Embrace the Bulbasaur: despite some risks, Pokemon Go is fun for all
Yat Siu says parents should join their children for some quality time together outdoors
Pokemon Go is smashing records and sweeping the world as fans of all ages flock to a mobile game that has users chasing virtual creatures superimposed on real-world locations. With its launch this week in Hong Kong, should parents be concerned about their children playing it? Here is my perspective as a father, IT entrepreneur and game developer.
The innovative use of augmented reality and location tracking makes Pokemon Go a rarity: a video game that requires physical activity and real-world exploration. This has various benefits, like increasing physical activity among people who would otherwise be sedentary and stimulating social interaction with other players.
As you can imagine, this is incredibly unusual in the world of video games, and it presents some novel challenges. If you are a parent, the arrival of Pokemon Go means that your children will spend abnormal amounts of time outdoors attempting to capture virtual creatures with names like Bulbasaur, Charmander, or Squirtle.
Pokemon Go has encouraged millions of users around the world to go outside and search for “pokestops” and “gyms”, special game locations that are often near landmarks such as museums, art galleries, monuments, churches and parks. Players are rewarded for walking a certain distance as they hunt for Pokemons to capture, and for interacting at pokestops and gyms to advance within the game. The experience can be highly social, because players tend to gravitate towards the same pokestops or gyms where they can hang out with their friends, while making new friends as they encounter other Pokemon Go users.
Parents should explain to their children why some locations may not be suitable for the light-hearted fun of Pokemon Go – for example, the Washington DC Holocaust Memorial Museum has recently requested that the game be blocked on its premises.
There are also safety issues to address. There are obvious risks associated with children exploring the outdoors while engrossed by their smartphone screens, including traffic, strangers, and unusual circumstances that may prove disturbing or dangerous. We’ve seen news reports of Pokemon Go players having dark or dangerous experiences while playing.
Parents should take appropriate measures. First, they should be aware that there is little to stop their children from playing Pokemon Go: while game registration requires entering the user’s age, this is not an effective deterrent for eager kids.
There is a risk that a player’s location will become known to other players, because in-game beacons that determine the location of game elements are mapped to real-world locations and shared widely within the game, attracting many players to gather at each spot.
In short, the safest way for a child to play Pokemon Go is under adult supervision or in the company of many friends. Failing that, children should be encouraged to set up a buddy system when exploring the environment, and immediately alert an adult in case of problems.
Unlike many other online games, there is no chatroom in Pokemon Go where children might be approached by strangers – instead parents need to be concerned about the risk of encounters in the real world. And here, standard common sense guidelines should be applied.
You can set up a separate GPS tracking function using Google Plus locations or similar product which will give you the whereabouts of your child’s phone.
As a father of two Pokemon Go fans, I assure you that getting involved is a much better approach than letting your children play alone (or not letting them play at all). By applying a little common sense, the risks of playing Pokemon Go can be mitigated and can provide teaching moments on how to socialise safely in the real world. Sit down and discuss the game with your kids and understand it from their point of view – chances are they will be extremely excited about it.
Ideally, you will have the opportunity to play the game together with your children – it’s a great excuse to spend time together outdoors.
Ground rules for playing Pokemon Go safely
1. Protect your player identity: don’t use first and last names in your user name.
2. Be aware of your surroundings, especially the traffic.
3. Take precautions when using a smartphone in dangerous or unfamiliar locations.
4. Take an occasional break from your screen to enjoy the world around you.
5. Pokemon Go is a power-hungry app, so manage power consumption carefully and carry a spare battery.
6. Avoid playing alone, especially after dark; explore in groups of three or more friends.
7. Agree on how to deal with strangers.
8. Inform a responsible adult about the general area where you will play.
9. Set up tracking tools in a child’s device, with his or her consent.
10. Determine whether to allow online purchases for this game, and, if so, how these should be paid, in order to avoid unwanted surprises.
11. Visit locations that are crowded with other players, rather than venturing into areas where you might find yourself alone and vulnerable.
Yat Siu is the founder and chief executive of Outblaze, a digital entertainment and technology company