At the risk of being labelled the fun police, I’m going to say right up front that I think the new Pokemon Go augmented reality game probably comes with both positives and negatives.
A new game craze for young people often attracts over-the-top community and media predictions of the harm it will inflict (think original paper-based Dungeons & Dragons or online RPG’s such as World of Warcraft), so I am not going to jump on the bandwagon and instead will wait to see the ramifications of its use for a while before passing judgement.
However, I would point out a couple of positives and a potential concern or two in the meantime. In its favour is the fact that for once we have a computer game that is getting large numbers of young people (and older people) out of their houses and into the open. Yes, Pokemon Go is great for getting kids to do exercise without realising they are doing it! All that walking around trying to spot Pikachu in King’s Park can only be a positive, given the limited amount of exercise children now do (and especially children who spend a lot of time playing computer games). I now see kids willingly taking the dog for a walk, leash in one hand and phone in the other, just so they can play the game.
It’s also great that it generally involves young people in a group social activity. Chasing Pokemons is much more enjoyable when done with a bunch of friends apparently, and comparing notes with other hunters you meet can be a great opportunity for developing social and communication skills, an area where online computer games have perhaps been open to criticism over the years. So, big tick for exercise in the fresh air and meeting up with friends and new people.
Now the downside. We know that walking around looking at your mobile device is not a good idea, this is not news. Driving while distracted makes you more dangerous than a drunk driver, so we can’t possibly think it’s okay for kids (or anyone) to be walking or running in a shared traffic environment whilst staring at their phone. Police in Victoria are now prosecuting pedestrians who cross roads while texting, as the data shows they are a danger to themselves and others around them, so how can we blithely endorse the message this game sends that walking or running while using your phone is okay?
For anyone who thinks that I am over dramatizing that, just consider the tide of people we all see every day slowly walking our streets and shopping centres looking at their phone. Now imagine, instead of shuffling in one direction they are all walking briskly or running in every direction at once, focusing almost all their attention on a 12cm virtual lens rather than the real world around them. Let's be clear - this is not a heads-up display with 360 degree field of view, its a tiny smartphone screen, and I can see some major collisions with other people and objects in their environment happening as a result of lack of peripheral awareness.
One solution would be to enable the app to only be usable when the phone is not moving, a simple tweak using the GPS-located nature of smart phones to ensure that people playing the game have to stop briefly in order to spot the Pokemon targets. There would be no reason to look at the screen while moving if you weren’t gaining any new information from it – problem solved. In our development of the Constable Care Safety School in Maylands, we are embracing the great opportunities provided by augmented reality as an educational tool and a means of demonstrating risk to children in a real world environment. However, we’ll be taking exactly that approach – the tablet app won’t work while the child is in motion, and we'll be actively teaching kids that walking while using a portable device is dangerous.
Finally, as you would expect a CEO in the child safety sector to say, being outside and active is a really good thing for our children’s health, but parents should always ensure their kids are hunting Pokemons with a friend or in a group and that they know the number to call if they get lost, feel threatened or need help (their phone can be useful for things other than finding the elusive Cryogonal the snowflake Pokemon).
By David Gribble, Chief Executive Officer, Constable Care Child Safety Foundation