The booming success of Pokemon GO might be a relief to parents who want their kids to get outdoors more. But the mobile video game might not be the safest pastime.
Players have been falling over things, falling into things, and falling off of things, as well as trespassing, crashing their cars, and getting robbed.
Police departments from Australia to Virginia are warning players to pay attention and refrain from breaking the law. The game itself contains a warning against risky behaviors.
The problem is, playing a video game can be hard to reconcile with functioning in the real world.
Pokemon GO was developed by Niantic and released on July 6 by The Pokemon Company. The game scatters virtual pocket monsters—called Pokemon—at map locations in the real world. Much like in geocaching, players have to physically reach a certain location as confirmed by their phone’s GPS to collect the critters in the game.
Moreover, Pokemon only pop up on the game’s map when the player gets close to them, making the players walk around and explore the area to find them.
Local landmarks, like libraries, parks, fountains, and police stations, can be marked as Pokestops and Gyms, where players can collect in-game perks or use their Pokemon to fight other Pokemon.
From anecdotal online reports, the game does make people travel for their Pokemon—which encourages players to exercise, visit local landmarks, and even socialize more, thanks to meeting other Pokemon hunters along the way.
Also, it’s massively popular. The game, both for Android and iOS, has been downloaded over 15 million times, USA Today reported, citing estimates of research firm SensorTower on July 13.
At one point, some 21 million people were playing the game simultaneously, making it the biggest mobile video game in U.S. history, according to SurveyMonkey.
Stocks for Nintendo, the co-owner of the Pokemon franchise, have soared nearly 60 percent since the game’s release on July 6, adding close to $10 billion to the company’s value, according to CNN Money.
But some say the game is a significant distraction and perhaps more dangerous than any other.
While mobile games can be dangerously absorbing to begin with, playing them while walking down the street is difficult, as the real world keeps distracting the player.
Pokemon GO, on the other hand, forces the players to play while walking down the street, distracted.
Reports have been coming from all over the country of people getting injured while playing.
Mike Schultz, 21, a communications graduate on Long Island, New York, took a spill on his skateboard as he stared at his phone while cruising for Pokemon critters. He cut his hand on the sidewalk after hitting a big crack and blames himself for going too slowly.
“I just wanted to be able to stop quickly if there were any Pokemons nearby to catch,” he said.
Kyrie Tompkins, 22, a freelance web designer, fell on the sidewalk and twisted her ankle while wandering in downtown Waterville, Maine.
“It vibrated to let me know there was something nearby and I looked up and just fell in a hole,” she said. Her parents had to drive her and her fiancé home.
Similar stories have appeared on Twitter—one player tripped over a cinder block, another fell into a creek, and others got sunburned while chasing the monsters.
There have been more serious cases too. After climbing over a fence to catch a Pokemon, two men fell dozens of feet off a cliff in San Diego and were taken to the hospital, NBC San Diego reported.
A man in New York, while distracted by the game, drove off the road into a tree and totaled his car, FOX 5 reported. He was not seriously injured.
To be sure, similar incidents have happened to people who were texting or calling while walking and driving. But there’s a difference: video games are specifically designed to be absorbing.
Video games can cause a high “cognitive load,” according to Dr. Chris Ferguson, assistant psychology professor at Stetson University in Florida and an expert on the psychological effects of video games.
People have a limited amount of attention and concentration, Ferguson explained. A task that requires a lot of brainpower and attention prevents one from focusing on anything else.
The secondary task, like walking or driving, can even be taken over by a part of our brain that controls automated tasks.
That works just fine “as long as nothing bad happens,” Ferguson said.
But, “if there’s a situation that requires you to shift back into alertness and take deliberate control of the task, then it can be hard, since that area of the brain is already busy playing Pokemon,” he said in a phone interview.
Pokemon GO indeed heavily drains attention, according to Paul Tassi, Forbes contributor on video games, technology, and the internet.
“[B]ecause the game essentially forces you to keep the app open and check it constantly, you are really not paying attention to where you are much of the time. Add in headphones, and the game can feel downright dangerous because of how much it engrosses you,” he wrote in an article for Forbes.
Tassi spent a day playing the game and was almost hit by a bike twice and once by a car. “I really do worry about kids playing this and not paying attention to where they are,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, criminals have already found a way to exploit the game.
