Last month, the mobile video game Pokémon Go took the world by storm. Millions of people downloaded the game with some estimates showing that it already has more active users than apps like Snapchat, Tinder, Instagram, and Facebook.
The game utilises Global Positioning System technology to create a virtual map of the real world. The task is to physically roam around and collect little creatures called Pokémon. These creatures appear on the phone superimposed onto the real world via the phone’s camera. This is called Augmented Reality (AR), where the interaction of users with the real world is supplemented by computer-generated elements.
The game has tapped into people’s nostalgia, with the original Pokémon game released on Nintendo more than 20 years ago. While the new version successfully blurs the lines between imagination and reality it has also added to phone safety concerns. A number of users have been injured because they have been glued to their phone screens and have inadvertently walked in front of cars. In one case, two men jumped the safety fences near a cliff while playing the game and were hurt after falling.
The AR technology behind this game can have huge benefits beyond entertainment. Already we have seen AR used by designers to showcase buildings without having to waste physical materials and effort. There have also been attempts to develop navigational tools that provide information without blocking the view of people who work in dangerous environments.
The AR technology has allowed Pokémon Go to give players a more positive experience compared to conventional video games, which are mostly sedentary. Players walk around to play and can also interact with others in different teams. This has already created new social networks for people to engage with.
A recent University of Melbourne study has found that, contrary to popular belief, video games are not merely a waste of time or harmful to players. The study pointed out that games often have a positive impact on player’s mental health through the sense of belonging and sharing the same interests with their peers on par with other social interactions such as playing sport.
Unfortunately, the benefits that people enjoy through video games like Pokémon Go are not without their downsides. Although the game is free to download, it is ultimately a product designed to generate profits for big corporations.
Pokémon Go, like most mobile games, has a business model based on in-game micro-transactions. These are extra products that can be bought for small amounts of money that allow the player to get ahead in the competition. In essence the game is designed to hook people in at the start before encouraging them to spend money. After a while free play becomes increasingly difficult.
At the same time the game collects immense amounts of personal data from players. Some minor changes were made after an initial backlash but early versions of the game required full access to the users Google account. The games producer Niantic Labs is actually owned by Google.
Private information can translate into huge profits for companies like Google as they track our locations, movement and what we read online. This information is often sold to marketers in order to target people with advertisements. The danger of this is clear with Niantic working on a deal with McDonald’s which will undoubtedly push junk food on children and teenagers.
While Pokémon Go is providing entertainment for millions of people the real beneficiaries are the capitalist investors reaping huge profits. Share prices have skyrocketed due to the success of the game, with Nintendo’s market value increasing by $US20 billion! Shops and other venues are cashing in on the Pokémon fever by paying to ‘lure’ Pokémon around their premises to boost foot traffic.
Video games can provide much needed outlets for entertainment and leisure time but the drive for profit limits the quality of games and degrades working conditions in the industry. In order to really enjoy the benefits of video games without being cash cows for big business, the profit motive should be removed.
The massive gaming industry should be brought into public control so that good quality, free games can be produced for genuine entertainment rather than profiteering. The billions of dollars in resources wasted in marketing and designing micro-transactions could be freed up to provide much needed social programs.
By Tim Tran