Until recently, if you saw someone wandering down the street, eyes fixed to their smart phone, you might assume they were absorbed by texting “Sup?” to all their friends. But there’s a new craze this summer, a game called Pokémon Go. While the game has been praised for getting couch potatoes out into the streets searching for digital creatures (the “pocket monsters” or Pokémon) to collect, questions about player safety (as well as bad behaviour) have been a hot topic in the news.
Let’s look at how you can enjoy hunting adorable imaginary monsters without getting hurt or becoming a nuisance to others.
What is Pokémon Go?
Pokémon Go is available in Canada and the U.S. as a free download for both Android and iOS phones. Once you download it, you discover the game has two main parts – hunting and fighting
Your first task is to locate and catch Pokémon. There are 142 types (Currently available in North America) that may be generated around the landscape. The game provides you with a map of your location, which will indicate, in a frustratingly vague manner, the Pokémon available for capture in your general area. When one comes into range, your smartphone will vibrate and an adorable cartoon monster will appear on your phone screen. To catch it, flick a trap called a “pokéball” at the creature (the thumb-flick, though easy, is not as accurate as the preferred forefinger-flick). Since Pokémon have different strengths, the higher-ranked ones will be harder to catch. Once caught, they can be strengthened by feeding them candy and stardust. Sounds unhealthy, but they’re like vegetables and whole grains to Pokémon.
Once you’ve established a stable of Pokémon and reached the rank of “trainer”, you can battle against players at “Pokémon gyms,” as you strive for pre-eminence over local trainers. There’s no money involved in winning, but pride and glory await the trainer who can catch and raise the most powerful minions.
The game, created by Niantic, Inc., is free to play, but extra pokéballs and other supplies are available as in-app purchases. Caches of free supplies may be found at “Pokéstops,” located at local attractions such as parks, churches, museums, and public artworks. This encourages players to discover details about their local community that even long-time residents may have missed.
So, Why the Concern?
Wild Pokémon are generated relatively randomly, sometimes in places where it may be dangerous for players to go. These include private property, dangerous environments such as cliffs and waterways, and areas with high crime levels. Although most current reports of trainers being hurt or attacked are urban legends, enough incidents have occurred to make safety a concern. One player was stabbed while hunting down an elusive specimen and another searching along a riverbank came across a real-life corpse. A Toronto player is now in trouble with transit authorities for filming himself searching for targets on the subway tracks.
Additional complaints have arisen from the location of the Pokéstops and gyms. While clusters of eager players may be welcomed at many spots (particularly in commercial areas), players have been seen behaving inappropriately at areas where respectful decorum is required, such as the Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery. While Niantic has a system for requesting the addition or deletion of a stop or gym, the massive response to the game has made it unlikely that such changes can be made quickly. It’s up to the players themselves to behave responsibly.
Steps for Safe Play
If you decide to join the hordes of prospective Pokémon trainers, keep in mind that although the Pokémon live in a virtual world, you don’t. That means that the laws of society and nature still apply to your activities. Even the opening screen of the game reminds you to stay alert and aware of your surroundings at all times. Here are some suggestions to increase the fun and minimize the danger of your poképursuit.
- Keep your head up. Fortunately, your phone will alert you if you’ve approached a target, so you don’t have to keep your eyes glued to it. Enjoy your rambles, and don’t look like a noob by concentrating excessively on your screen. If you’re trying to track a distant Pokémon, stop walking when you check your map.
- Plan your course and pick a safe route. You don’t want to end up in the wrong part of town or knee-deep in a bog. Take the time of day into consideration. While some rare Pokémon prefer to come out at night, so do muggers. It may be safe to wander around a park during the daytime, but it might not be a good idea in the middle of the night.
- Traffic is your enemy. Don’t jaywalk or try to cross busy highways. Don’t stop in the middle of an intersection to throw pokéballs. Don’t walk down active railway lines. Especially don’t walk down railway lines while listening to headphones.
- Speaking of which, don’t hunt and drive. While the programmers claim that they’ve deliberately kept spawning points away from major highways, Pokémon can still make tantalizing appearances as you drive city streets. Don’t slam on the brakes just because you spotted a Vaporeon (as many people did in Central Park recently, creating a massive traffic jam in downtown Manhattan). If you plan on using a car to get around, park before going on the hunt. Remember, many jurisdictions ban using hand-held electronics while behind the wheel, and that covers gameplay as well as texting. Even if it’s legal in your area, it’s still not a good idea. If you want to search a wide zone, get a partner to drive while you scan.
- Prepare for the conditions of your search. It’s a hot summer – if you’ll be walking around during the day, wear sunscreen and take plenty of water with you. Your Pokémon skills won’t save you if you get heatstroke. Wear good walking or hiking shoes. If you’re going into natural areas such as parks, beware of ticks and other insects who are not as easily subdued as Caterpie.
- Respect private property and areas such as churches and memorials. This is common sense as much as common decency. The game’s sensors allow you a relatively wide circle where you can nab your prey, so in most cases you can get that Pikachu in someone’s backyard just by standing on the sidewalk. But if you can’t, be nice and don’t pester the inhabitants. You might end up facing charges for trespassing, and the judge may not find completing your Pokédex adequate justification.
- As all fads, Pokémon Go has attracted scammers and worse to prey on the unwary. One report tells of enterprising thieves who set up a lure (which attracts large numbers of Pokémon to one area), and robbed players who showed up at gunpoint. Scam websites have tried to convince players to pay them a monthly fee, despite Niantic’s declaration that the game will stay free to play. Avoid going into isolated areas alone, and always check out internet rumours at reliable sources.
- Above all, keep in mind that Pokémon Go is a game. A fun one, yes. But it’s not worth risking your safety or breaking the law for.
If you have questions about Pokémon Go, Barbara Foster will field them after she catches the Eevee lurking behind her desk. For regulatory questions, contact us here at ICC The Compliance Center at 1-888-442-9628 (USA) or 1-888-977-44834 (Canada).