on your map, and you can try to catch it.  Tapping on the pokemon when it appears will change your screen so that the animated character is laid on top of the camera view.  When you rotate your camera, you will eventually see a pokemon sitting on top of something that is really in front of you.  And it’s not just your phone either.  Other nearby players can find the same pokemon in the same spot.  Flick your finger to throw a pokeball at it, and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch it.

It’s a game that uses the real world, and players have to walk around to play.  Your neighborhood park probably has an in-game landmark, called a pokestop, where you can get free pokeballs and other in-game items.  There are in-game gyms assigned to real world locations, and by going to a location, you can train your Pokemon or fight a rival faction.

It’s a brave new world for video games, and the release of Pokemon Go is having unexpected side effects.  In the days after its release, bloggers and news agencies have reported on the game’s potential benefits for both mental and physical health.  Strangers have bonded over Eevees and Onyxes.  But there are also some security concerns.  One player wrote a blog entry about the disturbingly broad permission settings that some users encountered with the app when they logged in using their Google accounts.  That blogger installed the game on iOS, and the app’s permissions when he installed it, allowed the app full access to his Google account.  Not all iOS users are reporting this, and Google and Nintendo have confirmed that this is a bug that will be fixed.  However, even when this bug is fixed, keep in mind that Pokemon Go still collects a lot of information from you.  If you are concerned about privacy, you may want to stick to Pokemon games made for Nintendo consoles.

Another issue is the potential for crime.  One of the items available in Pokemon Go is called Lure.  If you activate a Lure at a pokestop, it will draw pokemon to the location.  Nearby players will see flower petals on their screen to let them know that this is a good place to look for pokemon.  In the game’s first weekend, four teenagers allegedly used Lures to attract players and then rob them.  Police forces are said to be receiving training about Pokemon Go, probably because of such incidents.  Parents are also advised to take precautions to protect their children from predators who might use Lures to attract potential victims.  Fortunately, when a Lure is set, the game displays the user name of the player who set it, so Lures are not being used anonymously.  On the less harmful side, businesses located near pokestops can use Lures to attract customers.

In short, if you play Pokemon Go, do so carefully and pay attention to your surroundings.