Pokémon GO is a location-based game that took the world by storm in summer 2016. The game feeds off the huge success and popularity of the original Pokémon brand which gripped 90s kids with its anime TV show and trading card game. The game is essentially a high-tech scavenger hunt where players traverse their local area looking to capture fictitious creatures.
Despite all the good press the phenomenon has received, game developer Niantic has been criticised due to players accessing the game in sensitive, prohibited and even dangerous locations: causing public offence or leading to injuries and sometimes death. Should Niantic be held accountable for the actions of these players? Or should Pokémon GO users take responsibility for their own recklessness?
Ban the Game: PokéGONE!
Pokémon Go has been at the centre of many controversies since its release; some Pokéstops (meeting places for players), have been placed in sensitive locations such as cemeteries, the Hiroshima peace memorial site, and even in Auschwitz. Niantic’s placement of these meeting points is highly disrespectful and is seen as an infringement on a mourner’s right to privacy. How would you feel if someone was trying to catch a Pokémon whilst you were trying to mourn a loved one?
Pokémon NO GO!
There have also been incidents of players trespassing on private property, which invokes legal issues in addition to raising questions of the players’ integrity. This has culminated in a court case in which land owners are now attempting to sue Niantic for a “flagrant disregard” for the way their game affects real world people and places.
The issue of trespassing causes harm and upset to landowners and members of the public who are not associated with the game, despite their lack of conscious involvement. It can be argued that such individuals should be fully considered and not neglected at the expense of the players, who could reasonably play elsewhere if the game’s mechanism didn’t encourage trespassing behaviour. Here, Niantic demonstrates preference utilitarianism, as fewer individuals are adversely affected by the game in terms of these behaviours than who are benefiting from playing. This viewpoint is controversial and can be criticised, as the company is only considering their customers, and not anybody else.
A Dangerous Game
Another consideration, perhaps the most salient, is the role that Pokémon GO developers may have played in numerous deaths and injuries suffered by players worldwide. The game can lead players to become unaware of their surroundings whilst looking at their mobile devices, and when game developers place Pokémon in unexploded Bosnian minefields and highly radioactive nuclear sites, it becomes apparent that Niantic is responsible for the unnecessary danger posed upon players. It is highly unethical to continue to provide a platform that so blatantly poses risk to the general population. To see the extent of this issue, it’s possible to track the estimated number of deaths and injuries associated with Pokémon GO here.
Kant’s deontological approach, applied here would suggest that despite Niantic’s initial good intentions whilst developing Pokémon GO, the company now has a moral duty to take responsibility and restrict the locations in which the game can be played or accessed to avoid further harm. The harm principle could also be applied to suggest that in order to prevent individual players from causing harm to themselves and others, Niantic should completely withdraw the game from the public domain, as simply restricting the accessible locations for the game will not ensure the players’ safety. This would appear to be a rational and appropriate solution, given the life-threatening consequences of the game.
Leave Pokémon Alone!
Despite its pitfalls, Pokémon GO has been praised for inspiring high levels of behavioural change amongst the millions of daily users. The game has been shown have a positive effect on the social abilities of autistic players and one study has estimated that avid Pokémon GO users have increased their daily physical activity by 25% through playing the game. In addition, many businesses are benefiting from the huge marketing potential of this digital game by placing Pokéstops in their cafés, bars and restaurants, leading to business owners experiencing increased footfall and sales.
The ethical philosophy of utilitarianism states that every action may be good or bad, but the action is morally right if the good it brings outweighs any harm caused. So from a utilitarian perspective, the creation of Pokémon GO is morally acceptable because the number of people that have been negatively impacted by the game’s release are far outnumbered by those that have been positively affected.
Due to its location-based format, Niantic dedicated immense time into “mapping” the game. At the early stages of development, Niantic formed a database of historical sites, public artworks and local businesses, whilst additional places of interest were submitted by users to be used as Pokémon locations.
Among Kantian theories, one’s action with good intention determines one’s moral worth, even though the consequences may have undesirable results. In Niantic’s case, they released the game with good intentions; the mapping was implemented to encourage users to learn about their cultural and historical surroundings. Thus the cases of trespassing, criminal intent and safety threats that resulted should not be considered as the intent of Niantic, therefore it is the player who is ultimately responsibility for their actions.
Beyond this, Niantic has stressed that the algorithm for placement of Pokéstops and gyms has always prioritised pedestrian-safe zones. The generation of hotspots in hazardous or insensitive places represent a very small minority. The correction of such defects is a manual process and requires immediate reporting of issues from Pokémon GO users. Niantic has shown willingness to address any mishaps, but relies on feedback from those affected. Again showing that the players must take responsibility as Niantic has a framework in place to minimise harm.
Although Niantic’s game has led people to act irresponsibly, those who have been positively affected far outweigh them, be it from increased exercise and social interactions, higher business sales, or simply through having fun. To state that Niantic has a duty to regulate usage of the game is an error of judgment. Niantic has no control over how users should behave, however they can guide people towards safe usage and protection of privacy. The developer has not broken any laws with its mapping algorithms, and any action to remove insensitive markers is supererogatory. Players should take a common sense approach and play Pokémon GO with caution and mindfulness…or let the Pokémon GO for good.
Group 43: Robert Lucas, Ralph Coleman, Xiaoteng Shi, Siti Wardah Sharifpuddin