“Crack” - Questing for Pikachu while Questioning Awareness and Consent

I was about to cross the street and a wild Zubat appeared. If you don’t know what a Zubat is, it’s not worth the pedantry of explanation. For the purpose of this story it’s a thing on a smartphone screen.

On that day, before I could acknowledge the forces at play, something slipped and both of the items in my hands were airborne; a coffee mug to my left and an iPhone to my right. A Slowbro freeze-frame soliloquy kicked in, “Which one should I catch? Gotta catch ’em all!

“Crack”

As if jolted by an Electrode, I cringed at the sound of a glass crack echoing upward. I realized that — for the first time in eight years of smartphone ownership — I had just caused a Muk of Gastly fissures across my screen. I cursed under my breath, spiralled into the self-hate of completely avoidable action and consequence, and wished I could shout, “Abra, Kadabra, Alakazam!” and undo the preceding five seconds. You see, it’s not the material damage that made me Krabby, but rather, it was the Oddish blemish I now had to carry on-person as a reminder of my susceptibility to techno-pop-culture-obliviousness and my own Primeape brain.

I thought I was different :(

Since the outset of mobile device culture I’ve been a consistent curmudgeon. The phrase, “But, just because we can, should we really be doing this?” is always in my quiver. It’s an arrow that I shoot with razor-sharp precision whenever someone says “disruption” or “game-changer” without irony. I design digital experiences for a living and in doing so, have the professional obligation to criticize a technological culture I have a hand in building. Even if you don’t design it, you should still feel ok saying, “Why are we doing this?”. I study technology, examine the ways people use it, break it down, build it up, and advise people on how to use it better… but most importantly I use this accumulated knowledge to self-improve. It’s important for me to point out that the act of playing Pokémon Go caused a rift in four of my cardinal “consciousness” rules:

  • Pay attention to my surroundings.
  • Focus on one thing to do and then do it really well.
  • Always be in control and aware of inertia and the consequences of my body moving in any given direction. Especially when travelling by foot, on a bicycle, or inside an automobile.
  • When in motion, the best place for my smartphone is in my pocket.

Admittedly, a sense of nostalgia pulled me toward Pokémon Go. I never owned the cards or Gameboy games as a child because I couldn’t afford them. I borrowed Pokémon Yellow from my friend for as long as he would allow me to keep it. Pokémon Go is fun to play. It’s the first critical-mass-hit-augmented-reality-smartphone-app that has edged us into the promise of 20th century sci-fi. It seems that everyone in public is playing it, and it’s really cute to catch a Pokémon on your friend’s face. I don’t know why, but I enjoy the component of location-based gaming and love the undertone of gaming as physical activity and exploration in physical space. That said, the whole time I’ve been playing there have been two weird underlying questions about attention and consent.

Are we paying attention?

In his standup comedy, Louis CK jokes about how drugs aren’t really that bad. The problem with drugs is that they’re so good they’ll ruin your life. “Good” is a matter of perspective here, but bear with me. I could dredge up the psychology and science behind addiction but I don’t think anyone will debate that gaming is addictive on some level. Pokémon Go is addictive for a number of reasons. The most basic is the visual appeal of Pokémon characters. They’re cute, they conjure a sense of nostalgia in a spectrum of people, and there are enough Pokémon that no single character will drive you insane from over-exposure — except maybe for Pidgey and Drowzee, but hey, trade them to the professor for experience points, you noob. The second is a sense of pride in having your name (or username) atop your closest Pokémon gym. The third is the implied need to “catch ’em all”. These are not all of the reasons, but the three examples I’ve listed are enough to establish that addiction is ever-present in the DNA of Pokémon. And if you’ll notice, we haven’t even spoken about the underlying technology.

I have a theory that driving an automobile is more responsibility than most humans can comprehend. It’s better that we don’t think of the inherent consequences of driving an automobile for our own sanity. Commuter traffic is a dangerous cocktail of things even when you’re an attentive and defensive driver. The danger increases when you don’t wear a seatbelt. The danger increases when you consume drugs and alcohol before or while driving. The danger increases when you have a fight with a friend or partner and your attention drifts while driving. The danger increases when you speak to someone sitting next to you—or over the phone—and your attention drifts. The danger increases when you look down at a map to check which lane you should be in for an upcoming left-hand turn. It increases again when you look down, away from your pending responsibilities, at a text message. And finally, the danger climaxes when you grab your phone to flick a Pokéstop as you drive through a park at 50km/h because you need a few more Razz Berries before your Lucky Egg expires. The problem is rarely the technology. The problem is what we choose to do with technology. Like driving a car, part of the harm in Pokémon Go—as an object on a smartphone that we are operating—is that we are largely unaware and inattentive to the harm we may cause ourselves or others while immersed in the gameplay.

The introduction story about my iPhone is an admission of the reality that I am not immune to Pokémon Go’s many charms. I am as stupid and lazy as any other human multi-tasking and doing all things horribly. Pokémon Go is a glorious social experiment that unintentionally humbles us with humanity, holding a mirror up to our behavioural patterns and in some cases causing up to walk into potentially life-threatening situations.

READ: “Pokemon Go player jumped onto Canada Line track, say Transit Police” via Metro Vancouver

It’s a milestone in technology. It’s a buggy, imperfect piece of software. It’s not inherently evil and it’s not explicitly dangerous, but it can be both when you’re not observing the attached consequences. Like driving an automobile, it’s also easier — and more fun — to have the experience without thinking about the consequences.

Have I consented to this?

