Pokemon Go & post-pandemic mobility expectations

I haven’t played Pokemon Go since the early days of its release. It was nearly impossible to avoid the buzz surrounding the game’s launch. And as I wrote back in July 2016, the hype around the game was infectious and the game itself offered an exciting new way of interacting with public spaces in your local environment.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year immediately and drastically altered attitudes toward congregating in public space. I had assigned my Communication Process students an assignment to complete during their spring break: spend time in a populated public space and take field notes on the interactions that they observed. When the scope of the pandemic became clear and our university canceled in-person classes during the spring recess I frantically emailed my students to stress that they were no longer required to complete the assignment and to affirm that it was in their best interests to avoid populated public places.

Many aspects of public life had to adapt to the new social-distancing realities of life under coronavirus, and Pokemon Go was no different. Pokemon Go developer Niantic announced in March 2020 that it was instituting changes in its games in light of the emergent public health imperatives:

“We have always believed that our games can include elements of indoor play that complement the outdoor, exercise and explore DNA of what we build. Now is the time for us to prioritize this work, with the key challenge of making playing indoors as exciting and innovative as our outdoor gameplay. We are adding to our product roadmap so we can enable more ways to play inside and around the home in the coming days and weeks, when the world needs it most.”

One of the changes implemented to Pokemon Go was an increase in the interaction distances for players to engage with location-specific game activities. These changes effectively doubled the distance from which players could interact with GPS-fixed game locations. In November 2020 Niantic provided updates on the changes and stated they would remain in place “at minimum through June 2021.”

Well, Niantic held to this prospective timeline, and last month the developer announced that it would be rolling back the increased interaction distances:

“Previously, PokéStop and Gym interaction distances were increased, to enable people to engage from further away. After this change the distance will revert back to the standard distance, when it makes sense in different places, though may be increased during future events and as part of certain features.”

Many players responded negatively to the reversion. On one of the most prominent Pokemon Go subreddits, The Silph Road, users explicated the immense quality of life improvement that the increased interaction distances provided. As redditor pogo_enthusiast explained:

“Increased interaction distances should stay, if only for reasons of safety and accessibility. Like many others, I was dismayed to see today’s announcement concerning the reversion of pokestop and gym interaction distances. Beyond being a (much needed) quality of life feature, increased interaction distances made playing PoGo much safer and enabled disabled individuals in my community to more fully engage in the game.”

pogo_enthusiast outlined several specific ways in which the increased interaction distances improved accessibility:

  1. Crossing the street less to engage with stops/gyms
  2. Being able to interact with stops/gyms from safer (or more permissible) locations.
  3. Being able to raid more discreetly from further away and avoid harassment from other players
  4. Being able to keep walking at a normal place while playing, rather than abruptly stopping, slowing down, or moving off pathways to let others by
  5. Being able to mitigate the issues of drift and not move around erratically to get in range of a stop/gym

The entire reddit thread regarding the revised interaction differences is fascinating to read. The comments astutely highlight myriad ways in which the gameplay experience was made safer and more accessible by the pandemic-era updates. So far the gamemakers have remained firm in their decision in spite of the outcry from the player base. A Niantic spokesperson justified the decision thusly:

“Last year, we increased the interaction distance to nearly the length of a football field. It’s tough to discover new places at this distance. We’re going to revert the expanded interaction distance in countries and regions where it makes sense to help restore the focus of the game on exploration and discovery. Going outside and spinning PokéStops and Gyms is important to our mission because it encourages exploration of the world.” [emphasis added]

This official explanation raises a question regarding the imperatives of Pokemon Go. How is the promotion of outdoor exploration weighed against the imperatives of profit accumulation inherent to a commercial product? How are these imperatives to be differentiated or disentangled? Around the start of this year redditor jdunham_ritxniantic posted to the Pokemon Go subreddit asking “How has the pandemic affected how you play?” User TheDeviless responded that:

“I stopped giving Niantic money because of their lack of concern for those during a pandemic.”

I think this response changes the inflection of the earlier question. Commercial profit motives aside, how would any initiative formed around the goal of promoting outdoor exercise and exploration responsibly respond to the public health imperative of social distancing? Despite the prevalence of post-pandemic and reopening discourse in our present moment I suspect that this question will remain relevant.

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