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Pokemon and the dangers of mob justice

Nature of latest smartphone game sensation raises questions, and one man's frustration over the game's unavailability here proves costly

Imagine waking up one day to find scores of people milling outside your home.

These strangers don't attempt to approach you or ring the doorbell. Instead, they creepily sit in their cars blocking your driveway, or trot up and down within sight.

Unfortunately, that was what US designer Boon Sheridan went through last Monday, thanks to the latest game sensation Pokemon Go.

In the smartphone game, players explore real, physical locations in an attempt to catch virtual creatures using an augmented reality interface.

Unbeknownst to Mr Sheridan, his house, which used to be a church, has been designated a "gym" within the game.


Crowds of people rush into Central Park in New York as a stampede forms after an appearance of a rare Pokemon. PHOTO: ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

These virtual gyms are usually places with high human traffic such as train stations or churches. Users converge on these locations and battle one another for points.

"It's very lucky that I knew about the game. I knew the mechanics behind it," he told website Games Radar. He stopped counting after more than 30 people showed up at his place. "In their defence, everyone was very respectful of the space," he added. "But it's a little weird and it could be unsettling."

Pokemon Go has been a global phenomenon, despite being released in just a handful of countries. It has driven Nintendo's shares up by 50 per cent since its release on July 6. Since then, there have been horror stories aplenty.

Desperate players have broken into private properties, while armed robbers took advantage of the game's location features to target victims.

In Wyoming, a 19-year-old discovered a dead body after climbing over a fence to get to a secluded lake. Last Thursday, two men in North San Diego County fell off a cliff in their blind pursuit of virtual creatures, and had to be rescued by firefighters.


Mr Truyen’s exchange with Singaporeans online led to enraged netizens reporting him to his employer, which then got him fired. PHOTO: SONNY TRUYEN / FACEBOOK

Yet, at the same time, there have also been instances of positive outcomes.

Several articles reported an increase in activity, particularly walking, as captured by wearable trackers such as Jawbone.

"It took Michelle Obama eight years to convince people to run outside and be active. Nintendo did it in 24 hours," said Twitter user Steve (@AgitatedStove).

Director of the US National Park Service Jon Jarvis responded to the sudden rise in park visitors in a tweet. "We'd like to welcome all you trainers to the national parks, where you might find more than just a new virtual companion," he said.

Entrepreneurial individuals were quick to jump on the bandwagon.

Uber-style drivers, for instance, posted listing on sites like Craigslist with offers like: "Take a 3hr road trip to all the gyms and stops in the area to get the best creatures and items. Snacks, drinks and Wi-Fi provided. Only $30 an hour!"

As for organisations, some animal shelters offered up their abandoned pets as companions for those out and about, while restaurants offered promotions based on a player's level.

Savvier businesses hawked their wares at PokeStops, which gives players in-game items, or purchased Lures, which attracts the Pokemon monsters to their locations. More monsters means higher human traffic to catch them, and in turn, profits.

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A pizza restaurant in New York made the news after spending $10 on Lures, and scoring a 75 per cent surge in sales last weekend.

As the game is free-to-play, it is safe to assume that landing more favourable conditions in the game would only get pricier.

Indeed its game developer, Niantic, which previously created a similar game titled Ingress while the company was under the Google umbrella, said as much in a recent interview.

Essentially, companies would need to pay to be a featured location with attractive goodies within the game, akin to an advertisement in a virtual world.

This is a business model first used in Ingress and honed to great effect.

It's early days yet for Pokemon Go, yet the nature of its gameplay throws up many questions.

Are the health hazards of oblivious players walking into traffic or unsafe locations worth the risk? Are people like Mr Sheridan able to easily opt his house out of being a "hot" location?

Do we want to be manipulated into travelling to a location for the highest bidder?

Should people stop taking all this so seriously?

With such a fast-growing fanbase, these questions would need to be answered sooner, rather than later.

BACKLASH AGAINST THE SOCIAL MEDIA WITCH-HUNT

A man was sacked last week for something he said online.

It's a scene that has played out a number of times in recent times, and some netizens have spoken out against it.

Australian Sonny Truyen took to Facebook to vent his frustrations about Pokemon Go's unavailability in Singapore. Besides his expletive-laden rant, the marketing consultant also got into a war of words with Singaporean users. 

In an exchange, he retorted that he was here "because of the lack of local talent" and that "locals can't even read".

Screen grabs of the conversation soon made their way online and were shared widely. And, in what has become a matter of course, his identity and that of his employer were soon ferreted out.

Not content with threatening him and asking him to "go back to his country", enraged netizens also reported him to his employer - property listing site 99.co - and peppered its Facebook site with promises of a boycott.

"If my director of marketing makes a boo-boo like that so publicly, it doesn't reflect well on the company," said one user.

"I'll not use 99.co's services as long as Sonny works there," said another.

Within a day of finding out about this, 99.co's chief Darius Cheung promptly sacked Mr Truyen. In a note, Mr Cheung apologised for Mr Truyen's behaviour, and asked for Singaporeans to be more tolerant.

Mr Truyen's firing also demonstrated yet again that what is said online can have very devastating real-life effects when mixed with the power of the mob.

"Stop the witch-hunts," said former Nominated MP Calvin Cheng. "The more you give in to witch-hunters the more you embolden them to go after their next victim because they feel empowered. Draw a line."

Well-known cases in recent times involved Filipino Ello Ed Mundsel Bello, Chinese MOE scholar Sun Xu and British businessman Anton Casey. The number of lesser-known cases is probably many times that.

Did these people deserve what happened to them? Perhaps.

Could things have been handled better between netizens online before it escalates to this extent? Definitely.

"Today, Singapore forced (Cheung) to make a good call for 99.co, but a bad call for society," said IT professional Eric Tachibana in a widely shared LinkedIn blog post. "I'm uncomfortable every time we allow free, albeit stupid, speech on social media to have such dire ramifications in real life, where people have real-world families, financial obligations and lifelong careers," he said.

Instead, he encouraged people to confront bad ideas with good ideas expressed maturely and positively, with the intent to educate rather than seek vengeance.

Witch-hunts might also lead to an Internet where self-censorship is the norm, for fear of losing your job.

"If that happens, we end up with a watered-down Internet, and we empower politically correct 'mobs' of (sometimes) unreasonable trolls who are mean-spirited and shallow in their own hearts and minds, to run the show," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 17, 2016, with the headline 'Pokemon and the dangers of mob justice'. Print Edition | Subscribe