Twenty years after Pokemon first showed their faces to the world, the augmented reality game, Pokemon Go, has been released this month and is taking the world by storm. It may be a computer game that requires players to actually leave the house, but then they spend even more time looking at their phones, and less noticing the natural world around them.
Pokemon, a contraction of pocket monsters, began life in 1996 as a computer game on the orignal Nintendo Game Boy. In the game, players hunt the fictional world of the Pokemon, capturing the monsters which wander though it, and then using their army of Pokemon to battle with other Pokemon players. The game has also spawned the Pokemon trading cards and no less than 19 movies, making it one of the most successful video game franchises of all time.
Pokemon Go, an augmented reality version of Pokemon for the mobile phone generation was released in the UK on 14th July. This version is a mobile phone app and uses the GPS capabilities of the phone. As players travel through the real world, they may encounter Pokemon in the parallel virtual reality. The phone's mapping technology is used to show approximately where to find the nearby monsters. Pointing the phone at the pokemon's location shows the real world on screen through the phone's camera, with an animated pokemon integrated into the picture, at which point the player can get close enough to capture the virtual creature.
So yes, for once, people are having to leave their homes in order to play a computer game, but this leads to the sight of more and more people wandering through historic towns or along beautiful sea fronts, oblivious to everything apart from the Pokemon radar on their phone screen. In Hawthorn, Wiltshire, a group of teenage boys in pursuit of pokemon wandered into the disused underground caves known as the Box Mines, got lost, and were lucky to find a ventilation grill through which they could get a mobile signal, dial 999, and be rescued by the fire service. In New Brighton, the coastguard said that it was called to investigate reports of a group of twenty youths taking a rowing boat without permission, to chase a Pokemon across New Brighton marine lake.
Bournemouth's local bus company reports an increase in people using buses as a convenient way of covering a lot of territory quickly when on a pokemon hunt. I've witnessed this myself in Oxford, with foreign tourists who have travelled from the other side of the planet to visit this historic city, sitting on the bus and never once taking their eyes off the pokemon screen. People being glued to their phone for Facebook updates has long been a problem, but there are increasing reports of people being injured whilst playing Pokemon Go, such as Lyndsey Plunkett of North Carolina who hurt her shin when she walked into a concrete block, and Kyrie Tompkins of Maine who twisted her ankle when she fell down a hole.
Some people are pleased with the appearance of pokemon as it is bringing new foot traffic past their shops and stores, but that is not universally true. Auschwitz has asked to be a Pokemon-free zone, as has the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Arlington National Cemetery. In Australia, Darwin's police have had to ask players to stop coming into their police station, and the Department of Justice in New South Wales has issued a warning that any more pokemon hunters who wander into courtrooms will go directly to jail (do not pass Go).
There are darker aspects to this phenomenon, and concerns that pokemon players may be putting themselves in positions where they could easily be robbed. In O'Fallon, Missouri, four individuals with a handgun were arrested after they were reported lurking at locations where Pokemon were likely to appear, and there have been similar reports from St Louis. Here in the UK, Manchester police reported that three students who were playing the game were robbed at knifepoint and relieved of their phones. Most gruesome though, in Wyoming, 19 year old Shayla Wiggins was hunting for a pokemon by a river and instead discovered a dead body floating in the water.
Viral successes like this also create opportunities for the hackers. Security firm RiskIQ has found no less than 215 fake or malicious pokemon-related applications in app stores. One such app installs itself in the background of the phone and runs continuously, clicking on adverts on websites, (including porn sites) to generate fake traffic and revenue for rogue operators. Naturally, there are also concerns about these malicious apps being able to tap into all the identity information on the phone.
26th July 2016
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