The game allows players to purchase Pokecoins, which are used to buy in-game perks. For 100 Pokecoins—or about $1—players can buy a “Lure Module,” a feature that attracts Pokemon to a selected Pokestop for 30 minutes. The place will be highlighted on every player’s map, likely attracting nearby players to come and also try to collect the extra critters.
The O’Fallon Police Department discovered a gang of four, at least one of them armed, that used the “Lure Module” function to lure players to a parking lot (and possibly other locations) in order to rob them.
“These suspects are suspected of multiple Armed Robberies both in St. Louis and St. Charles Counties,” the police wrote on its Facebook page. “If you use this app (or other similar type apps) or have children that do, we ask you to please use caution when alerting strangers of your future location.”
Players have also been robbed in California, Texas, Maryland, and New York, news reports show.
There have been multiple reports of players going after Pokemon in places where they (the players) shouldn’t have been in the first place.
Police officers of Pflugerville, Texas, spotted a man playing the game in a section of a police parking lot where the public isn’t allowed. The player had to pass keep out signs and go over a fence or under a gate to reach the area.
“I’m not sure how he got back there, but it was clear what he was doing,” said Assistant Police Chief Jim McLean. “He was playing a Pokemon game with his phone up in the air.”
In Utah, Ethan Goodwin, 17, of Tremonton, was slapped with a trespassing ticket that he worries could cost him up to $200, after he and a couple of friends went on an early morning Pokemon chase at an abandoned grain silo. He managed to catch three critters.
“I wouldn’t say it was worth it, but I would say I’m glad I have the Pokemon I have now,” he joked. He added: “It’s a dumb game, really, really stupid.”
An couple in Ohio were arrested July 14 after they jumped a fence at Toledo Zoo to hunt for Pokemon, NBC 4i reported.
Three people were locked in a cemetery in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, on July 12. They were looking for Pokemon and didn’t realize the cemetery closed at dusk. They had to be let out by the police, The Times-Tribune reported.
From players’ online comments, it seems not uncommon for people to venture out and hunt for Pokemon in the middle of the night. To catch some of the monsters, it may even be encouraged. Players have reported water Pokemon can be found around lakes, fire Pokemon around gas stations, and “ghost” Pokemon at night.
“The poor police here in Colorado, they stopped us last night to ask questions about the game, and remind us the park was closed. There were about 30 of us at midnight, running around a park. I felt like an idiot, because I know better,” user Trisha Abney commented on Facebook.
Some players have expressed worries on social media that the game could result in a fearful property owner pulling a gun. This scenario could fall into a legal gray area in the nearly two dozen states with “stand your ground” laws that allow people wide latitude to use deadly force when they believe they are in danger.
So far, there seems to be no reports of such an incident.
The Pokestop Issue
The game lists as Pokestops and Gyms some places that hardly lend themselves to loitering.
Both the White House and Pentagon have been designated as Gyms in the game, possibly putting players at odds with security.
The Darwin Police Station in Australia has been designated as a Pokestop, prompting police to release a statement reminding users they don’t have to enter the station to collect the in-game reward and should look up from their phones when crossing a street.
Multiple police departments have also warned players to pay attention to their surrounding and not trespass while playing.
The game’s official website warns of some dangers.
“For safety’s sake, never play Pokemon GO when you’re on your bike, driving a car, riding a hoverboard, or anything else where you should be paying attention, and of course never wander away from your parents or your group to catch a Pokemon,” the website states.
But a multitude of reports show many people have disregarded these warnings.
Part of the reason is that video games or other enjoyable activities can skew a person’s risk perception. If someone playing the game sees a Pokemon behind a fence, the emotional buzz in catching it might outweigh their better judgement not to trespass.
“Their perception of the benefits to them, emotionally, are high, their perception of the risks to them are fairly low, so they decide to engage in the behavior, even though they may know more rationally the risks are actually higher than they evaluated them to be,” Ferguson said.
He said some of the risks may be reduced over time. For example, the cognitive load is especially high for new tasks, so once players get more used to it, they may be less distracted by the game.
But that only lessens, not solves, the issue.
Meanwhile, the game is about to debut in Asia, the birthplace of Pokemon. It’s possible we haven’t seen anything yet.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.