Massively on the Go: How Niantic evades handling stalking and harassment in Pokemon Go and other ARGs

This article is part one of a four-piece series on safety in Pokemon Go as well as other Niantic games. You can read all four pieces right here.
Shortly before Pokemon GO was released in 2016, I was hanging out with someone who played Ingress. She would stand in the middle of narrow Japanese sidewalks or even in the road to hit virtual targets I was unable to see, but one of the worst aspects was when she’d come home and inform me that someone had followed her via the game.

Combined with a player’s death almost a month before launch (which was the second time an Ingress player died while playing), I had begun jotting down issues and possible solutions for Pokemon GO for my own benefit, such as the need for a Streetpass-esque feature. I figured a company spun out of Google would be able to use analytics to at least have some sort of emergency help command/button for real-world issues.

Not only was I wrong, but the game was bad enough that even MOP was deluged with articles and needed crime- and violence-related POGO tags. Someone started a death tracker for the RL issues the game was linked to. And yes, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve become the target of a stalker, and Niantic’s been a beacon of ineptitude and poor customer service.

Over the course of this week, MOP’s Massively on the Go column will be tackling these subjects in a three-part series. Let’s dig in.

Case study: When the inept teach the ignorant

After over four years abroad and two more working for a Japanese company partially in a customer service capacity, I’m still not used to how bad customer service is in America. That being said, I’ve had fewer problems with my cable company than I’ve had with Niantic, which is located in California. The problem is that, from the top down, the AR company is always trying to shift the blame when things go wrong with the studio and the game, much like the disastrous Go Fest 2017 and TOS-breaking multi-account users situation.

Although one might understand this from a legal perspective, we’re talking about safety today. At least in California, property owners are generally at fault if someone gets injured on said property. As Niantic builds virtual worlds on top of the real world, you might think it should be responsible for any misfortune in the real world that occurs because of its virtual one. Of course, you would be wrong, but the company then incentivized unsafe actions, which has the potential to change the legal equation.

While it’s not certain death, stalking is actually a big problem in Pokemon GO, even when people are just doing it for game purposes and not to intentionally intimidate a real player in the real world, which I’ve personally experienced.

Although I’ll mostly be talking about myself in this series of articles on Niantic’s support “expertise” in relation to my now over two-month long effort to find even one studio rep with concern for victimized players, I do want to acknowledge that stalking affects all kinds of players, including community leaders. It’s not just a problem in the western world, and people have used the game (and been prosecuted) to track former partners.

Stalking has been far too easy to execute since release, and even “spoofer/stalkers” often seem to be locals. Despite what alleged former employees have said, Niantic not only has a stalker problem but has one that pops up across its game library, not just in POGO. Worse, some information it may not track due to privacy is also the reason Niantic cannot easily find the stalkers despite the issues stemming from its incentivization. I know because this is exactly my situation.

Hard at work but hardly working

I don’t want to be too detailed about the stalking method, but it’s essentially the same as in Ingress: check gyms for your target, check the time stamps, and compare that to surrounding gyms to find the target’s route. Especially for locals, you’ll find patterns and be able to intercept them, especially as gyms reveals in real-time if someone is battling there.

That last aspect is how you can show someone you’re near him. I’ve had people approach me because of this, but it’s often fine because we can hash things out or even meet new players. People have used this to follow me around in the game in the past, though. Aside from a neighbor I now get along with, other stalkers only lasted a day or so at worse, and it was usually easy to work out. (This is doesn’t include law enforcement run-ins due to my ethnicity, which is a separate but related issue.)

However, it becomes uncomfortable when the gyms aren’t used for the game mechanic: generatic premium currency, or Pokecoins. It’s normal for people to take over gyms. Less scrupulous players may use multiple attacks to “team kill” allies out of a gym so they can drop off their own pokemon, but the basic idea is that gyms are in the game to take over.

My most recent and severe occurrence started mid-October 2021, when a friend noticed I’d been targetted at multiple gyms. My friend remained in most of said gyms, but I was removed from them, making it clear that I was the target, especially in the few gyms that were left neutral. Again, gyms are to be taken, not left alone. We doubled-back later, but that player then followed us again while remaining anonymous.

This happened in a busy area during an event, so we thought nothing of it, but then it happened to me the next day, live, as I was playing. Right when I took a gym, someone was battling at it. But I’d realized someone had done that with all the gyms I’d just visited as well, creating a trail of empty gyms that directly led to me. I went back to the first gym, simply dropped everything off once the “winner” protection lock allowed it, but the stalker once again kicked my pokemon out and left a trail that matched my walking path as I was walking. I even left the area to visit a popular local park where, once again, I was followed.

