Notes from the Field: Pokémon GO!

The obligatory evidence of being accosted by Pokémon during everyday activities :-)

The obligatory evidence of being accosted by Pokémon during everyday activities :-)

Those of you who know me, know that I am obsessed with Pokémon (it was even the theme of my Intro to CS class last semester). I’ve blogged about Pokémon before (1 & 2), but now that everybody has bought into my insanity, I feel the need to do it again. Of course, I’m talking about the mobile augmented reality game Pokémon GO!, which has taken the U.S. by storm over the last two weeks.

The general Internet rhetoric regarding the game is a bit extreme (of course): it will kill your children (maybe in the process of arresting them), after robbing them, and stealing all of their data! Or, it will turn your children into monsters who mock the Holocaust or stare at their phones instead of the real world! Also, it may get YOU sued (as a property owner), even if you don’t play it. On the other hand, it could improve people’s health, get them to go outside, make friends, and help them discover and fall in love with their own cities!

I want to share my experience. I’ve been conducting “participatory observation” since the day Pokémon GO! came out: I’ve been playing myself and I’ve been stopping people on the street who are playing and asking them questions. I’ve done this in two cities (4 days in Minneapolis, 4 days in Chicago). Based on this, there are a three points I want to add to the above narrative:

  1. It is probably not doing anything to your children. There may be children playing this game, but I haven’t met any (only anecdotally: one man I met said he DID see one child playing it). All the players I’ve met have been roughly in the 19-35 range. I’m currently doing fieldwork at a middle school and NONE of the children I work with play. My main two main hypotheses for this: the game was aimed at the nostalgia of the older audience (e.g., it only has 1st generation Pokémon), and American children are not allowed to be as independent as Japanese children in exploring outside.
  2. It’s more about spatial computing, than the AR or stepcounts. The augmented reality (AR) is exciting at first and can always be turned on to catch a good photo op, but most experienced players turn it off to make catching Pokémon easier. The step count intervention is actually only a small part of the game and nothing new for Pokémon. What IS new and integral to the game is that everything happens in physical space, on a real map that you must move through to have meaningful encounters. This is positive because it creates opportunities for encounters with strangers, gets you moving, and (most importantly for me) leads to a playful exploration known as a dérive. It is negative when it leads to car accident, arrests, injuries, trespasses, disrespectful behavior, and all the other problems mentioned at the beginning of this post. Do the potential benefits exceed the costs? Each player must decide for themselves.
  3. It is undeniably urban. My drive from Minneapolis to Chicago was a Pokémon desert, with very few spots along the way (though definitely enough quirky points of interest that could have qualified). This is because Pokémon GO! relies on user-generated geographic interest points (borrowed from the game Ingress). One big issue with that (pointed out by my colleagues in a recent publication) is that peer generated geographic data is significantly biased towards urban environments. So, while the download numbers may make it seem like the whole country is playing, it’s really just us city-dwellers.

And now, for a few predictions… (1) Most people will stop playing soon — it’s too repetitive and battery-draining and nostalgia can only get you so far; (2) if you buy a few of these devices when they become available, you will be able to turn a profit reselling them; and (3) Pokémon Sun and Moon will be the best selling Pokémon generation ever. I’ll check in a few months to see how many of these came true!

Have you been playing Pokémon GO!? What is your experience with it? Any stories that run counter to the points I’ve made above?

P.S. Team Mystic is the best team.

Whitelist Chat as a Strategy to Protect Children Online

The ability to interact with other players is one of the most compelling aspects of online multiplayer games. However, in games for young children, there are obvious privacy and safety concerns in allowing unrestricted chatting. The state of the art solution, implemented in practically every online community for kids is “whitelist” chat (on some websites, combined with live monitoring). Whitelist chat means that only real dictionary words are allowed (bonus: helps spelling!) and certain real words (e.g., names of place and numbers) are excluded from this list. As an enthusiast of children’s online communities, I’ve been fascinated by the many ways that children have found to get around these restriction. In this blog post, I will use the children’s online game Petpet Park as an example, though honestly it could be one of any number of communities (Roblox, Club Penguin, etc.).

