By Norm Wilhelm, Senior Associate
Toddington International Inc.
I don't normally write articles that follow recent fads or 'flavour of the month' topics, but the Pokemon Go
game that was released on 6 Jul 2016 is a bit different. With a current estimated following of 130 million people in less than two months, it has proven itself to be quite the global phenomenon, and well worth writing about. At the same time, I don't want to write an article that gets me labelled as a member of 'Team No-Fun'; the derogatory name that some of the younger generation apply to those who write negative articles predicting security breaches and the ruin of society. Instead, I will present some public concerns related to this game, and some perspectives on how it relates to the security industry.
For those very
few persons who aren't sure what this is, Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game that allows players to interact with their geolocation and other players. Using the application on your mobile device, you can see electronic creatures that are spawned by the program into random geographic locations. You can either stay in one place and wait for them to be created (at a rather slow rate) or you can go look for them proactively (thus collecting creatures at a much faster rate). It is actually quite amusing to see these virtual critters sitting on the dashboard of your car, or under the couch in your living room, or wandering across your back yard. They can even spawn on an aircraft flying at 30,000 ft ASL and on passenger ferries that are crossing large bodies of water. This game is popular with young people between the ages of 8 to 15, but is also popular with those between the ages of 20 and 35 who experienced the first Pokemon craze during the period of 1997-2006.
The Morlocks Arise!
I am sure many parents have already taken note of what has happened to their children who have spent most of the last eight years sitting in front of a computer keyboard, or slouched in dark corners of their households texting and snapchatting on their mobile devices. Like the underground dwellers from the famous H.G. Wells book 'The Time Machine
', this army of Pokemon Go players has erupted from their caves in small groups (Poke-packs?), blinking myopically in the sunlight and flexing their atrophied limbs with the sudden need to take physical action. Other than their pasty white skin (from lack of exposure to sunlight), these dedicated players can sometimes be identified by their lack of attention to their environment.
Caution: Poke-Player Crossing
There are a large number of people who do not play this game, and it is this majority that is being required to take defensive action against potential accident and/or injury. In addition to the already acknowledged problem of distracted driving, we now have an increasing number of reports regarding people engaging in 'distracted walking'. Many of these Pokemon Go players will be distracted by the game in the same way as a person walking down the street reading a book. In the past, drivers kept an eye out for kids playing street hockey or kicking their soccer ball over the fence of a school field. All drivers in future will need to be cautious of 'Poke-players' who seem to have forgotten their lessons about how to cross the street, darting across the roads in pursuit of their elusive e-critters.
Poke-Mobs and Time Theft
This gaming phenomenon is not limited to just youths under the age of eighteen. There are quite a few adults between the ages of 20 and 30 experiencing the nostalgia of a card game and TV series they watched as a kid. These enthusiasts are now in adult work environments, and are getting distracted from their daily tasks by rare spawning e-critters that appear on the streets several stories below. In one story I was entertained by an adult employee wrestled with the dilemma of continuing his assigned work or taking a few minutes to race down ten stories to street level in order to capture a rare Pokemon creature he had just identified on his device. Succumbing to temptation, he was soon on street level where he become part of a crowd of over two hundred office workers and passers-by, all trying to capture the same creature. The event was essentially recreating the 'flash mobs' that we saw back in 2009. In response, employers may need to expand their employee guidelines in regards to employee participation in augmented reality games during working hours. This may also affect loss-prevention workers who know that there are always some criminal elements willing to take advantage of the distractions caused by large concentrations of people.
The Perception of Suspicious Activity...
For those engaged as security industry workers, whether as police officers or private security, this game is causing some re-adjustment as to how we perceive stereotypical suspicious behavior. For example, that group of young people by that building over there would normally be considered worth talking to, especially under darkness of night in an area known for youth related problems. Is it vandalism? Is someone being bullied? A gang fight? A drug deal? Possibly no to all of these; it's a group of Pokemon players battling for possession of a 'gym'. They see nothing wrong with their law-abiding behavior, and there really is nothing wrong with what they are doing, as long as they are on public property.
... And Illegal Activity By Players
But not all players are being law-abiding and staying on public property. There are an increasing number of law suits being filed at courts across North America as property owners object to a parade of Pokemon Go players hopping their fences in pursuit of electronic quarry, or trying to access a Pokemon 'gym' (where the player can train and increase the power of the creatures they capture) that have been randomly positioned across the continent by the gaming program. Examples of badly placed gym locations include proximity to outlaw motorcycle gang clubhouses
, construction sites, condemned buildings and fenced-in private property of all types. In such cases, while trespassing is clearly the fault of the player and not the property owner, all property owners who have security concerns are advised to check that no augmented reality sites are being set up on or near their property. Court cases all already in progress that will determine how these can be reported and removed.
Increased Activity And Social Interaction
Granted, some enthusiastic players are having problems adjusting to the 'real world', with far too many seeming to have forgotten their lessons of (i.e.) about staying off of roads, along with other childhood safety rules. But these appear to be the exceptions rather than the rule. The Pokemon Go game as a whole is an industry model of how to develop participant motivation, and has resulted in thousands of youth being more active and interactive than ever before. More important to realize is that it is the first game of its kind, and the gaming industry (like any other) always follows success. Over the next twelve months we can expect similar games to be developed and released based on the same gaming principles as this one.
Some Investigative Avenues
Those of us who do investigations related to insurance claims might see a few advantages in this popular game. Learning that a claimant is playing this particular game can indicate that they are physically active and interacting with other people, leading to new avenues of inquiry. In turn, if someone becomes suspicious of why a security professional is conducting surveillance in a particular area, they could possible attribute their actions with a claim they are playing Pokemon Go (and actually have the app installed on their device!).
The blunt truth is that a significant number of young people understand their devices, information exposure, and security risks better than many of their elders and are not interested in reading articles written by members of 'Team No-Fun'; aka any negative-toned article written by practitioners in the security industry. The stories seen in the news over the past few weeks are not typical of all players of this game or games like it. Times change and new games like this are reminders that new technology will always cause some sort of social upheaval. There was a time when cell phones were banned from being carried by students in schools. Eventually they became socially accepted (with a few new rules from supervisory bodies) and now a significant number of students carry their devices into classes. In a similar manner, this gaming phenomenon, its side-effects, and social behavior consequences are going to reach a state of balance.
Drawing a line in the sand is not going to stop this gaming phenomenon; it will require an accommodation between the two sides, requiring some acceptance of strange behavior from non-players, and a reduction in extreme behavior by the ardent players.
Norm Wilhelm is an investigator, intelligence analyst and instructor with Toddington International and has over 20 years of experience in open source intelligence and online investigations. He is a highly decorated and accomplished former member of Canadian military intelligence, who later worked in the human resource management industry and then at one of Canada’s largest private investigation companies, specializing in online investigations and research. The majority of his work over the past nine years has supported workplace investigations, threat assessments, insurance fraud, class action suits, and family law. In November 2013, he was recognized by the Supreme Court of British Columbia as an expert in open source intelligence and online investigations.