Pokémon Go: The good, the bad and the ugly

By Christopher Ferguson

So my son (who’s 12) and I finally got around to trying out Pokémon Go (henceforth PG). In case you’ve been wasting your time the last few weeks on stuff like reading books here’s the gist of the game from a non-fanatic. Basically, you wander around various areas trying to capture animals that look like they were born and raised near a nuclear power plant. You can nurture some of these critters to make them stronger and eventually have them battle in some spots called “gyms.” Some landmarks are identified as PokéStops which provide supplies you need such as the balls used to capture the critters. Some areas (including my university, Stetson) are basically hot spots with more densely clustered PokéStops and critters.

That’s the basics. It’s actually a pretty simple game but, like anything that young kids swarm all over with lemming-like frenzy, it’s created a minor media stir. Here’s some of the stuff I’ve been hearing and the facts behind them.

PG encourages exercise: Since PG requires you to move from place to place to get critters and supplies and awards movement through things like hatching eggs, this is largely true. It’s a good way to get kids outside and moving around. Sure, you could game the system by riding around on one of those Rascal things or something, but whatever.

Kids are staring at their screens rather than enjoying, um…trees and stuff: Ok, fair enough, this is probably true.  But who cares? They’re outside exercising. And since when has anyone under the age of near death been terribly concerned with enjoying trees?

Kids are going to spend more time on this than thinking about their homework: Absolutely true, but this is homework’s fault, not PG. How easily distracted from homework were you when you were a kid when you had hobbies to enjoy…like inventing the wheel or marveling at the miracle of fire? The good news is there’s little evidence video games in general set off a wave of problems regarding kids’ academic performance (although problematic gaming behaviors can for a small number of individual players). Standardized test scores have remained steady or improved over time, and some evidence suggests video games may be associated with better academic performance (albeit the data is correlational).

The cultural value of PG is minimal: Well, sure, no one is claiming that Pokémon is the 21st century answer to Rembrandt. But if you, as a kid, listened to music likeJourney or MC Hammer or pretty much anything from the 1950s, you’ve got no moral high horse to climb onto.

People are walking into lampposts or stepping off into traffic while playing PG: This is probably the biggest real “risk” of PG and the game warns you to stay alert and not to do stuff like…you know…drive while playing PG. The game requires attention and something with a high attention load can always distract from other tasks. I’m not sure how much worse this necessarily is than texting while walking, but certainly it’s important to remain alert to potential hazards in your environment.

A horde of rabid kids is going to invade my home looking for imaginary creatures: I’ve heard anecdotal complaints of kids trespassing, but most of the ones I’ve heard have been of a fairly innocent sort (i.e. kids knocking on doors asking if they can go into someone’s backyard.) From my, granted, limited experience, the critters seem pretty good about spawning in public areas so I’m not sure how critical it is to go rushing through private property.

Sex offenders will use PG to lure children: So there’s a feature in PG where you can use a “lure” to attract more Pokémon critters to a specific location for a 30-minute window. The concern, naturally, is predators will use the lures to draw in kids.  The state of New York is considering banning registered sex offenders from playing PG as a result. This is probably a “lightning strike” concern meaning…could this possibly happen? Sure. But I’m skeptical there’ll be a mass wave of PG related sex abuse cases (although, in a country of 320 million, there will inevitably be one or two that get high publicity.) From what I can tell, the lures only have a short range, so this would only attract the attention of kids already near a property anyway. And it appears the lures must be activated near a PokéStop, not some random home (in full disclosure I have not used a lure yet, so if readers note I am incorrect on details, please let me know.) I suspect the lures would leave a digital footprint too that would be less than convenient for most offenders. This probably warrants a conversation with your kid about safety, but that’s true for a lot of stuff. The good news is that sexual abuse of children has been declining for years. Also (and this isn’t exactly good news) a child is still more likely to be abused by someone they know than a stranger. But this fear can’t be ruled out entirely, so maybe New York isn’t entirely off base.

PG is damaging the brains of children: Sigh. I guess it was inevitable we’d see some of this. Short answer to this: this is rubbish. There’s little good evidence that PG or other games are causing hallucination-like symptoms in young players or that the augmented reality aspect of the game makes it more difficult for children to distinguish reality from fiction. Reality testing begins developing in children by age 3-4 and is largely complete by age 12 (but hey, I know adults who exist in largely fictional universes, so who’s to say?) These kinds of claims are technopanic, pure and simple. Now that fears of traditional video games are diminishing, I suppose new fears of augmented and virtual reality are next in line…

PG is a violent video game: I include this here as an indication of what rubbish the term “violent video game”, at least how academics use it, really is. Using the very vague stretchy definitions of “violent video game”, well one supposes that PG could technically count.  But this is an indication of how emotionally evocative but conceptually useless this term is. Then academics turn around to claim that even E-rated games are loaded with “violence”…yeah, they’re talking about PG…and Pac-Man and such…

I think that’s the round-up for now…if I missed anything be sure to put it in the comments below! As for what my son and I thought of PG…he liked it (no surprise), and I thought it was cute, but I have difficulty imagining myself playing this for months at a time. Then again I’ve been wandering around Stetson campus capturing critters so perhaps I will…

Christopher J. Ferguson is a professor of psychology, media effects researcher and author of speculative fiction.