The Soapbox: Three augmented reality game problems (most) MMOs don’t have – and one thing they do so much better
I’d like to think that I’m kind of a healthy gamer. While MMOs take a lot of time, the nice thing is that their downtime can lead to forming bonds, or give you time to exercise. Augmented reality games can give you both at once, especially Pokemon Go, since it’s the best-known ARG we have (and the mountains of merchandise make it easier to stand out as a fellow player).
However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, and I’m not just talking about game mechanics that have plagued Niantic games since at Ingress. I remember playing that title and thinking, “Man, this game is dangerous! There’s no way they’ll just clone this for POGO, right?” And yet, here we are. But I can’t put all the blame on Niantic, especially after my time with ARG competitor Maguss. Some things just seem inherent to the genre.
The usual suspects
Let’s start with the harshest of realities that ARG players face but MMORPG players don’t: Playing an ARG in America while being a minority is dangerous. Real life death happens. MMOs aren’t totally safe either, but as Raph Koster warned, even Ultima Online had a real-life gang issue, but ARGs ignored history and haven’t put in a “call the police” button. The issue, sadly, is that the issue isn’t limited to civilians.
I know this first-hand. I’m first generation Egyptian on one side of my family and European-American on the other side. I’ve (politely) been called Latino, Persian, Japanese, Jewish, even Ainu, among others. I can pass if I really put in the effort, and sometimes when I don’t. Not for one minute have I ever felt my life was threatened, but I know when “random screening” isn’t random. This isn’t just an American issue either. Having lived in Japan for several years, I’m used to racial profiling in two countries. I was occasionally stopped at bag checks while traveling in the country or randomly on the street, but I never had issues playing Pokemon Go in Japan, and a previous partner never got stopped while playing Ingress.
However, shortly after coming back to the states, I was stopped one evening by an officer when playing POGO at about 8 p.m. at my local park. And again a few weeks later by a nature trail. And then again. And again. This happened at least monthly for the first five months of my return. I was questioned about why I was in the area (it was my neighborhood), what I was doing out so late (it was barely dusk), told it was past curfew (I’m an adult, and even if I weren’t, the curfew is 10 p.m.), told I couldn’t park on the street at night (that was a lie), and on and on.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had people meant to protect me attempt to intimidate me. Any time I’m going to the airport, a convention, a themepark, even a street fair, I mentally prepare for this kind of thing. If I’m with a group, it significantly cuts down on this, but not always (especially not at any location ready to pat people down). Again, I know what I go through is nothing compared to what others suffer. However, encountering this treatment in my own neighborhood as I try to play a mobile game is disheartening.
When hassled for playing POGO, I was wearing worn, nondescript clothes, standing in areas a non-POGO player would deem odd, and walking back and forth a bit. Maybe they thought I was doing surveillance for a robbery because why else would “someone like me” be in a well-to-do neighborhood looking at my phone while at the park or walking down my street? There are a lot of other factors at play (the ethnic make-up of my community, the fact that we use police officers from other cities than our own), but I understood there were things I could try to change about myself to curb this perception while I’m out gaming in public.
So I got some new clothes. I wore graphic tees. I was more careful about when and where I played. I started to rely on using the Pokemon Go+ device to automatically catch for me instead of stopping off the side of the road/trail. I resisted urges to turn back immediately to catch rare Pokemon and hoped that after doing a lap, my prey would remain there.
All of this on top of the tricks I already knew about interacting with officers: Make eye contact with them, smile, don’t go out of your way to avoid them, scan the road for them when driving, and don’t do anything that would give them a reason to talk to you. And it seemed to work. My POGO-stops vanished for nearly a year… and then I got stopped again.
I was jogging on a popular trail near a resort. The officer, I found out, had been watching me. To note, when I jog, I’m clearly not playing beyond pressing the little button on the Go+ I carry in my hand. The officer knew the route I drove home after jogging and cut me off twice before pulling me over and accusing me of acting suspiciously. I told him about the game, that I was a resident of the city, that I’d been walking and jogging that trail for months. I mentioned my work for the local land conservation organization. When he accused me of playing while driving, I noted that my hands were on the wheel of the vehicle and my phone was in a pocket. He didn’t believe me, but eventually, he let me go.
