It’s been a rough decade for video game developer and publisher Nintendo. Despite defining the medium over 40 years ago, Nintendo has been overshadowed by corporate giants Sony and Microsoft for the last couple of console life cycles. Even their popularity with mobile gamers in Japan, the last corner of the gaming market they’ve remained competitive in, has been on a steady decline. So it came to the surprise of many that one of the most popular and innovative games of the year would be a based on a Nintendo license.
Developed by Niantic, Pokémon GO takes the beloved pocket monsters from Nintendo games and anime and puts them in an augmented reality (AR) game that encourages players to walk about the real world with their smartphones. Players can then catch the Pokémon that appear on their screens and add them to their collection. The game’s popularity is undeniable. Pokémon GO has broken records when it comes to downloads; it’s causing players to exercise more than they ever imagined they would have; which has given Uber drivers a whole new class of clientele; some have quit their jobs to play full-time; and latecomers to the game are buying accounts from experienced players to catch up to their friends. Pokémon GO is proof that AR gaming is effective at engaging players in such a new way that it will undoubtedly increase interest in existing titles and increase production of new games that push the capabilities of this platform. But considering the growing list of risks players have taken playing this game, do we understand what we’re agreeing to when augmenting our reality?
Get Up, Get Out, and Explore! (At Your Own Risk):
AR games have been somewhat neglected by the gaming community in favor of virtual reality (VR). Google Cardboard, HTC’s Vive and the Oculus Rift have invested a great deal of effort in creating new worlds that immerse players in simulated worlds. It’s promised to be the next logical step in gaming, one that will require thousands of dollars in equipment to truly appreciate. Pokémon GO’s success, beyond the use of a popular license, is that it requires nothing more than an internet connection and a smartphone. Those are two things people have been acclimated towards accepting in everyday use just a few years before Pokémon first premiered. But even with our familiarity with the internet and mobile platforms they create a unique complication when joined together, namely, distraction.
Pokémon GO has arrested so much attention that players have walked off cliffs, been struck by oncoming traffic, and crashed into a parked police cruiser. It’s clear that for some the temptation of catching a vaporeon is too much to resist, and so situational awareness is sacrificed in favor of gameplay. These are actual dangers that we’ve heard from a similar platform to AR gaming, one we use daily—texting. SMS messaging has been normalized to the point where it’s phasing out actual phone calls from communication entirely. It’s so prevalent that it’s altering our application of language, affecting the mechanics of intimate relationships, and even changing how people walk.
Though it appears a simple thing, the combination of reading, tapping and thinking up replies is such a complex task that it negatively affects basic locomotion. By taxing visual-motor functions, texting while walking compromises stability, joint and foot placement, and even distorts depth perception. This can lead to momentary stops and repositioning of the body to avert injury, incidentally causing it in the process, and leading the texter to think they’ve walked further than they actually have. There are also emerging medical phenomena to consider like “text neck” (L16), where the prolonged use of smartphones while walking is leading to abnormal curvatures in the cervical spine since users habituate themselves look down at their smartphones for extended periods of time.
Writing on a smartphone while walking involves both cognitive and physical resources, the integration of gross and fine motor functions, near and far vision. Hence, stride-to-stride variability might be even further increased.
Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation
Texting while walking interferes with basic tasks in ways that are more distracting than reading, speaking, or listening to music while walking. However, despite being the source of momentary fails, the majority of people can balance the two tasks without putting their lives at risk whenever their smartphone’s vibrate. But according to the numbers, no one can handle replies when doing anything more complex, like driving.
One study measured the time needed to send typical replies via text while driving. They found that the phrase “I’m on my way home” took an approximate 37 seconds to type and send. 26 of those seconds were spent not looking at the road. In this seemingly small window of time, the odds of being involved in a car crash are 23x more likely than if they were an engaged driver. That translates to 1.3 million car crashes a year, 18% of them being fatal to at least one passenger. And it’s not a small number of motorists doing this. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, 40% of Americans under the age of 20 have been in a vehicle where the driver has taken their eyes off the road to send a text message.