In Petpet Park, children play a creature who does quests around town, plays mini games, buys clothes and toys, and decorates their own little corner of the world. The website combines a strict set of whitelist restrictions and live monitoring to ensure safe chat. However, kids always find a way!

Petpet Park

A screenshot from Petpet Park. Children create creatures that can do quests, play games, and chat with each other.

petpet park taboo

Creative combination of real words and referring to cultural landmarks as a way of conveying real locations — a taboo topic on children’s websites.

Consider the public chat to the right (username removed for privacy). This person has found a creative way of combining real words (“train i dad” = Trinidad) and references to cultural landmarks (“cowboys” = USA, “place with that arch” = St. Louis) to discuss places of residence (a taboo topic on a children’s website). I want to be clear that I am not criticizing Petpet Park. In fact, I was impressed that this discussion was almost immediately shut down by a live monitor (booting the over-sharing child off the server), but this behavior is quite common and the damage could be done before a monitor steps in. Here are some common ways that I’ve seen children getting around the rules:

  • Typing a single letter on each chat line to spell out a forbidden word. (Not possible on all websites — Petpet Park does not allow this, for example)
  • Using the letter “i” to convey numbers. (e.g., “I am i i i i i i i years old”)
  • Spelling out a non-whitelisted word using first letters of allowed words. (e.g., “Read only first letters. My name is Like Amazing Nutty Almonds.”)
  • Using the meanings of allowed words to convey forbidden information. (e.g., “I go to the school that’s named after the guy that flew the kite.”)

The point that I want to make is that no online community is going to be 100% safe. In particular, the state of the art whitelist strategy is only effective when augmented with live monitoring (and even then, it may be too little too late). Safe chat is not a replacement for parental engagement and keeping open lines of communication about online rules. The other thing to remember is that no online filter will ever be able to enforce empathy and kind interaction online or be able to protect the child from being excluded or hurt by others. Both conversations should be an important part of raising digital citizens.

Cat Got Your App

Oh hai, I’m Chewie!

I have been thinking about starting a series of posts called “N of One,” where I observe or interview one person about doing something interesting and report the results here. However, today is my blogging day and I find myself alone with my cat, so it seems like my first “N of One” is going to be about Animal-Computer Interaction. In this episode, Chewie (actually, Chui, but no need to be formal here) experiments with several different cat games for the iPad.

So, here we go. (1) We started out with the free version of the GameForCats laser game. I already knew that this is a game she would enjoy and indeed, she gleefully scored several points in the game. Rating: 10/10!

(2) I upgraded ($1.99) to the full version which unlocked the mouse and the butterfly games, but Chewie was freaked out by the loud noises both animals made when caught and chose to observe the movement from afar instead. Rating: 4/10.

(3) Chewie got bored with watching the iPad and found that my wallet was more fun to bat around.

(4) To get her attention back, we downloaded the app Cat Games for $0.99 ($0.25 to Humane Society). Unfortunately, all the games in this app failed to get Chewie engaged in interacting. The laser and tarantula games didn’t give any feedback when you caught them. Some of the other games actually made dog sounds, which spooked her. The only part that she liked was the cat meow that was the chime whenever I interacted with the interface. Rating: 5/10.

(5) Next, we downloaded Cat Toys Lite (free). This did get Chewie’s attention again. The mouse made funny sounds, that weren’t too loud. Rating: 8/10.

(6) Chewie kept nudging the iPad up with her nose. I think she thought that the mouse was actually underneath.

(7) Okay, so the first app seemed to be the clear winner, but I wanted to make sure that this wasn’t just Chewie getting bored with video games. So, at the end we returned to the GamesForCats laser game … and it still really got her attention and really got her engaged with it!

In conclusion, my cat seems to prefer free apps. Anybody else torture amuse their cat with iPad games? How did it go?