I’ve talked to local players about the situation; while some of their stories about police run-ins seem legitimate (like being stopped for entering closed areas at 2 a.m.), other non-white members of our group echo my experiences, having been hassled without justification by security while white players were allowed to pass.
How you choose to deal with the reality of racial profiling while gaming is up to you. That being said, worrying about “looking right” to police officers isn’t something we’re used to when gaming, not just due to ethnic backgrounds but by doing things that could be deemed suspicious to anyone not familiar with the game you’re playing. It’s a life skill many of us have to worry about in other contexts. And unfortunately, it’s a factor both developers and players need to consider when trying to enjoy an ARG.
All those issues with violence and harassment from law enforcement ignore another sad issue with ARGs: muggings and shootings that come from civilians specifically targeting players. Yes, we know real life PvP between players happens, but ARGs make players become targets for non-players. Need I remind readers of the on-screen mugging we saw above? The POGO gangs that have formed are largely threatening only in game, but there are still violent individuals.
As early as Ingress I’d seen that having people play these games, especially solo, in public areas, was problematic. My partner would go out, walk, take digital bases for her team, and then complain about how someone had already undone her work, causing her to go back out, sit in one place, and even scan for her rival. She’s not a violent person; in fact, she’s the kind of person who non-violently gets involved when someone is in a domestic violence situation. I wasn’t too worried about her doing anything (too bad), but I wasn’t so sure about whom she might meet.
I’d written down before POGO‘s release that, having viewed my Ingress partner’s habits, I thought an ARG should have some at-home play based on collectibles automatically received while out, similar to Nintendo’s Street Pass system. While it could reduce playing with others in real space, it still encourages going out and allows for deeper gameplay in a safe location.
See, most ARGs not only have you acting in erratic ways and risking your well being but effectively putting you in a position to encounter angry business/property owners. You make yourself a target. On the one hand, it makes it easy to identify a fellow player, but one year after, even people in downtown San Francisco didn’t realize POGO is still a thing.
But conflict need not be violent to stand out from purely online rivalries we’re more used to. As long as PvP and direct competition are a part of ARGs, developers create opportunities for real tension in real spaces with certain people. Before meeting in person, I thought I had a single Pokemon Go rival (or pair of rivals working together). We both aggressively attacked a location near our home. As someone who walks to play, I rarely saw them. I thought they were spoofing their location until, one rainy day, I realized the only other car in the parking lot must have been them.
They’d been following me and taking my territory behind me, so I made a loop. I went back to re-stake my claim. And they followed me then too. It’s a creepy feeling, so I stopped and made sure to change tactics in order to avoid being stalked in the future. When raids came out, we saw them from their car. I waved, and the passenger, at least, waved back. No one came out though. No one rolled down their window. They just stayed in their car and drove off.
I knew it was my rival(s). I asked if anyone else had dealt with them. Apparently, other people had similar stories of being followed as well as of trying to keep their turf in the middle of the night (I don’t play at night, so I never experienced this).
I asked my local POGO friends if we’d invite them to our raiding group, assuming they ever decided to get out of the car. Everyone said yes, multiple times. When the day finally came during a period of silent peace, I was shocked to find out that the main character’s owner was super nice, and that her partner was just stubborn about winning and knew that he needed multiple accounts to hold any virtual territory.
In person though, he was also very friendly. We came to some territory agreements, but they’re not always respected, and some of my teammates weren’t nearly as understanding of what PvP can escalate into as I am. I don’t just mean violence, but quiet discomfort. Think about how things are when you’re fighting with a digital guildmate. Now imagine bumping into him at the supermarket, school or while walking with your family. Imagine being physically shunned by other players when your only crime might be playing with neighbors that other neighbors dislike you associating with.
What do you do if a griefer’s kid and your kid go to school together? How do you coordinate your team when you physically need to whisper in close proximity to the people you’re playing against? What happens if someone visibly cheats or abuses the system in real space? It’s very messy, and I’ve seen all that and more.
And you can’t just escape that. You can’t log off or squelch anyone. These are people you physically see. ARGs are great because of their potential to bring people together, but when the game mechanics set us against each other as well, it threatens the very benefits of the genre at the very least. It also threatens the playerbase.
