IF YOU haven’t yet seen the footage, find it. Hundreds of people streaming towards Central Park, New York, abandoning their cars and friends, like the gates of heaven had opened for three minutes only.
One man even left his car running. And it was all for a Vaporean, a rare Pokémon, that had suddenly appeared by the water nearby. Not ten or twenty or thirty people, but hundreds of them.
Pokémon Go has taken over the world. That much, we know. The question now is — how did it happen? And has it been done ethically?
While Nintendo are getting all the credit for Pokémon Go, it’s Niantic Dream that truly deserve it. They are the team of developers behind the game, the ones who put the package together. Nobody yet knows how Niantic built their map system for Pokémon Go, but the staff previously worked on Google Maps and Google Earth, so the dots are easy to join. What’s less obvious is how Niantic chose the ‘pokestops’, locations where items spawn for players to attain, and how the pokemon themselves are generated in a given landscape.
This isn’t Niantic’s first rodeo. In 2012 they released a game called Ingress, a science- fiction experience in which players used their phones to tag local areas of interest, such as artworks and public landmarks, before placing team ‘portals’ to control an area. Sound familiar? Those same player-tagged artworks and landmarks later became the first pokestops and gyms in Pokémon Go. Ingress had 7 million players in its lifetime, though figures for Ireland are unavailable.
In fact, Niantic are now taking the same approach with Go — they are allowing players to suggest new pokestops and gym locations to be added to the game. Even retail stores are being contacted for partnerships and it now seems likely that special deals are being struck to have certain pokemon appear at certain locations for a fee.
Yet there’s also a question of ethical responsibility surrounding the way the game has been built, one that Niantic knew would escape their control. In July 2015, Ingress was criticised for allowing portals to be placed near former concentration camps, which caused the director of one such site to label the decision a humiliation for camp victims.
One year later, and that very same problem has repeated itself in Pokemon Go, due to Niantic using public landmarks from Ingress as pokestops. Auschwitz and other Holocaust locations are probably not the best places to be chasing digital monsters — the memory of real monsters still linger.
Not only that, but people’s homes have been labelled gyms and even Irish landmarks commemorating republican martyrs have been marked out. What we’re seeing here is the first case of digital vandalism. Real world locations invaded by the world we all truly live in — the world in our smartphones and tablets. And the effect is both wonderful and frightening.
Last week, this column highlighted how Pokémon Go can educate us about those landmarks, opening our eyes to the quiet places nearby that we never knew existed. But when millions of people are playing a game like this, the effect becomes far more powerful.
A previously quiet, respectful area can become a carnival stop, have its meaning changed and perhaps cheapened. Equally, it can bring new footfall to forgotten corners of a city, bring fresh understanding to forgotten monuments.
Regardless, this kind of augmented reality is here to stay. If you want to know what the future looks like, it’s hundreds of people abandoning their cars in the darkness, beating a path to a randomly-generated number. We ain’t seen nothing yet.
ENTER THE WORLD OF STAR WARS
As augmented reality has its first true success, so too does virtual reality (VR) continue its rise. The two experiences could not be more different in their approaches — one engages you with the real world, while the other shuts you away from it.
It’s worth it, however, when you are shut away on Tatooine. The world’s first fully-licensed Star Wars VR experience was released for free on Steam this week, allowing players to control a lightsaber in virtual reality, fighting Stormtroopers as the Millennium Falcon lands beside you. It’s very rough, but it’s free and labelled an experiment, so no complaints. For Star Wars fans, it’s a tantalising first step into a galaxy far, far away.
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