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Pokemon GO? Whoa, whoa, whoa...

July 14, 2016

Recently, a new phenomenon has taken hold worldwide—so much so that Steven and I found ourselves discussing the implications of a game that was played on telephones, which neither one of us had ever played, and which we had both heard no buzz about prior to its release. Neither one of us knew any specifics about the game, but had heard that it was addictive, that people were playing en masse in multiple local cities, and that a large part of it involved exploring actual physical locations. Certainly, we can all use more exercise, and if an app on our phones is what motivates us to get moving, there is some merit to it. However, in discussing the ramifications of playing a game that requires real world travel, attention to detail on a telephone, and random generation of creatures, it became clear that there were some things people need to keep in mind so that they and their children can safely and legally participate in the fun.

I’m old enough to remember the buzz that Pokemon cards generated when they became available, but was never a player, nor was I familiar with any of the rules regarding the game. Steven also was never a Pokemon player, so, without an experienced guide, I set out to educate myself about the game and read a Kotaku post that was roughly titled “How to Play Pokemon GO.” To be brief, for those of you who have never played, the game uses the camera and GPS units on your telephone to get you moving in real time around real world locations in search of creatures—Pokemon—with little tangible value, but much social value in certain circles. It seems, in my limited research, that having “captured” the creatures is of significantly more value than what you do with them once you’ve captured them—namely, a fighting game pitting your best against your opponent’s best. I’m probably oversimplifying things, due to my ignorance about the game, but, through repeated play involving exploring the right spots, one can build a more and more powerful group of creatures—the limits, as with most recreation activities, are time and money (and perhaps a bit of skill).

Steven and I discussed it more and I decided that to properly write a post about the game I should download it and play it for a couple of hours, so, today, in downtown Logan, around five thirty P.M., I found myself exploring areas on foot that I’d never encountered before. I quickly realized that it was fortunate that I’d waited until post-work traffic had passed, because, as I wandered around the streets I thought that I knew so well, I often found myself crossing from one side to the other, distractedly looking at my phone for something to happen. Finally, I found it—my first spot that showed up to visit—and hurriedly climbed a fence separating the parking lot where we park from a set of train tracks. I stumbled over the train tracks, barely pausing to see if there was anything coming, my only thoughts being capturing whatever the blue marker on my map was meant to indicate. After some frustrating moments owing to an imperfect GPS system, I finally arrived at my first location—a church—and received my first rewards, which were of little consequence. Even realizing that I had just touched the tip of the iceberg (or maybe because of it), that tiny reward made me crave additional acknowledgement that I was on the right track. Due to some routine car maintenance, Steven was kind enough to allow me to carpool with him today and I took advantage of the ride home to further explore what could be accomplished, and what the perils could be of attempting to accomplish it while on a public highway.

After several hours of play in various locations, I can see the appeal of the game—it’s social, for people who want to play it in such a way. Additionally, it’s a way for people to get up and moving and get to better know their community, both geographically and personally, if the player is so inclined. However, there are some potential legal pitfalls that I see and want to bring to your attention. We at Wolfe, White & Associates are all for fun, but we also encourage responsibility and eliminating unnecessary (and self-induced) run-ins with the police.

That being said, I can think of a number of laws you could potentially break, either knowingly or unknowingly, while playing Pokemon GO. They range in severity from relatively uncommonly charged things like jaywalking (which could also result in an individual being responsible for a car wreck, being hit themselves, or a driver having to take extreme measures to avoid hitting the jaywalker), to more commonly charged crimes like criminal trespass, as it seems that the ability of Pokemon to spawn virtually anywhere is an enticement to explore everywhere—even a place to which a person doesn’t have a legal right to explore. Suffice it to say, attempting to enter onto (or into) the property of another can result in criminal charges both misdemeanor and felony in nature—especially if that entry is forced—and might result in a homeowner taking matters into his or her own hands and taking measures to protect their home up to and including using deadly force (see Mr. Wolfe’s previous post on Castle Law). It should go without saying, but don’t explore a part of the community that you wouldn’t ordinarily feel safe exploring just for the sake of playing a game—the results could be too final.

Additionally, West Virginia has a statute prohibiting the use of cell phones without hands-free devices while driving. Oftentimes, people ignore this and make telephone calls, text while driving, and the like and oftentimes people get caught. While riding in a car with my cell phone on and someone else driving, the appeal of being logged into Pokemon GO while driving was apparent. Gone was the limitation of footspeed in finding things. It was also apparent that, had I been driving, I would have been able to provide little to no attention to the actual road, had I been also logged into the game. I would equate it with having the dulled reaction time of having consumed alcohol and driving a car—perhaps even potentially more harmful, because should you stumble onto something, be it a Pokemon or a site that you visit, you have limited time to capture the Pokemon or the rewards, so one might be encouraged to focus on the game at the expense of focusing on driving the vehicle. I can anticipate, in a country where people have been charged and convicted of vehicular homicide for texting people who they had reason to know were driving, were it to be proven that someone was playing Pokemon GO prior to a deadly automobile crash, they could be held both civilly and criminally liable and would suffer harsh penalties, including a probable felony conviction and incarceration.

My point in all of this is not to discourage you from playing a game you enjoy, rather to encourage you to do it safely, with the knowledge that a bit of time away from the game to protect your health/life and the health and lives of others is always preferable to risking even the slightest accident/incident for a virtual reward. Go forth and explore the cities and communities you live in. Interact with others you see doing the same—preferably in an encouraging and healthy way. I see the appeal, though my schedule won’t allow me to continue as part of the group.

Whether Pokemon GO is the dumbest brilliant thing I’ve ever seen or the most brilliant dumb thing I’ve ever seen, frankly, I’m not sure. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter—what matters is your safety and the safety of those around you.

Best regards,