Safe AR Gaming Could Happen, But Will It?

The popularity of the augmented reality (AR) game Pokemon Go has brought praise and scorn for the game’s format in equal amounts. Ironically, both for the same aspect of it; it gets people outside. It gets them outside, rather than being inside, so technically they become more active and less sedentary. The sunshine brings them vitamin D and the fresh air oxygen. This is a real achievement, for many, and is not to be undervalued. However, it also gets them in the way, and near other people but not actually socializing. It can lead them to create hazards and irritate people, but it does get them outside.

Imagine if the center of this phone’s screen was blocked by a video game object. What’s the worst that could happen?

Pokemon Go is far from alone in games that blend reality with artificial visuals, it’s just the most successful thus far. One thing it seems that it and all other AR games have had, and will have, in common is the superimposition of imaginary objects over real environs. Therein lies the problem; they block and distract from views of our actual, physical world. This union can be very incompatible.

Since its release in July of 2016, players of Pokemon Go have been injured or even killed in hundreds of incidents, but most often have just made themselves a general nuisance. Locations such as the Holocaust Museum and many others have petitioned to prevent the game’s characters from appearing on their grounds, and numerous reports of trespassing on a wide variety of properties have been made. Worse, people have died walking out in traffic trying to catch a character, caused wrecks and injured others while trying to drive and play, and even fallen off cliffs because they were paying attention to the 2D version of what’s in front of them (on their phone) instead of the three dimensional ground at their feet.

There are plenty of other AR games available, and plenty more are on the way, though its difficult to say if player-per-player any other AR game has caused as many physical world problems. Many of them ask little of visual interaction, simply placing characters and items on a map that syncs with the player’s location. Others, like Pokemon, project game graphics into an immersive 360 degree view that uses, to different degrees, the real world as its environment. A few of those games have actually been around for quite a while. It was the sheer popularity of Pokemon Go that led to concerns for safety. This comes on top of what researchers already have observed on the safety risks of using any smartphone app while walking (Shinault, 2016).

The problem with AR games is the disconnect they cause from the reality users are asked to navigate through, and it isn’t going away. Scattering objects indiscriminately wherever and sending players out to capture them isn’t just careless, it’s also, arguably, reckless and irresponsible. There are certain things one can always expect of human behavior, and there is always a lowest common denominator. Someone will ruin it for everyone. In order to have safe AR gameplay, particular aspects of AR game design will need to be rethought.

Trusting a video game to provide you a reliable view to the real world, as well as theirs, means taking a lot for granted.

One possible redesign for a safe AR game format would be to limit their use to certain pre-designated physical confines. Another would be to strictly limit projections within the game in a manner compatible with physical objects already present. The problem with these approaches, from many game makers points of view, is that the require a lot more work and tend to limit the field of players. That limits the potential profits. So, as with many things, it may just all come down to money in the end.

Photos courtesy of (Creative Commons Zero Attribution License)

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