These are all positions that have increased since data collection in 2012, despite 46 states banning text messaging while driving and the hundreds of ad campaigns aimed at curbing the practice.
Keep in mind, this is simple SMS messaging. It’s nowhere near as alluring or distracting as AR gaming, which, evidenced by Pokémon GO, has already led to accidents while driving in its short existence. In response to this there are app developers working on locking the game while driving in order to remove temptation. But that doesn’t eliminate the drop in immediate awareness that leads to injury or accidents, not to mention the danger from others who know distracted players are ideal targets for their crimes. So, while common sense and collected data shows us that we can’t handle texts while walking or driving, why do we believe that we’re capable of gaming while doing these things? It’s because we’re all addicts, and we can’t unplug from the source.
To understand why people will risk safety for gaming or messaging we must make sense of how our relationship to smartphones have changed, especially when you consider they’re not phones at all. The phone aspect of mobile devices is not a desired feature that drives sales or development, what does is their ability to act as an extension of a PC. Smartphones today are almost as capable as sophisticated rigs were a few years ago. To make use of all that computing power, users demanded reliable wireless connections to access sites and people. It’s something we can’t do without.
Conceptually, the diagnosis is a compulsive-impulsive spectrum disorder that involves online and/or offline computer usage and consists of at least three subtypes: excessive gaming, sexual preoccupations, and e-mail/text messaging.
“Issues for DSM-V: Internet Addiction”
Jerald J. Block, MD
As with all addictions, the degree to which any individual is dependent on a source is highly subjective. This is due in part to their access to the substance being abused and any mental illnesses which could progress their reliance on it. In the case of internet addiction, it’s been more earnestly investigated in Asia than in the United States, particularly in South Korea. It’s one of a handful of countries where internet addiction has been linked to deaths. Researchers in South Korea have estimated than an approximate 2% of South Koreans below the age of 19 have advanced internet addiction. About 80% of those individuals may require medication in conjunction with various forms of therapy to overcome it, and the remaining 20% might require hospitalization in a rehab facility.
While these are advanced addictions and certainly not the norm, the integration of technology into all aspects of life and the proliferation of the internet has made it impossible for anyone to interact with the modern world and completely unplug. To some degree, everyone is addicted to the internet and subjected to the distractions it offers.
Like AR, machine to machine (M2M) communication is an emerging technology that’s taking off by making the “internet of everything” an actuality. This allows users to stream movies from PC to TV, control consoles by spoken command, and sync all manner of appliances to a smartphone. It’s an earnest effort to make the internet come alive with a physical presence, which in many ways does what AR does by superimposing game elements over the real world.
It’s the lure of the future, the promise of tomorrow—making the internet even more available to fulfill even more requests, respond to endless queries, and remedy the dread that is momentary boredom. But this increased reliance on the internet for practically all things is distorting what is a new field of study in psychology and neurology. Much has yet to be defined by researchers when it comes to the brain’s relationship torrents of information on demand or this shift in communication between people on platforms that shun physical presences like message boards, text messaging and social media. What we do have available is a growing body of research which shows a strong correlation between the development of anxiety disorders and excessive internet usage, which seems to echo findings from research in South Korea regarding internet addiction. But what happens when this level of usage becomes the norm? Many have explored this eventuality already.
In Your System:
AR has conceptualized in books and movies for decades in wildly different forms, though the heads-up display (HUD) in many video games offers up a ready reference many designers have turned to when conceptualizing this technology. Beyond the concept of gaming AR tends to be theorized as technology that will surpass our current relationship with mobile devices and the internet by moving ever closer to the flesh and upping the user’s addiction with a faster, more aggressive stream of information. Niantic CEO John Hanke had a similar concept in mind during the early stages of Pokémon GO. Reportedly, Hanke reportedly wanted players to access the game using nothing more than contact lenses. It’s something governments and corporations have talked about for a number of years, and they all seem to present their user interfaces in a similar way.
Reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem, Hyper-Reality, a short film by designer Keiichi Matsuda, imagines a future where AR is actualized. It’s an overlay of sensory stimulation dressing the world, powered by an implant communicating directly with the brain, and informed by data submitted willfully by, and collected surreptitiously from, the user (something else, Pokémon GO has as part of its design). And the entire apparatus is controlled by powers unseen. From behind the eyes of an average user we see a future that feels uncomfortably prescient; this isn’t an impossible fantasy but our own reality with slight exaggerations.
The decision to put brands as such a prominent feature in the film is really trying to understand what decision we’re making in the moment. If we allow everything to become media, always on media devices invade the city all the way to our bedrooms, it will make too much for companies not to do just that. The big brands we think of as tech brands at the moment are data or advertising brands, and that’s a natural fit for them.
Matsuda’s vision of AR is certainly distracting to the viewer; all the flickering lights and chiming bells give a drab existence its pachinko-inspired character. When it’s shut off, there’s an immediate, recognizable loss. The user is severed from a source—the source—that is essential to their survival. It’s absence triggers an anxiety that can seemingly only be calmed by divine intervention.
That reaction is something most can empathize with. The loss of a smartphone could disrupt someone’s life for days, cutting them off from all things electronic. It’s why things like pass codes, knock patterns and biometric input exist, to better ensure that, even in the worst case scenario, someone’s digital life is paused and not disrupted. But without such barriers in place, possession of a mobile device means anyone could access someone’s communications, bank accounts, sensitive data, both professional and highly personal. To have it infiltrated by a third party is to be inappropriately touched by invisible hands. It makes perfect sense, with this relationship to the mobile device understood, that Matsuda, like many futurist-leaning designers, imagine that device evolving into something that’s implanted, integrated with the body in a way that suggests that this was always its final destination. And when information goes from being beamed to one’s hand to slithering under their skin, is it a leap to conceive of it being the dress the world would gladly wear? No, and neither are the people who would most benefit from it.
Part of Pokémon GO’s debut in Japan included a partnership with McDonald’s. Pokémon GO will place more interesting Pokémon and host events at participating locations to draw players there. Some small businesses have tried to do this on their own using the game’s “lures,” but this deal with McDonald’s is much more involved.
While at the time this is being written there doesn’t seem to be much conversation about this partnership, there’s an implied dishonesty with making a fast-food chain a sponsored location in what’s otherwise been a free-to-play game. There’s an implied simplicity to Pokémon GO: walk, find Pokémon, catch them, interact with other players. But the integration of marketing and promotion into anything hosted online should be expected.
Though the days of annoying pop-ups are pretty much gone forever, and banner and video ads are simply tolerated, sponsored content has changed the way we consume data. It’s marketing masquerading as journalism, and has become so sophisticated that many people can’t tell the difference between the two. Even plagiarism-sniffing software fails to meet the task of detecting multiple copies of the same article spammed online because they appear so similar to actual journalism. If articles can deceive us with information that appears genuine, how can we be expected to filter out flashing signs and barking salesmen who might appear helpful or reliable but are really influencing our behavior, even our steps, to the door of a business locked into a partnership with our AR service provider? And what options would be available to us in a world were the interruption of that service could be the end of social existence?
AR has applications beyond gaming and targeted marketing that make it an exciting tool waiting for the right applications. Just like smartphones. And like the mobile devices everyone’s attached to now, AR will find a way into everyone’s lives, become common and eventually change our relationship to information, the world and the people who populate it. Given people’s propensity to adapt to new technologies that offer more things to do while limiting our ability to do so, people will take to this new way of viewing and interacting with all things the way we have with Pokémon GO. It’s unavoidable.
What remains to be seen is whether we can expend the cognitive resources to navigate an AR-striped world at all. Many still believe they can multi-task despite being unable to manage a smartphone and do almost anything else, and we’ve yet to fully understand the psychological stress we shoulder daily by being inundated in our current data stream. But with so many having proved that an uninteresting text message or the promise of seeing a video game character on the road is enough to place their lives in danger, can any of us be trusted to handle more distractions?