The whole world is a playground: Pokemon Go creates new rules of play

The questions that arise as Pokemon Go players absentmindedly cut you off on the sidewalk, wander into rushing traffic or congregate around gravestones aren't just about the game itself. They are about how we interact with each other.

Blockbuster game raises questions of how we get along with technology and with each other

Pokemon Go players swarm the CN Tower area of downtown Toronto on Monday night. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)

It is officially the summer of Pokemon Go, and now that the viral phenomenon has come to Canada it is pretty much guaranteed that either you're playing, or that someone else is playing — on your front lawn.

The game uses a phone's GPS to determine where in the real world to spawn virtual characters, and then uses the phone's camera and augmented reality to make those characters appear on the screen.

Players are rewarded for catching Pokemon characters out in their neighbourhoods, at park benches, street corners and local attractions.

But in their hot pursuit of some of the game's rarer virtual creatures, players have been migrating to more and more unlikely venues, including museums, hospitals and even cemeteries, triggering responses that range from curiosity and amusement to concern and frustration.

​A British Columbia woman was devastated to learn that the gravestone of her baby son was being used as a destination within the game.
The Rock Candy Boutique in Halifax displays a sign on Tuesday encouraging Pokeman Go players to play inside the store. Some Canadian businesses are jumping on the game craze by encouraging people to use their shops as a stop in their quest to catch the mythical creatures. (Canadian Press)

The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto had to ask players to refrain from playing inside the hospital, stating that the game can "create many challenging issues and safety concerns for our patients."

The questions that arise as Pokemon Go players absentmindedly cut you off on the sidewalk, wander into rushing traffic or congregate around gravestones aren't just about the game itself, but about how we manage our digital interactions in our physical environment, and how we interact, not just with the smartphones in our hands but with each other.

As the game lures players onto private property, new questions arise about the expectation of privacy and what spaces should be off limits. In an era of selfies and live video streaming, the whole world is a stage.

Now it's a playground, too.

Pokemon Go is the first massive blockbuster game to bring this kind of hybrid digital play into the streets, so inevitably there will be growing pains.
Pokemon Go players gather near Toronto's CN Tower Monday night to celebrate their shared enthusiasm for the mobile app. Nantic Labs founder John Hanke wanted to use maps to lure people outdoors to explore neighbourhoods, see notable places and discover new places to eat, drink or just hang out. (Jonathan Ore/CBC)

Games are built around rule sets. Those rules inform how you play, how you're rewarded, and ultimately, how you can win.

When you step onto a tennis court, sit down at a blackjack table, or log into a gaming console, there is an expectation of entering into what designers call the game's "magic circle." When we play a game, we step inside that circle and opt into the rules by which it is played.

But Pokemon Go doesn't take place within a confined space. It takes place out in our cities and our neighbourhoods.

While the game invites players to suspend their disbelief as they seek out rare creatures scattered about the city, there are no limits to what space is playable. For the most part this is a good thing, bringing the joy of the game into our lives.

But it also means the rules of the game can clash with the rules we live our daily lives by, the common sense and etiquette we learn in preschool and driver's ed, from our parents and teachers, and through a whole lot of trial and error: Stop at a red light. Knock before entering. Be kind. Be polite. Offer your seat on the bus to the pregnant woman or the elderly man.

We rely on these rules, as individuals and as a collective. But when there is a prized Pikachu to catch, we seem to easily forget everything we've spent our lives learning.
Calgary Police Const. Mark Smith poses with his captured Psyduck. The police are asking Pokemon Go players to be aware of their surroundings while playing the game. (Calgary Police Service/Facebook)

This is just the beginning. Play is set to take over the streets.

And as every game designer in the world rushes to design the next Pokemon Go, it's up to the rest of us to figure out what we want the new rules of engagement to be and how we balance what is private and what is public, now that the whole world has become a playground.

It's easy to understand the widespread allure of Pokemon Go. The game is fun. Players are having a good time. They're socializing and meeting new people. They're outside in the sunshine instead of trapped indoors behind a computer.

Health experts have praised the game for its benefits to people's physical and mental wellbeing, and as some have pointed out, the game's light hearted escapism provides a welcome distraction from the horrors that fill our news feeds on a near-daily basis.

But if part of the game's allure is as an escape from atrocities in the headlines, it is important that in the process of playing, we're mindful of the people and places around us, or else we risk perpetuating the problems we're escaping from.

The world is in desperate need of joy right now, and Pokemon Go has come to the rescue like a superhero in a smartphone. But if play is going to save the day, we also need to make sure that in pursuit of virtual rewards we're still paying attention to the people and places around us.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.