Massively on the Go: Pokemon Go’s Niantic seems to care more about data collection than public safety

    
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I was hoping to be more positive as Pokemon GO’s Las Vegas Hoenn Tour is fast approaching, but ever consistent in disappointment, Niantic has given the playerbase another reminder as to why so many people stopped giving it money in 2022. In a new support tweet, the company claims that players who submit “low quality AR scans” will be blocked from the feature.

There are many, many problems with this. Niantic’s built a history of being unsafe for players, not only with stalking issues and incentivizing unsafe gameplay (even before POGO) but also rolling back popular social-distancing changes in the middle of new variants, several times. Today on Massively on the Go, let’s discuss how this latest announcement once again shows Niantic’s disregard for player safety as well as how the same abusive tech actually could have been used to help the playerbase instead.

Here’s the tweet that started the firestorm in the community.

If Niantic thinks that restricting the quality of scans instead of retooling them will suddenly generate a significant increase in good scans, it’ll only be furthering its image as being unable to understand not only game development but user experience. As press, I’ve asked both through PR and directly what benefits AR scans would have for the Pokemon GO playerbase since the feature went live, and I have never received an answer. At best, we’ve seen demos where pokemon followed someone. Cute, but no one even bothers with AR catching outside of abusing a certain bug, let alone AR+.

That’s barely the start. The company’s own description of how to do an AR scan is problematic on several levels. Casually walking is considered bad form, and the player is asked to openly focus on the Pokestop, with the linked video making it obvious that the company wants to you draw attention to yourself. By the company’s own best practices, the AR scanning is bad and creates discomfort both for the player and surrounding non-players at the least. I would be very worried about using this feature as a minority in my community, and I’ve already been stopped or watched by officers and security representatives in my parks several times this year without doing scans.

Player-task AR scans also turn players into free labor, effectively taking potential jobs out of the market. That’s already gross, especially when, at best, we’re paid with a single poffin in return for giving Niantic data it should not be trusted with. This is an issue we’ve long covered: Founder John Hanke was in charge during Google’s Wi-Spy scandal, Niantic’s games have enabled stalkers at least since 2015, Pikmin Bloom’s flower trails that create literal trailers for players to follow immediately raised stalking concerns, and the company’s brand-wide chat system, Campfire, was caught broadcasting private info in defiance of players’ security settings.

Despite that, Niantic built a whole system of pokestop leveling via AR scans that is basically ignored in the various areas I’ve played, including an area that sees multiple full raid group lobbies (20 players each) during Wednesday Raid Nights. I don’t think I’ve seen anything get higher than level 1 of 3. Again, I’m playing in environments ranging from small community parks to well-known local hotspots that have the player capacity (not spoofing/multi-accounting) to get the job done if players cared. The game’s overall health is low enough that one hotspot here still has trouble getting fully lured during Community Days, which are often the biggest monthly event the game has. If people can’t even help themselves with lures for the most salient aspect of the game – catching pokemon – then it’s no wonder they’d ignore a feature so incongruous with normal social activity and gameplay.

The only way the feature would make a lick of sense would be if Niantic requested Pokestop scans from players who may be spoofers. I’m sure the company already has automated systems to check for features like recognizable ground, sky, and maybe even the focal point of the Pokestop itself, and we know Google tech (which Niantic leans on) already watches out for human faces so that could help with some of the scanning issues.

Requiring spoofers to do AR scans would force the player to show Niantic Support that the spoofers are physically in the area the game thinks they are. Perhaps the “Are you there?” location-confirmation check could trigger when no incense/eggs/other buffs are on and you’re moving at a certain speed, and further check for finger interaction (such as throwing a ball or going through menus) to ensure that someone is actively playing instead of, say, walking with family and using a Pokemon Go+ to auto-catch. The location-confirmation could then pop up and require the player to scan the closest Pokestops (to prevent potential trespassing) and prevent the player from receiving spawns and items until it’s completed. 

Not only would that help with spoofing, but it would make multi-accounting (something that is against the TOS but almost never enforced unless linked with spoofing) a tad harder, as many multi-accounters also use a vehicle to play, which also would help cut back on that safety issue. Heck, it could be a general punishment if Niantic still wanted to milk players for free labor. Accused of stalking? AR scan.

But Niantic isn’t even innovative enough to do that. I’m not in the bad scanning group myself (yet?), but the fact that Niantic wants to punish players over a lack of questionably ethical data collection instead of, say, fixing PvP systems that have enabled stalkers since Ingress really shows where Niantic’s priorities lie: not with player/public safety, but with building up its own poorly functioning tech for profit at player expense.

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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