Massively on the Go: How to fix Pokemon Go’s longstanding player safety failures

Pokemon Go's safety failure stems from a lack of de-escalation

This article is part four of a four-piece series on safety in Pokemon Go as well as other Niantic games. You can read all four pieces right here.
I’ve talked at length now about my stalking situation in Pokemon GO and beyond. Niantic, across three AR games, has made apps that do enable stalking. Yes, it is nice to meet other real people playing your game, but certain features, like flower trails revealing your real-time walking path, clearly go over the line. Niantic’s support team, through ignorance or apathy, often refuses to aid players. Support isn’t even equipped to dispense tips on solving the problem, instead attempting to pawn off responsibility to local law enforcement, who have little to no understanding of the situations Niantic itself created for society via its location-based games. It’s one big circular system of passing the buck, with no one in power taking responsibility.

But there may be hope. I have a few suggestions that an AR company could make use of and some ideas local communities may be able to take on as well.

Blinking in the face of the customer

I don’t want to go through the whole history of how terrible Niantic’s customer service is, but you can get a peek at how bad it is by looking at it from the top.

John Hanke penned a blog entry this summer that called the metaverse a “dystopian nightmare” in an attempt to support an augmented reality movement while pushing development of features that haven’t been popular since 2016. However, based on early interactions with upset fans, it’s clear that Niantic works from a typical marketing/PR speak approach even when directly facing people with problems. In the above clip from the disastrous Go Fest 2017, Hanke attempts to go on stage with a typical speech. Ceremonial pomp, a self pat on the back, and comments on the weather, all precluding any kind of recognition of player difficulties, not to mention an apology, which I do not recall hearing. In fact, Hanke made an attempt to blame the phone companies.

However, as Verizon was quick to point out, other services, such as Youtube (as seen from above) were working, clearly showing that the core problem lay with Niantic. Hanke’s pandering to the audience did win him some brownie points in the moment, but even from other angles, it was clear that his intro turned the audience against him.

To be clear, some Niantic representatives (I specifically exclude third-party PR representatives who do help) often operate the same way as Hanke did, taking cues from the boss. Remember how one lead POGO dev at E3 2017 tried to hand-wave away concerns about multiple accounts because they’re “not allowed under the TOS”? Multi-accounting is still such a significant issue in the game, in spite of players reporting it with in-game screenshots, video, and chat admissions. In fact, in one Pokemon Go player council I participated in, I was the only person in seven without multiple accounts. The problem is utterly pervasive, and Niantic ignores it.

I bring this up to show how low the bar is set for Niantic customer support. Hanke’s distractions and appeals to players did win some people over, especially the promises of special events, but the company failed hard in the moment, and it had nothing to do with player safety. Niantic ended up literally paying the price of that failure thanks to a lawsuit, but when it comes to player safety, the company has only responded to a massive recent COVID backlash. Unsafe features from POGO not only remain but were made worse in the recently released Pikmin Bloom, and the customer service for both games has been atrocious at dealing with player safety concerns, both in real-time and with follow-ups.

Suggestions for devs and players

A lot of stalking revolves around gyms. The simplest way to end this? Remove timestamps for anything with an objective. It might also help if game nodes could hold more users and randomize which ones are seen, or perhaps reveal them based on some kind of internal rating (like reputation of the strength of the units they’re using). This would allow players to still have their names in lights from time to time, but also allow more people to participate in incentivized objectives without feeling as if they might draw too much attention to themselves.

Barring that, Niantic needs to track more gym-related data specifically to address finding and stopping stalking. The system should be revamped so as not to be abusable by stalkers (no more timestamps, for one) and sadly also to be less directly PvP-related. Perhaps have gyms more akin to gyms in the main series, but have the game occasionally clone a player’s team and make that the “gym leader.”

But as things stand, low tech-wise, Niantic should be more proactive about stalking/harassment. If someone is using one of the company’s games to harass a player, Niantic should be the one contacting local law enforcement, especially if Niantic doesn’t want government officials to step in and start creating laws to restrict the types of things Niantic does. Niantic can argue that its game is virtual and that it has have tons of in-app warnings, but as POGO stands right now, it’s akin to letting kids use their town as a giant paintball arena. The kids need to be responsible for their actions and abide by local laws and location restrictions, but Niantic needs to alert the community to what’s going on. We saw so many law enforcement communities have misunderstandings about the game because for the most part, Niantic just didn’t care enough to acknowledge or take responsibility for its own game’s consequences in different communities.

In fact, as someone who watched the rest of the world act as test dummies for the company, I was relieved and confused when the Japanese government had to roll out with some public service announcements for staying safe. Niantic didn’t do it. I am glad someone is making AR games, but especially since Pokemon GO entered the global vocabulary, AR companies must understand that they are obligated to lead the charge in educating the public on how their games overlap with the real world, especially when they cause friction.

Japan’s push to learn more about the game and educate its population made the game’s release feel more smooth than what we witnessed among English-speaking populations, namely because it pushed safety and manners ahead to the forefront of a tech issue that a tech giant itself had created. The government’s emphasis on educating the public made handling the game’s release much easier.

This is why I feel confident in saying that what Niantic’s support team really needs is to work on education and de-escalation. Education is step one, but especially for a support team, de-escalation should be a priority. I say this as a gamer who has had to talk people down from stalking and aggressive game actions, not just in Pokemon GO but in other online PvP games. I’ve seen players and devs do the same for me when I was a problematic teen myself. It’s an effective first step. It can help de-escalate the situation by making the stalker feel as though the community (especially police) are looking for him. Second, it gets the local community to pay more attention. And third, it specifically gets the local gaming communities to air out and tackle problems so that hopefully they don’t cause problems with non-gamers.

Niantic could notify local authorities of social problems, educate them about how someone is misusing the game, and perhaps provide data on where the stalking is occurring. Again, lots of it is gym-based, so having police hanging signs near the real world gyms (perhaps on a template Niantic makes with an official logo that law enforcement can use) about the legal ramifications of stalking might help deter it. If Niantic wanted to, it could also add a digital red-strike on gym images in the area for a week also reminding in-game players about the seriousness of the situation, just in the off-chance that the stalker is doing so only virtually.

If Niantic cared, it could also alter gyms reportedly used for harassment. Descriptions and images could change to warn bad actors that there are complaints and that their behavior has real-world consequences. It lets Niantic off the hook for lacking data that could take time to develop with a simple image/description that might make stalkers think twice about continuing to pursue their victims.

And finally, Niantic could just stop revealing individual players to the whole community. It’s funny how POGO’s gym battles reveal to everyone that there’s a gym being fought over in PvP, but you have to constantly click on them to see if anyone’s doing a co-op raid. I think showing where a group of players are is safe enough, but flower trails for every player still clearly rings as unconscionable to me, both in terms of game design and intended outcomes. Location-based games should bring people together, but not to our doorsteps.

To be clear, I don’t actually expect Niantic to do any of this. Heck, Niantic doesn’t even offer an identity change kit (like the faction-change medallion, low cost clothing, or allowance to try to dissuade the victim from utilizing the gym system that’s obviously at the core of the stalking issue). My general feeling is that the company cares more about finding high-tech solutions – and selling the results – than solving any problems it creates in its wake. So for players, this may be an alternative: Talk to your local law enforcement, or spread the word about areas where harassment is taking place.

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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