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Digging Deeper into Pokemon Go

July 28th 2016

Helping hands

Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game which launched a week ago. Augmented reality games involve the use of technology to map aspects of the game onto the real world. The technology could involve complicated and expensive headsets and body suits, special mats or controllers, or could be as simply as your mobile phone. Pokemon Go uses your mobile phone to show you the real world, with the addition of game elements such as Pokemon which you can interact with. Concerns have been raised about the way the game interfaces with the real world. Some integrations between the virtual world and the game are dangerous, some are offensive and some are disruptive to the operation of government, businesses and private citizens.

 

Background

The game was created by Niantic Labs and runs on both Android and Apple devices. Niantic Labs was, until last year, part of Google. Their previous augmented reality game “Ingress” was launched in December 2013 as a killer app for Android devices. Six months later it also launched for Apple devices. By late 2014 Ingress has been downloaded over 7 million times. This time, the company launched their new game, Pokemon Go, simultaneously for both Apple and Android. That launch occurred on July 6 2015 in Australia and the United States. The initial response has been huge and Pokemon Go is set to rapidly eclipse Ingress.

John Hanke, CEO of Niantic Labs, told The New York Times that there’s a lot of Ingress in Pokémon Go, such as “the idea of building it around certain locations, and those locations are what give you the things that you need to play the game and where the action takes place”. The motivation behind this for Ingress was to:

1. Make the player move away from their desks and interact with the world around them

2. Make the player move for exercise

3. Make the player interact and socialize with others

To play either Ingress or Pokemon Go people need to physically walk around. Players of all ages therefore get more exercise as they go out exploring with phone in hand. They may also discover new things about their local area or places they visit as they walk around playing the game and visiting the locations which are features in the game.

Past clashes of the real and the virtual

In Ingress, the game features are known as portals. These features were nominated by developers or submitted by players. It could take up to six months for a user suggested portal submission to be approved. Even so, there were mistakes.

In 2015 game features were found in Nazi concentration camps. In one case 77 portals were found near the Sachsenhausen concentration camp where approximately 30,000 people died. Parts of the Dachau concentration camp were also used for the game, a place where 32,000 deaths were documents and thousands more went undocumented. A portal also appeared at Auschwitz where an estimated 960,000 Jews, 74,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and 12,000 other people were killed.

The entrance to Auschwitz, with the infamous “Work Brings Freedom” gate, as a game feature in Ingress.

A 95-year-old Dachau survivor and member of the French Resistance, Jean Thomas,told Wired, “Out of the 100 comrades in my freight car, 71 died. They weren’t virtual people. You can’t play games at such symbolic places, it’s scandalous.” Rabbi Cooper of the Simon Weisenthal Center commented that, “It’s not the technology per se that worries me; it’s the lack of historical perspective and depth, and quite frankly the lack of values and ethics”.

 

Niantic Labs originally defended the locations saying, “these special portals are of significant historical value and they were established by players for that reason”. They soon relented, agreeing to remove the locations and CEO John Hanke released a statement saying, We apologize that this happened” and that the game features in these locations “did not meet the spirit of our guidelines”. They committed to rectifying the problem.

 

Ingress was not the first time a project of John Hanke’s that relied on user submissions had run into this problem. Hanke came to Google when in 2004 Google acquired the company he founded called Keyhole Inc. The Keyhole project is what, under Hanke’s leadership, later became Google Earth and fed into Google Maps. Google Earth also used to take user submissions for locations to include in the core layer of the map. This led to a problem of replacement geography when a Palestinian activist started to add locations claiming to be “Palestinian localities evacuated and destroyed after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war”. Each location linked to his political advocacy site. Being part of the core layer of Google Earth, these locations could not be turned off. The map was flooded, interfering with normal use, and Google Earth ended up heavily integrating a politically motivated Palestinian narrative into the core map of Israel.

Beyond subverting the purpose of Google Earth, many of these locations were also factually incorrect. One town wrongly accused of being built on a destroyed Palestinian village threatened to sue Google for libel. Google explained they had checked submissions were formatted correctly, but had paid no regard to the accuracy of the content. Google earth changed their systems in response to this problem.

The clash of the real and the virtual in Pokemon Go

Pokemon Go differs from both Ingress and Google Earth as it has more game features and they have been added automatically. An logarithm was used to search for map locations labelled as churches, schools, parks, community centers, museums, shopping centers, cemeteries, or a variety of other types of locations. These locations have a high chance of becoming a game feature in Pokemon. Some become “PokéStops” where you can collect useful items and some become “Gyms” where Pokemon can train or battle. It’s also been suggested that user suggested locations for Ingress (possibly without regard to whether the locations has been checked and approved) have been imported into Pokemon Go.