As a graduate of film school, I’m of the mindset that pointing a camera at someone and taking their photo requires their explicit permission. In most cases consent can be verbal. When used for commercial purposes consent should be written in a contract with clear explanations of intent. An overarching criticism I have of the digital-sharing-cloud culture of media is that the conscious question, “Do I have permission for this? is no longer part of the process. When photography became a fully-digital medium it ballooned into a format that anyone could experiment with. This is a triumph of our time and a great luxury. With this increase in accessibility a spectrum of relaxation has occurred in the formality of photography. Aspects of diligence and permission that professionals were required to abide by have been forgotten. Any experienced photo-journalist may argue the aspect of “journalistic privilege”, but I’ll argue right back that the operative word “privilege” does not entitle anyone to take by force or arbitrarily assume consent from another person. The gravity is simply that most “journalistic privilege” is exerted over people who do not have the resources to fight or protest their exploitation. In some cases a subject may not even have the ability to articulate the exploitation they’ve encountered, unable to ask for help because they’ve never before been exposed to the technology. If someone will never know you’ve taken their photo, was it ok for you to take it?

Would you feel comfortable taking a photo of a strangers’ child without their parents’ permission?
Would you feel comfortable if your child were photographed by a stranger without your permission?

For me, the ethical answer is and always will be a resounding “No”. The questionable reality is that we don’t think twice about consent when people are fringe-decorations around a Pokéball. Google glass, Instagram, Periscope, Pokémon all raise the question, “Is anyone allowed to record a stranger as long as they are in a public space?” And for most people, the answer is “yes”. In an increasingly digitized world it is becoming more likely that we will be recorded by someone or something without our knowledge. Every day. We’re already recorded when withdrawing cash from a bank machine. Upon entering a convenience store or shopping mall we’re recorded in multiple angles of security cameras. Arguably, your face, keystrokes, and reading habits are being recorded as you interact with this web page. Where are the boundaries?

Another aspect of consent is the magnitude of responsibility implied in the underlying design of Pokémon Go. There is a lingering question of “why?” and “where?” Niantic has chosen to place Pokéstops. Then there is another question about people assuming it’s ok for them to visit a given location just because a Pokéstop exists there. An example of this is a Pokéstop located on an Indigenous burial ground near Prince George British Columbia.

READ: “Pokemon No Go? Indigenous woman wants burial ground Pokestop gone” via CBC

There is a large and powerful meta-narrative within about “duty to consent” and discourse between indigenous communities and settlers in North America. The Lheidli T’enneh nation were not consulted prior to this Pokéstop appearing, nor did the visitors request permission to enter upon arrival. If anyone consciously asked the question, “Should I go here? Is this activity disrespectful?” The answer would be, “Do not do this!”. Therein lays the real danger:

Technology is so amazing and fun that it can cause us to ignore common sense if we’re not exercising objectivity.

Common sense is relative. Another example of the hidden dangers within the game are Pokéstops found in complex, derelict, abandoned, or low-traffic neighbourhoods. It’s easy to become so consumed by the fun of playing Pokémon Go that you may forget that you are walking into an area with a heightened level of danger. This danger may be purely environmental, like walking off the edge of a cliff, or it could be that an individual has placed a Lure Module with sinister intent. The verdict is still out on whether people are doing this, but I’ve encountered at least two situations within a block of my home where this may have been the case. This may sound similar to what I described above in the “Are you paying attention?” section, but it differs because you may be unaware how other are playing you while you’re playing Pokémon Go. There happens to be a Pokéstop located within my home’s common-area, it’s a well-lit, safe, water feature with a roaming security guard. On a weekday afternoon I placed a Lure Module at this water feature and waited to see what happened. Within ten minutes there were a dozen people standing in close proximity with necks craned down at their smartphones. By the time the Lure expired almost thirty people had passed through. I didn’t speak to each person, but by visual examination the majority—especially the few with USB cables stretching from pocket-to-device—were active players. My questions were, “Why and how are these people here at 3pm on a Thursday?” and “Oh, my, am I creep that just lured twenty people into my lobby?”


The sky is not falling.

Despite the latent fear-mongering I’ve just participated in, my overarching feeling is that Pokémon Go is a revolutionary experience. It hit critical mass in a way nothing else could because it was built upon the successful Pokémon franchise. That does not negate the dangerous, unfinished, buggy, and meaningless aspects of its gameplay. Technically-speaking, this is one step closer to me riding a Tron light cycle across an illuminated grid. That’s amazing!

As with all technology I ask familiar questions about utility, consciousness, and intent. I also acknowledge the powerful good that can result in a group of people rallying behind a thing they love. I choose not to ignore the reality that “who you are” changes the experience you’ll have of Pokémon Go and that, as a 6’ 1” adult caucasian male, my experience of this technology is vastly different than other people (and children).

READ: Omari Akil’s “Warning: Pokemon GO is a Death Sentence if you are a Black Man.”

We’re in the first stage of a technology where it’s easy to fixate on the “shiny thing”. It’s good, it can be positive, but it can also be negative. I’m not implying it is one thing more than another but I’m pointing out that everyone engaged in it must be aware of the multitude of things it is and can be. We simply need to ask the questions,

“Has this technology changed my behaviour?”

and,

“Is this change a good thing?”

For me the consequence of playing Pokémon Go was not severe. I just cracked my iPhone. There is also an unexpected positive result in using the game to adjust my running routine. After almost a year of repetitive calf injuries—and two months off for eye surgery—I’ve used the game to choose new routes, modulate a safe pace, and take regular breaks to rest my legs . The crack in my iPhone screen is a mnemonic device for me. It’s a physical reminder that something caused a series of my long-held behavioural patterns to change. Again, it’s a change that is not overwhelmingly positive or negative, but the fact that something changed my behaviour is enough causation to say, “there is something here and there is a reason to examine it”.