Again, I play in an area that’s reasonably safe, but near roads and buildings, so it can be difficult to figure out who is following me. It was possible that it wasn’t someone physically stalking me and following me around the neighborhood; initially, I thought maybe someone was spoofing (cheating) to trace me personally and follow me around digitally in the game, every time I went out to play. At this point, it seems to be at least a combination of the two, but either way, it’s extremely creepy stalker behavior that affects my safety.

Worse, though, is that the person uses this method even if he can’t find me, and he starts and ends this trail around my real-life home. When I reported this to Niantic, I got a fairly stock reply many hours later. Some support staff claimed it wasn’t possible, so I had to describe to Niantic support how Niantic’s game’s gym system can be abused.

The studio pushed the issue onto law enforcement, suggesting I contact local authorities – not just the first time, but every night since then, in every report where I tried to give Niantic as much information as I could so it could do something about the player stalking me. Gym names, zip codes, street names, my route – everything.

Now, most law enforcement in the US are uneducated on how to handle stalking and online harassment. Swatting is still a serious problem. But I nevertheless dutifully contacted my local law enforcement agency and gave it Niantic’s proper department contact for my issue. But it went nowhere. Even if I knew exactly who the person was (not simply the player), law enforcement could only take a report as things currently stand. I could potentially get a restraining order in this state, but again, I would need to know who the person is, and Niantic won’t tell me.

3/1/2022 Update: The stalker reported a pokestop near my home to get it deleted, showing that they either know me or have followed me home via the gym timestamps. Niantic’s system is easily abused, as we’ve previously mentioned. Other Wayfarer volunteers noticed the oddity of the deletion, especially since there were other, similar points left intact and because the pokestop was removed only from POGO. After some back and forth, a Niantic support employee admitted the stop was removed from a request, but as an active member of my community, I know it wasn’t from this neighborhood or its home owner’s association. Updating the local police on the situation led them to refer me to an FBI cybercrimes site.

I bring up swatting because it’s a concern too. While my stalker may not be as open as some others have, his searches for me have increased as I’ve tried to elude him. As the stalking has ramped up over several months, I had to ask my local police department to advise me and ensure I’m on some kind of list of likely SWAT victims. It has been a battle.

This isn’t to say I rely on only Niantic and the police. I contacted nearly all of my local group chats saying that if there was an issue someone had with me, I would be happy to discuss it. Some even helped try to track my stalker down or report him to Niantic as well, with zero results.

After about a month of reporting, I was told by a customer service employee that Niantic basically doesn’t have the relevant data to give law enforcement. Even if the police understood the situation, they would need to pull a lot of information from Niantic, especially since one of my former gaming groups held several problematic individuals and likely suspects. I can’t help but quote Raph Koster’s history lesson of real-life gang violence forming around MMOs here.

You’re the client, and there’s no PK switch in real life. In Ultima Online circa 1998, when we were available in Hong Kong, we suffered through the problem of actual real life triad gangs forming guilds and engaging in PK wars. Then they took those fights to the real life streets. Far as I know, Pokémon GO doesn’t have a “call the admins, uh, I mean police” panic button. Make no mistake: by creating teams at all, this game has put in place at least a little context encouraging players to aggress one another. The developers only hope that it only happens via game-sanctioned means.

Niantic ignored the history of the genre in its design of POGO, even though Hanke himself was there for the birth of MMOs. No one is perfect, but it’s severely disappointing that between his time with Meridian 59 and Ingress, Hanke’s allowed game features that could potentially be used to stalking blossom into essentially a stalker’s dream appPikmin Bloom

While I don’t know whether my stalker used the game to find my home or Pokemon GO trail via Niantic’s latest game, my friend and I both had issues with Pikmin Bloom, which created our trail in places we did not want it. The in-game options to delete said trails failed, not just in real-time but in the coming days/week afterward, making it easy for bad actors to follow us out in the world. As I’ve written before, Niantic support once again was either misinformed or willfully deceitful about the ability to get rid of the flower trails. I had zero follow-ups from support in this game too: No one checked if the trail had gone away, asked if I’d executed the tasks incorrectly, wondered whether it was a visual bug, or anything else.

I understand that a game developer is not law enforcement, but studios do have an obligation to act when activities they incentivize in the game spill beyond the confines of said game. While someone may get angry at how good you are at basketball, he has to show up at the court to play. Off the court, it’s no longer a game, which is immediately clear to all “players” and audience members.

However, Pokemon GO turns the whole world into the court, and while it’s mostly located in specific areas, the design makes it so the virtual “hoops” around you can be toxic enough to affect your everyday life – and you have no recourse to protect yourself. It’d be one thing if Niantic had a thoughtful safety protocol, but any evidence of that protocol’s existence indicates that it’s a minor consideration at its absolute best. And that’s what we’ll talk about in part two of this series.

Massively OP’s Andrew Ross is an admitted Pokemon geek and expert ARG-watcher. Nobody knows Niantic and Nintendo like he does! His Massively on the Go column covers Pokemon Go as well as other mobile MMOs and augmented reality titles!

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