 

Whether it is due to importation or the automation, one effect has been the reemergence of game feature at Nazi concentration camps and death camps. Auschwitz is not a place for playing games, yet Niantic Labs is again making use of the location with Pokemon appearing at Auschwitz. Niantic Labs cannot claim to be surprised by this a second time, not after the Ingress problem just last year. This should have been on their list of locations to block from the game. Last year’s experience should have triggered ethical consideration regarding other sensitive locations and broader questions about the interaction between the real world and augmented reality. The fact that it hasn’t only confirms the “lack of values and ethics” Rabbi Cooper raised last year.

Other inappropriate locations include the US Holocaust Museum, designated a “PokeStop”, which is both distracting people from the intended use of the space and destroying the experience the Museum works hard to create. In one instance a Pokemon that emits poisonous gas was found floating by the sigh for an auditorium showing testimonials from Holocaust survivors. Andrew Hollinger, the museum’s communications director told the Washington Post that, “Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum”.

Another problem location is Arlington National Cemetery, the United State’s national military cemetery and, along with the 9/11 memorial, the most hallowed ground in the United States. Over 400,000 members of the military are buried there. The Cemetery put our a statement on Twitter saying, “We do not consider playing Pokemon Go to be appropriate decorum on the grounds of the ANC. We ask all visitors to refrain from such activity.”

The sanctity of the 9/11 site has already been mentioned. It is a location marking the death of 2,977 civilians in the greatest act of terrorism to target the United States. It boggles the mind that a US company could allow the site to be included as part of their game, encouraging people to ignore where they are and instead focus on playing with their phones. Time reports that there are four Pokestops at the memorial, including on the memorial pools where the names of the dead are listed. One 28 year old player who lost friends in the attack was visiting the site when he checked his phone and started playing. He told Time that he regretted the decision saying, “It’s a hallowed place. Some memorials should be left alone.”

The family of victims of natural disasters were not spared either. The Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 were Australia’s worse ever bushfires and claimed 173 lives, injuring an additional 414 people. A memorial to those who died is in the game as a Gym people can fight to control.

In Darwin, Australia, a Police Station became a Pokestop interfering with the work of the station. In this instance the police responded with good humour while discouraging people from entering the station. A statement on Facebook read: “For those budding Pokémon Trainers out there using Pokémon Go – whilst the Darwin Police Station may feature as a PokéStop, please be advised you don’t actually have to step inside in order to gain the Pokéballs. It is also a good idea to look up, away from your phone and both ways before crossing the street. That Sandshrew isn’t going anywhere fast. Stay safe and catch ’em all!”

What does this say about us as a society?

Responses to the Tweet by Arlington National Cemetery highlight a growing breakdown in society. One Twitter user responded, “where else am I gonna get Ghastly” (a type of Pokemon). Another user writes back, “I hope that was sarcasm. My grandparents are buried there, jackass.” The original user’s reply is “Well if they’re not Pokemon you have nothing to worry about”. As concerning as this display of total disregard both for the dead and their family is, even more concerning is the fact 1,400 people liked the initial Tweet and 582 liked the initial posters retort. This is compared to 130 people who liked the comment of the granddaughter speaking up for the sacredness of her grandparents final resting place. That sort of public response is deeply disappointing.

Another poster later commented,”We are a nation bereft of civility and respect. How very sad.” In response someone wrote, “what happened to hating political correctness”. The original tweeter responded “Walking on the graves of dead soldiers (or anyone) isn’t politically incorrect. It’s utterly disrespectful.” A third person responded, “freedom of speech mate. The soldiers died for my right to chase Zubats amongst graves.” The one response highlights an active opposition to any form of rules, something that can be described as anarchy with no ethical basis. The other claims to promotes the idea of freedom of expression, but from an entirely selfish standpoint. The poster doesn’t claim they died for “our rights” but for his rights alone. He twists the selfless sacrifice of others into something for himself, while promoting activity that disrespects their final resting place.

Death by augmented reality

Niantic Labs provides a form for users to report problematic PokéStops and Gyms, but for now they say they will “ONLY take reports of PokéStops or Gyms that present immediate physical danger (for example, they are in the middle of a road or on railroad tracks)”. This admission that such problems may exist, and the game will keep running with those problems in place until they get around to fixing them, is an even deeper concern than the insensitive inclusion of the sites above.

