Three years ago, Pokemon GO was released for mobile phones and became an instant pop culture phenomenon. In addition to tapping into ’90s nostalgia and approximating, for free, the classic handheld Pokemon video games, it was the first widely played game to use GPS-based map navigation embedded with gameplay elements—dubbed “augmented reality.”
Despite its popularity, both pros and cons quickly surfaced. The game got people outside and even socializing with each other. But it also had them staring intently into their screens along busy highways, trespassing onto private property, and loitering outside of churches. The way the game and its players interacted with the built environment sparked discussions over real public policy issues, like walkability and urban design, pedestrian safety, and even racial equality.
That initial burst of enthusiasm has died down, but the game retains a large player base, especially in densely built places. In my own town of Reston, Virginia, it is not uncommon to run into players at the Reston Town Center, a sort of outdoor mall/downtown hybrid. Many cyclists play it, biking to Pokemon battles or just stopping to play for a few minutes during breaks. Some of them, perhaps, bike more often than they would without the game. In cities, where PokeStops—pieces of the real-world environment doubling as in-game supply stations—are more likely to be historic buildings or monuments, you can read little descriptions of local history right in the game. It’s very cool, and it was a genuine innovation in 2016.
Did Pokemon GO help people discover the hidden wonders and local color of their built environments? Or is it more like the urbanist equivalent of crowdfunding your medical bills—a janky workaround with a for-profit middleman to make up for the lack of quality public space in the first place? The success of the game in Europe and Japan suggests it was not compensating for poor public space. Though perhaps in a country with less of it, the game really did help enliven the outdoors.
These days, however, Pokemon GO feels less like a true video game and more like a gamified pedometer: walking is required to complete most of the in-game tasks, after all, and walking is healthy. The game makes it a little more fun.
As early players reached the “end” of the game—leveling up to a point where there’s nothing left to do—Niantic, the developer, started adding more and more features to hold on to them, actively encouraging “adventuring.” They have also addressed various problems and concerns as they’ve arisen, as happens with all manner of software today. But it was more interesting than usual here, because the changes affected people’s real-life behavior. Gameplay elements were restricted at high speeds to prevent playing while driving; PokeStops were removed from places like graveyards and abandoned or private properties. Niantic and a new developer are even working on a brand new Pokemon game that you can literally play in your sleep.
Curiously, the ad hoc nature of Niantic’s fixes, and the fact that they amorphously involved stakeholders other than the players—property owners, store managers, pastors, African Americans whose neighborhoods had fewer in-game elements than white neighborhoods—made it all look a bit like policymaking. This, combined with its gamification of real life, raised a question: is an augmented reality app like Pokemon GO really a video game at all? And is Niantic really a video game developer? Or is it something more consequential?
This goes beyond the question of whether video games promote addiction. Hoping to recapture the magic of 2016, Niantic recently released a new Harry Potter-themed game, which has received very mixed reviews for being overly complicated and for more or less swapping every gameplay mechanic from Pokemon GO for a similar Harry Potter-ish one. This suggests that like the effectiveness of advertising, there is a limit to what you can get people to passively, mindlessly consume. Pokemon GO may be addictive but it is also a fun game—it is addictive because it is a fun game. People aren’t being forced to catch hundreds of the same Pokemon; they like it and they choose to do it. Nonetheless, they do not entirely choose to do it—a dopamine hit is a powerful thing.
What raises more serious questions, however, is the “augmented reality” aspect. While that term might have a dystopian ring, catching a Pikachu with a shaky camera rendering of your local park in the background doesn’t exactly call to mind techno-authoritarianism. What does potentially raise that specter, however, is the way in which the game tightly links ordinary, private activities, like walking and exploring, (and, in its sequel, sleeping) to in-game progress. Niantic’s CEO knows well that as this technology develops, it could be used in much more consequential and harmful ways.
Indeed, the combination of the gamification of real-life activities and real-time alterations to game rules and features brings to mind “social credit,” the much talked about, in-the-works system of ranking and surveillance that the Chinese are reportedly developing. My colleague Kelley Vlahos has a harsh take on it. What I find scary is not whatever the Chinese might be doing, but its similarities with what we’re doing.
Pokemon GO, in a way, is social engineering. If a company can get you to take long walks or meet people to battle—even if you kind of want to—why couldn’t a government app incentivize people towards pro-social behavior, by similarly gamifying real life? Why not provide a dopamine hit for paying your credit card on time or reducing your alcohol consumption or driving less? And why not link to or access a bunch of your other data streams—traffic violations, debt, credit card purchases? After all, every app you download informs you, in a tiny little window before installation, that it will be accessing your contacts, your photos (!), and almost everything else on your device.
Indeed, with their dashboards, feedback scores, points and rewards, rankings, unlockable features, and other elements that resemble video game design, everything from tweeting, selling on eBay, and writing restaurant reviews on Google (and leveling up as a “Local Guide”), to ordering takeout on GrubHub and crowdfunding a project all feel a bit like playing a video game. The mechanics of gig economy commercial platforms, restaurant and review apps, and video games are themselves all variations on gamification, and they lay excellent groundwork for something like social credit in America.
The difference between a game and a commercial platform or a potential government app, of course, is the intensity of the consequences should something go wrong. There is nothing you can do in Pokemon GO that will affect your life (unless you obsess way too much over the game). But you can be booted from Twitter or have your income stream cut off from Uber or Airbnb (a friend of mine, who was banned from one such platform with no explanation after his account was hacked, could tell you that). The jump from an extremely powerful and ubiquitous private platform engaging in this sort of behavior, to the government doing so, is not very large.
One can imagine a soft version of social credit, based, for example, on legal scholar Cass Sunstein’s Nudge idea—carrots, incentives, and rewards rather than sticks or punishments. But even the line between reward and punishment can be murky. And all such schemes, whether private or public, trade a predictable rule of law for continuous and ad hoc behavior modification. Ecommerce and gig economy platforms—and even Pokemon GO and its players—in ways large and small, anoint private, for-profit firms as de facto developers of public policy and as influencers of human behavior with social consequences.
This would be concerning even if it didn’t lay the groundwork for more invasive and consequential gamification schemes. Perhaps Americans would rebel against government-sponsored social engineering in the guise of an app or video game, if such a thing were ever produced. But if America were to have its own social credit app—and in decentralized and ad-hoc ways, we already do—it might not feel that different from Pokemon GO. And it might not be received all that differently either. Social credit is often depicted as a tool of the authoritarian state. It might make more sense to view it as the result of government adopting the rule-making style of powerful private corporations. And we’ve got plenty of experience with that.
Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor for The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.