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Pokemon Go’s Race Problem

30 August

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Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the past couple of months, you’ve heard of the runaway success of the mobile game Pokemon Go, which quickly surpassed Candy Crush and Draw Something as the most-downloaded U.S. mobile game ever. Players seek out and catch the “pocket monsters” in the augmented reality game using Poke Balls or “evolve” Pokemon as more are collected. But the genius aspect that has won over countless parents is that additional Pokemon can also be hatched from eggs that must be incubated by walking 2, 5 or 10 kilometers. On the first day I downloaded the app and started playing, my son and I walked 15 minutes out of our way to hit a pair of Poke Stops, and were out walking and talking a total of two hours. My kid, who was a bit of a couch potato this summer said, “This was fun, we should do this more often.” So you can guess my opinion of the game.

“This has been my experience too,” says Jessica.  “Kids who grumble about taking walks suddenly going and going in search of another PokeStop or that little bit more needed to hatch an egg. Plus we love finding new pieces of public art and points of interest.”

Maria started playing the game while on vacation with her family. “It proved to be a perfect excuse to keep my kids interested in going for walks around new cities. We still go Pokemon hunting every weekend and it is such a great way to pull them away from their stationary electronics and do ‘walk and talk’. And I take special pride in my kids bragging to their friends about their mom being a level 20 Pokemon hunter. Taking down gyms as a team with my dude is quite fun as well.”

“We have made new friends and run into old ones in our nabe,” says Amy, who has two daughters. After a day out catching Pokemon without them, she had several that were ready to evolve. “The girls took turns evolving them and it was like freakin’ Christmas… and today they took turns catching them while I drove, and since I had just leveled up they both got new ones with high combat powers, and we were chatter-chattering about them like we had just seen One Direction.”

Another positive side effect has been that users struggling with depression have credited Pokemon Go with getting them out of the house and interacting with other players– crucial self-care that had been unthinkable for some.

Despite the early success, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the makers of the game, Niantic. Early after the initial release they were plagued by server crashes, and their use of Google login prompted concerns about the amount of user information they were accessing. Some neighborhood businesses credit nearby PokeStops, which dispense free items like Poke Balls and egg incubators to grow new monsters, with helping bring in new customers. But researchers are seeing inequities in how this plays out from neighborhood to neighborhood. Shiva Kooragayala, co-author of an Urban Institute report about Pokemon Go explained to KQED, “Because (Pokestops are) more likely to be in white majority neighborhoods, that actually has economic consequences on where people go to spend their money.”

The alternative to accessing items free at PokeStops is via in-app purchases. Players in poor minority neighborhoods find themselves in the Pokemon equivalent of a desert, with opportunities to mine PokeStops and actively play few and far between. Urban Institute researchers found an average of 55 PokeStops in majority white neighborhoods, and only 19 in majority black neighborhoods. The Belleville News-Democrat confirmed these findings in cities like Detroit, Miami, and Chicago.

Player Aura Bogado, who coined the Twitter hashtag #mypokéhood told USA Today, “We now have a game where it looks like people who are already disadvantaged are playing it, now also are the more likely candidates who have to pay to play it.”

The oversight seems unintentional. Game designer Alexei Othenin-Girard (not affiliated with Niantic) explained to KQED that Pokemon Go relies on maps that were used in an early iteration of the game called Ingress. Those maps were crowdsourced, mostly by white tech-savvy early adopters. “By crowdsourcing from a really specific group of people, it meant that people who weren’t in the group aren’t really well served,” Othenin-Girard said.

Niantic has promised updates to the game as soon as it has been introduced worldwide. Regardless, it’s clear that Pokemon Go is just the beginning for augmented reality apps. Lets hope future app makers can use these early lessons to address the issue of access and make more opportunities available to underserved audiences.

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