The concern is not idle. Last September Francis Maxwell, a top Ingress player, died while playing the game on an unlit pier at night. The coroner’s verdict was “death by misadventure” as he found the location had “inherent risk factors”. He explained, “The pier is open at both sides, the surface was uneven, it was night-time, there are no lights, it was in the course of this game Ingress”.

A threat to safety and private enteprise

While public parks and appropriate monuments may benefit from additional visitors, some locations are sensitive to such increases.

A jewelry shop is an example of a business which may not appreciate a dramatic increase in traffic and people loitering outside the front door while they play. These stores frequently employ security guards, adding to their operating costs. The increased traffic will make the job of the guard harder and potentially increase the costs if an additional guard is required. The additional distraction to the guard may aid those intent on crime.

Some locations with security are not seeking visitors at all. In 2012 three children and their teacher were killed by terrorists at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school in France. In March 2016 Daesh (ISIS) threatened to attack Jewish schools in Turkey. TheCarolineskolen Jewish school in Denmark was also threatened, the attack prevented as a result of intelligence captured in Iraq. In February Dan Uzan, a 37-year-old volunteer security guard, was killed outside a synagogue in Denmark after seeking to question a man who turned out to be a terrorist intent on committing a massacre. These locations are employing increased security. The threat is recognized by governments, in Australia the Federal Government designated $18 million (US$13M) towards additional security for 54 schools, 17 of them Jewish schools and 15 of them Muslim schools. Jewish schools, community centers and synagogues are being used as game features. This complicates the job of security, decreases people’s feeling of safety and at worst could provide cover for an attack.

The responsibility of Software Developers

When it comes to the harm they caused to society, the software industry is far less accountable than any other industry. This is in part due to a lag between the emergency of new technology and societies ability to respond. That response requires understand of the technology, appreciating its immediate and long term impact and the development of frameworks of norms, standards and laws to appropriately govern its use. Technology companies have argued that regulation puts technological progress at risk. Technological progress is now running so far ahead of our ability to understand its impact that companies have almost no restrictions. This is particularly true in the augmented reality space.

In such an environment, one relies on the technology companies themselves to behave ethically. There is a code of ethics for software engineers jointly produced by the two leading professional bodies in the computing industry, the IEEE Computer Society and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). The very first principle in the code of ethics requires software engineers to “act consistently with the public interest” which is elaborated as requiring that they “moderate the interests of the software engineer, the employer, the client, and the users with the public good” and that they “approve software only if they have a well-founded belief that it is safe, meets specifications, passes appropriate tests, and does not diminish quality of life, diminish privacy, or harm the environment. The ultimate effect of the work should be to the public good”.The fourth principle requires software engineers to “maintain integrity and independence in their professional judgment” which is explained as requiring them to “temper all technical judgments by the need to support and maintain human values”.

There is a strong argument that properly applying the ethics of the profession, where the companies themselves and their staff look out for the public interest, would drastically reduce the need for regulation. In the rush to launch, and to beat the competition, these ethics are being abandoned. The move to automation of locations, after the company knew the harm inappropriate inclusion of a location could cause, is a failure in their responsibility to support and maintain human values and to ensure their products don’t damage public safety.

Where to from here?

Augmented reality is here to stay, but the locations and interactions with the real world need to be more carefully chosen. There is an argument that governments are entitled to a portion of the profits of companies that are using their land and facilities to generate revenue. This money would help cover the additional wear and tear, staffing and additional construction for safety which augmented reality games may create. At an absolute minimum governments are entitled to taxation on the profits being made by these companies from their citizens.

The owners of land, including governments for public land, should retain a right to opt out of participation in an augmented reality environment. The use has a real world impact and is far removed from simply being included on a map. Failing to give the owner of private property control over the inclusion of their land amounts to using their land without consent as part of a scheme to generate a profit for a third party. This fundamentally upsets the concept of property rights and ownership. It’s not enough to tell users not to trespass, the game itself is making an unfair profit at times at the expense of others.

License fees for operating in public spaces are also not out of the question. If governments can licence spectrum, why can’t they licence the right to run augmented games in some or all of their territory? Yes, such moves will retard innovation, but that may be necessary in order to keep things manageable. Giving government, and through them the people, some control over the actions of technology companies when they interact with public spaces who ensure the companies are accountable in each location where they operate. This in turn would help to protect the public good and rights of individuals to private property, including the quiet enjoyment of their property.

Dr Andre Oboler is CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute, a member of the Australian delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and a Distinguished Visitor for the IEEE Computer Society. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from Lancaster University and an LLM(Juris Doctor) from Monash University.


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