Not long after I downloaded Pokémon Go, I found myself standing on a dimly lit corner in the middle of Brownsville, Brooklyn. Keenly aware of the local crime stats, I rapidly stopped scavenging doduos to looking for better lighting. When you’re young, black and smart, you know not to loiter at intersections in low-income areas. You know to put your phone away and leave.
I’m not the first person to observe the black experience of the blockbuster augmented-reality game can be unnerving – if not outright dangerous. But as the game has gotten big and bigger, becoming a cultural touchstone over the course of only a couple of weeks, it’s worth reminding fans enraged by the removal of measured tracking and the pokébandonment of the Olympic Village that those are not the major problems with the game. It’s easy to forget that when you’re on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, where Niantic Labs is located, and unwise to forget that in East New York. It’s easy to forget that there is a population of players, one that includes myself, frustrated with more than game mechanics.
Because the design of Pokémon Go specifically requires players to remain on their phones and wander their neighborhoods, those who live in places more exposed to crime take risks each time they play. The creators of the game encourage players to get out and explore areas in order to discover new Pokémon. That’s a problem and Niantic’s approach to populating the world with pocket monsters, placing them at crowdsourced spots migrated over from the failed AR game Ingress feels irresponsible. But the fake animals aren’t really the problem. The big issue in lower-income areas is that the locations Niantic has designated as gyms are not the sort of places you want to go — specifically if you’re playing Pokémon Go.
“People that walk around with smartphones are targets to be robbed,” Maada Thomas, a Go player and college student, reminded me. “That’s the whole premise.”
Thomas is optimistic enough to think that a significant number of players could actually serve as a crime deterrent, making potentially dangerous areas too populated to attract criminals – but he has little interest in leading that charge. And understandably so: According to the New York City crime map, his likelihood of being murdered is highest when he’s in the South Bronx, East New York, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Those areas are heavily policed, but that brings another set of risks for young black and latinx men. Its difficult to say just how perilous a specific area might be; but a Pikachu isn’t incentive enough to find out.
Kevin Matos, a 23-year-old player from the Bronx told me he was also concerned about playing in his neighborhood. He said he was “skeptical of heading into the projects to catch a Charmander.” He prefers to avoid the projects entirely, but says this has made it harder to take over gyms and level up. In a sense, his location makes it harder for him to play competitively.
And it’s not like he can just go elsewhere.
At the same time, traveling to more well-to-do neighborhoods can also be dangerous for minority players. Whether or not the publicity surrounding cases of police brutality and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement have heightened tensions – or merely brought facts to the fore – it’s clear that being young and black in a wealthy neighborhood can lead to confrontations. Because early augmented reality games were played overwhelmingly by affluent whites, affluent white neighborhoods are the best places to play. Black people are not necessarily excluded from these areas, but there is, by no means, equal access.
No wonder Central Park has been full of minority players. It’s not neutral territory exactly, but for players from East New York, where there are hazards and endless blocks between Pokéstops and gyms, it feels like a safer, less stressful place to divide one’s concentration.
In an attempt to remedy complaints about Pokéstops and gyms, Niantic recently created a form that allows players to submit and remove Pokéstops and gyms. That said, players submitting that form receive a note afterward stating that the company’s not currently accepting new Pokéstops and gym locations — meaning that the effort is more about treating churches and police station with respect than about addressing different populations equally. If Niantic really wanted to get players involved, it would create environments that are safe for everybody, not simply individuals with a higher socioeconomic status. The company should, at the very least, create a working form and honor requests for new areas. Specifically, they should do this in high crime communities. Otherwise, the access disparity will persist and augmented reality will be functionally segregated.