We have an infestation of Pokémon on my campus and in my community. Have you seen any Pokémon lurking around your home, at work, in parks, or on the streets near you? I’ve even found one in my office (see the picture).

Ira Hyman
Source: Ira Hyman

            These cute little beasts appear to be spreading an epidemic of cell phone distraction. Maybe you’ve seen kids and young adults wandering around staring at their phones and trying to catch Pokémon. Should people avoid playing the game? Should parents ban the game from their child’s phone?

            As I start, let me clear about something. I’ve been playing Pokémon Go for the last few days (just a little for research although I find the game somewhat entertaining). The game is an interesting example of augmented reality. You play while walking around your community. Wild Pokémon will appear near you and you can catch them with your phone. The game uses your phone’s camera to make the Pokémon appear in the world around you. That is kind of cool. There are other things around you as well. A Pokéstop is a place where you can easily win various prizes – they are located at landmarks in your community. A gym is a place where you can battle your Pokémon against someone else’s beasts. So as you walk along with the game running on your phone, you see a map of the real environment with various interesting things trying to attract your attention. My university’s campus is crowded with Pokémon, Pokéstops, and gyms.

            Pokémon Go is undoubtedly leading to cell phone distraction as people walk around. They look at their phones and fail to notice the world. Even when the phone is displaying the actual background as someone catches a Pokémon, they will be focused on the Pokémon and fail to see other things. This reflects a phenomenon called Inattentional Blindness. I’ve written before about the dangers of using a cell phone while walking or driving, being in class or at work, or going on a date – cell phones turn people into zombies. So I haven’t been surprised to read reports of accidents related to playing Pokémon Go. I’ve seen reports of people falling off cliffs, having driving accidents, being hit by cars while chasing Pokémon, and being robbed. Clearly there can be serious problems. But this isn’t really anything new. The problems attached to cell phone use while walking and driving existed before the game was released. The problems are no different than any other use of cell phones while walking

            So should you and your family avoid Pokémon Go?

            No. Instead, maybe you should start playing.

            There may be some interesting benefits of playing Pokémon Go. First, the game requires people go outside and move. To catch Pokémon, you have to keep moving to new places. To gain prizes, you have to visit new Pokéstops. To hatch your eggs, you have to walk reasonable distances. There are serious benefits to walking and to being in parks. I’ve seen in my community that lots of people are using the trails and parks to play the game. Many of these players are people I haven’t seen before walking on my city’s trails. Getting people out and active is a good thing. I also know there are families and friends out walking and playing together. Which leads to the second advantage.

            Second, the game is frequently social. People go outside and play the game with other people. I’ve walked around with one of my sons. I’ve seen others going outside to play together as well. You will also have better luck in having battles at gyms if you work in a team (at least that’s how I understand the game, but I’m still a very weak Pokémon player). I also suspect the game will become more social. I imagine, you’ll be able to meet friends in places and have battles even without being in a gym. What’s more, people are making new friends. The same Pokémon appear to everyone in the area, as do the other game features. Although you can’t see the other players in the game generally, you will see them near the same locations. You can make new friends with other people you share an interest with.

            Pokémon Go will encourage physical activity and social interaction.

            Since the game has some interesting advantages, it seems important to mitigate the hazards of using your cell phone while walking. There isn’t much you can do as an individual unless you have a designated walker with you and your friends while walking around playing – that is, someone who isn’t playing but is instead tasked with watching the world for hazards and keeping everyone safe.

            But there are things the game designers can do. Their opening screen advises users to “Be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings.” That just isn’t enough. The game designers have used landmarks as locations for Pokéstops and gyms. They should be selective. I’ve seen landmarks such as traffic circles used. This will lead people to walk toward high risk environments with limited awareness of the world. I’d be happier if they were more thoughtful in locating things with an eye toward keeping people safe.

            Pokémon Go may increase physical and social well-being. But the game designers should remain aware of safety.

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