If you think coordinating all your online friends for a raid or event is tough, think about how hard it would be if they needed to actually be near you to play. You can’t just pop in between work shifts; you actually need to consider travel, road conditions, weather, and gas money. It’s kind of like a sports club. You need to make time to get together. When the game doesn’t allow for this and/or asks that you do dailies, it becomes even more of a commitment.
If someone is shunned or bored with the game, it’s not as easy to find a replacement. Empty servers are hard enough to fix digitally, but you don’t get server mergers in ARGs. If a game requires X number of users, it might mean people have to have multiple devices and accounts to multibox in order for you to actually do group content, and that’s assuming you’ve found your local community and can arrange play times when game content is active (and good luck with that if you think you can work a 9-5 job when game content shuts down at dinnertime).
Travel can’t be understated as an issue, either. For people without driver’s licenses (like kids), getting a ride might be necessary just to participate in the community. Rural players may have to drive to the city. Playing in a place you’re unfamiliar with only increases the odds of something going wrong. Maybe it gives you a reason to get a friend to tag along, but if you’re playing solo and can’t find anyone, that just gives you another reason to quit. When a single player quits in an already small player population, your group may go from “can raid sometimes” to “can’t raid period.”
Don’t forget the fact that playing on a mobile device means you’re at the mercy of your battery! You might be working your way up to a five-hour walk, but your phone might not last that long.
Weather happens too. As if we didn’t have enough temptation about seeing rare materials on the wrong side of a government fence, ARGs don’t know to turn off the cool stuff outside when fires threaten the air quality, or to disable local PvP so floods mean the bravest people can take the most bases. Personal responsibility is important, but these are temptations that wouldn’t exist without the game.
And then there’s the money. It’s not just “pay-to-win.” It might be “pay to drive into the city for raids while other locals can’t even wrangle up a single team.” Maybe it’s “pay to escape the city so you can stomp on rural players’ territories with cool stuff they’re unable to easily farm.” Having items and units available based on real-world nodes submitted by players creates a whole new system of potential unfairness that affects more than individual players but entire communities.
All of this ignores hackers. People who can warp anywhere, take anything, skipping travel times and other restrictions the rest of us have to normally grapple with. In an MMO, a hacker can teleport anywhere and take everything. That sucks, yes. But in an ARG, they’re doing the same, moving in a fashion that would cost thousands of dollars for a normal player to replicate in a single day. They can ruin local PvP truces, dominate rural territories, or make high-traffic PvP spots immeasurably worse. And that’s before bots come in and automate those systems. Though they can also add numbers to a rural area normally incapable of doing multiplayer content, it ruins the point of playing the game in a physical space, not just for players, but for gamers in general.
The one thing that ARGs do more than most other games is makes gamers visible. I’ve heard people in the industry shout out how mainstream gaming’s become, but I still don’t entirely feel it. Even when I’m in a group of 20 people of various ages – elementary school to happily retired – all it takes is one jerk to come in and say, “Why are you all looking at your phones?” to slightly embarrass the group. I’ve seen kids do it to us, old people, teens, locals, folks from out of town…
There’s still a stigma attached to gaming. And that’s what ARGs do right.
All the issues I’ve described are real problems outside of gaming. Things I know some readers get upset about when we write about them. Sitting in your room choosing whom to interact with and when puts you in a bubble. Yes, some of us are out there all day, everyday, dealing with this kind of thing. Being able to log into a virtual world and deal goblins and aliens is a well-deserved reward.
But some people take escapism too far, or they gain certain social skills while losing others. Online games’ strongest asset is their ability to give players exposure to a broader world. To play with people from other areas, get different perspectives, and have a safe place to explore new ideas. But games are simulations. What we do in a game should be something we can bring back with us into the real world, whether it’s satisfaction that makes going to a hated job easier or gaining new insight into conflict resolution.
ARGs create a new simulation level for gamers, especially as arcades have slowly been disappearing (in most countries). They put us back in the public eye, but often pull us together, making us more visibly gamers than any t-shirt could. They give us a chance to flex skills we may have picked up virtually in a less virtual setting. There are certainly a lot of problems with them, and certain developers don’t seem to seriously wrestle with some of their problematic designs, but I’m happy the risk is being taken. For those of us who love gaming but are in a point in our lives where sitting on the couch or at a desk is less feasible, ARGs feels like a good option to explore.