Pokémon Go may have more people than usual staring down at their smartphone screens, but don't let that fool you: One of the most fascinating aspects of the Pokémon Go phenomenon has been the way it's made people more aware than usual of their surroundings because the gyms and pokéstops that make up the augmented reality game's virtual hotspots are overlaid on places of interest in the real world.
"Pokémon Go kept me outside and active, and it turned out that searching for the adorable little monsters in augmented reality gave me a new way to enjoy the city around me," wrote Sarah Jeong in the NYT's Room for Debate. "I spent days discovering historical landmarks, parks, statues and street art all around the places Pokémon were hiding."
People are seeing and noticing murals and other local landmarks that they might otherwise pass by without a second thought. A colleague who is moving to a new city said Pokémon Go was incredibly useful in helping him get to know a neighborhood he was considering for his new home.
Pokémon Go's virtual spots were dutifully mapped by players of Niantic Lab's other, older augmented reality game, Ingress, a less popular game but with equally fervent players who create portals in places of note in the real world and then vie for control of them. It's yet another brilliant bit of corporate crowdsourcing; Niantic Labs got Ingress players to do the work of building a massive digital map that could be redeployed to make, in partnership with Nintendo and the Pokémon Company, one of the most instantly viral and captivating mobile games ever.
The internet has been steadily changing our relationship with the real world, but when we mostly accessed it with computers that were bound to desks and laps, it existed as a second world, a digital place we visited for discrete amounts of time and then left (by shutting down our computers or turning away from our keyboards). But when the smartphone brought the internet into the real world, attaching it to us wherever we go, it meant the internet and the real world became intertwined and entangled.
Pokémon Go may be the most vivid and positive representation we've seen of that yet. There have been past stories about digital maps changing the way people move through their cities, but they've mainly been negative, as with quiet neighborhoods being annoyed by Waze routing traffic through their streets. As the digital world is increasingly overlaid on the real world, it will fundamentally change our relationship with the cities we live in (hopefully for the better and not like this). The internet will be as strong a force in our physical surroundings as it is in our mental ones.
People have noticed problems with Pokémon Go maps. "In some areas where most residents are minorities, Twitter users noted pokéstops are hard to find," wrote Christopher Huffaker of McClatchy, in a report that mapped Ingress portals in Detroit and Washington, D.C., and said there were examples of redlining—lower-income areas or areas where black residents dominate appeared to have fewer virtual places deemed worth visiting. (Though when we reexamined these maps, it appears that pokéstops are actually widespread in these cities, visible if you zoom in; they're just not as active and thus don't show up in a zoomed-out view.)
Suburban and rural areas are also pokéstop deserts, notes Rolling Stone.
But this, of course, is the problem when you rely on the geeky early adopters who play your smartphone AR game to map the world: it will reflect the world that they live in. The neighborhoods and places that Ingress players chose not to visit and map are not digitally represented in Pokémon Go's universe, while the things they find interesting, such as off-beat street art that wouldn’t normally make it onto a city’s tourism map, appear there.
We downloaded and mapped portals from Ingress to show you what the Pokémon digital universe looks like. The maps show you the intersections between the interests of Ingress players and real world locations, and give you a sense of where Pokémon Go players are being drawn. In Boston, for example, pokéstops abound around universities.
The Pokémon Go virtual world is changing the geography of the real world, and sometimes warping it. There's a serious dissonance between some places of interest—such as Auschwitz and the Holocaust Museum—and the motivations of people seeking them out looking to throw a digital ball at a cartoon animal. When that happens, it's disturbing to the people who live or work at those locations.
For example, there are three intersecting pokéstops in Rhodes, a quiet suburban community outside Sydney, that have resulted in a swarm of rare pokémon in that digital spot, and a resulting swarm of flesh and blood humans.
“The place is in complete chaos with crowds of well over 1,000 per night. There is a massive level of noise after midnight, uncontrollable traffic, excessive rubbish, smokers, drunk people, people who are ‘camping’ in the site, and even people peddling mobile phone chargers,” a resident of the area told Buzzfeed.
It's not the first time a digital map of the world has wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people living at the real world location, and not the only time Pokémon Go has caused a stampede. Central Park in New York City is habitually swamped by players late into the evening.
Pokémon Go's ability to attract hordes of people to a location has not gone unnoticed by people who want swarms. The game has the power to change how people move through cities, so businesses have excitedly set lures at their locations to attract pokémon and pokémon-chasing customers. A pizza place in New York that spent $10 on lures increased sales by 75%, reports the New York Post. McDonalds Japan has the honor of being the first paying sponsor of Pokémon Go, reports Forbes; the company hopes to satisfy the appetites of players. When the game launched there on Friday, it included 3,000 gyms at McDonalds restaurants.
More civic-minded people are also trying to harness the power of the Pokémon flash mob. Last week, an activist group in San Francisco set lures at a protest site, hoping to attract a bigger crowd.
The question now is how long Pokémon Go's changes to cities' geographies will last. In other words, how long will people keep playing the game? Once players' interest in capturing digital creatures fades, so too will the game's effect on the real world.
Daniel McLaughlin is a creative technologist exploring the 2016 presidential election. Before joining Fusion, Daniel worked at the Boston Globe and graduated from MIT with a BS in urban studies and planning.
Kashmir Hill is the editor of Fusion's Real Future. She has hacked a stranger's smart home, lived on Bitcoin & paid a surprise visit to the NSA's Utah datacenter, all while trying to prove privacy isn't dead yet. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. PGP: D934E5E9.