Pokémon Go is the latest viral gaming sensation, and the first popular application to meaningfully use augmented reality (AR) in its design. But all that AR and popular game design also comes at a real human cost, particularly when gamers are behind the wheel of a vehicle. Recent incidents, such as a Pokémon Go player in Maryland crashing into a police car while driving (the Baltimore police department later recounted the incident on Twitter), or a driver causing an accident in Washington while playing the game, have indicated that playing Pokémon Go endangers the safety of both drivers and pedestrians alike.
According to recent social media visual listening research, 10 percent of the Pokemon GO-related images shared on Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, and Pinterest are taken inside a car, which suggests that despite the headlines, some people continue to brazenly or carelessly share about their gaming activities while driving. Many of these Pokémon Go players who are driving and posting Pokemon Go snaps are between the age of 25-34, and are doing everything from trying to catch bug Pokémon to finding Pickachu perched upon their steering wheels, particularly along the East Coast in areas like Pennsylvania.
Now, 10 percent may seem like a lot, but that’s only people who are sharing about it — plenty of others are likely just playing and driving and not sharing. And with an estimated 21 million people playing the game worldwide on a recent count, and the game just launching in Japan, 10 percent can be at least 2 million. This has only added to the potential dangers of driving while distracted, as every year about 1.6 million car accidents — 64 percent of all road accidents in the US — involve cell phones in some way.
What puts Pokémon Go in a unique position is not only that it’s a mobile game, but an immersive mobile game that uses AR technology, meaning by its very nature players will be half in their phones’ virtual world and half in the actual real world. Unlike other addictive mobile games, such as Candy Crush or Clash of Clans, Pokémon Go requires the complete attention of the player and needs to be constantly opened and managed to work. Pokemon Go is also location-specific, causing drivers so seek out certain areas–even if that means they are en route while driving. This is why some Pokémon Go players are accidentally ramming their cars into trees while catching Pokémon and driving in a way that you don’t often see with other mobile games or apps.This dovetails well with all the other potentially hazardous Pokemon Go-related happenings outside of cars, such as walking off cliffs or into ponds, or not going to the hospital after being stabbed, among other crazy real-world consequences. Does “augmented reality” get any more “real” than that?
Despite all the furor, though, Pokemon Go’s percentage of distracted driver-players is about the same as for other popular applications, such as Snapchat, with about 11 percent. Granted, Snapchat isn’t really a game, but it does involve your smartphone’s camera and it is wildly popular.
Not surprisingly, there has always been a strong connection between driving and playing games, as well as playing games where you drive. In fact, gamers are typically seen to be more overconfident and reckless drivers, and appear to speed and suffer road rage at far higher rates in a study compiled by Continental Tyres. While this study was conducted in 2011 – in the early days of mobile and social’s explosive growth – it also shows that 19% of gamers used their phones while driving, in comparison to 11% of non-gamers who used their phones while driving. No matter how you look at it, the amount of people playing games while driving as far back as 2011, and still playing, is alarming.
The good news is that even more people are on Twitter today than in 2011, and Instagram didn’t exist back in 2011 but now has 400 million active monthly accounts, so maybe some strategic hashtags can help. This is why both AAA and The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently warned players to not Pokémon Go and drive, citing “potentially deadly consequences” and popularizing the hashtag #DontPokemonGoandDrive. Besides the hashtag campaign, AAA warned drivers and pedestrians alike in its recent announcement that their activities require full attention, citing such scary stats such as how taking your eyes off the road for as few as two seconds or more doubles your chances of a collision.
While Pokemon Go has revolutionized the way we see gaming and how we interact with augmented reality, sharing, and the visual web, these innovations have come at a cost. In order to combat bad driving, Pokemon Go users should consider other modes of transportation, such as taking the public bus, or an Uber, if they feel they need to play while in a moving vehicle. So far, few places have set up specific bans on playing the game and driving, other than Baltimore, but plenty of guidelines are being released in countries where the game is now released, such as Portugal.
As games become more and more immersive, and the sharing of pictures online continues to grow exponentially (approximately 3 billion pictures online every day!), we will have to think of augmented reality as another layer in our daily lives that must be handled mindfully. Reality itself can be plenty dangerous; there’s no need to augment it with any additional risk.