We probably don’t need to tell our audience this, given that while yes, you all have phones, you’re also typically not obsessive about gaming on them in the same way as other gamers. MMORPGs work better on PCs. We get it. Nevertheless, Kotaku’s recent deep-dive into the data-collection goals of Pokemon Go company Niantic will probably be an eye-opener of the sort that makes you pick up your phone and block all your apps from whatever permissions you’ve unwittingly given them. Or delete them altogether. Or maybe just set your phone on fire and throw your wifi in the bin. Maybe just do that.
Kotaku peeks into Niantic and Niantic boss John Hanke themselves, from the rise of Google Geo and Google Maps and Google Earth, the Wi-Spy scandal, and the dawn of Niantic Labs, which as MMO players will recall built Ingress, and then Pokemon Go and Harry Potter Wizards Unite, out of the original Google Field Trip app. Pokemon Go, of course, blew up in a global way – and in a legal way, sparking endless debates over virtual property rights, lawsuits, and actual crimes.
But it’s Niantic’s data collection and use that Kotaku seems particularly interested in, and it’s where the concern starts to rise. The publication sought data from EU players who’d filed GDPR requests with Niantic to see just what it is that Niantic’s been collecting.
“The files we received contained detailed information about the lives of these players: the number of calories they likely burned during a given session, the distance they traveled, the promotions they engaged with. Crucially, each request also contained a large file of timestamped location data, as latitudes and longitudes. In total, Kotaku analyzed more than 25,000 location records voluntarily shared with us by 10 players of Niantic games. On average, we found that Niantic kept about three location records per minute of gameplay of Wizards Unite, nearly twice as many as it did with Pokémon Go. For one player, Niantic had at least one location record taken during nearly every hour of the day, suggesting that the game was collecting data and sharing it with Niantic even when the player was not playing.”
For example, looking into one player’s history, Kotaku was able to figure out where he or she lived, worked, and ate – apparently, Burger King was on the menu a lot. The journalists tracked another player’s dog-walking and pharmacy habits. None of the players who volunteered to hand data to Kotaku seemed aware just how much Niantic had on them, and like other companies confronted with these problems (including Google), Niantic insisted that the collection of location data while the game isn’t being played was a “bug” that it has now fixed. It also claims that data are looked at only in the aggregate – that nobody really cares whether you eat at Burger King and that it doesn’t sell its users’ location data.
But of course, it’s perfectly content to use those data to lure players to retailers like Starbucks. Moreover, Kotaku points out that Niantic has been busily filing patents related to gameplay-related data collection, including one for a “commercial game feature module”:
“[It’s] a technology that lets advertising partners tweak a game’s features in realtime to better incentivize nearby users to visit. An app using the tech could get requests from advertisers to do things like ‘locating virtual elements at specified locations in the virtual world,’ or ‘providing virtual items and/or enhanced powers to specific players.” It also describes the technology’s ability to ‘continuously monitor the positions of players” and based on this information ‘identify players with a predefined radius of commercial activity.’
Extra bonus points to the article for the constant embedded ads for Google Stadia, tailored to my search history and article content, no doubt.
In response to the piece, MMORPG designer Raph Koster tweeted out his 2017 GDC talk about learning from MMOs when it comes to the ethics of virtual worlds. If it sounds familiar, it might be because we covered it back in 2017 too – or because devs like Koster have been issuing these warnings for a very long time and not enough people are listening.