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What Should the Government Do When 'Pokemon Go' Causes Real World Damage?

If this recent case in Milwaukee is any indication, there aren't many options.

Cameron Kunzelman

Cameron Kunzelman

Still from Pokémon Go trailer. Courtesy of Nintendo

Video games are often in conversation with “real world” events, and last year’s Pokémon Go literalized that idea with augmented reality mechanics that charged players with heading out into the world and capturing beloved pocket monsters in parks, restaurants, and even memorials. The game drew massive crowds, whether it was to capture monsters or to attack digital gyms with real-world locations. With so many people, there were bound to be negative effects on some public property.

Some of those negative effects took place at Lake Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where thousands of dollars in damage were done to the park, as Don Behm reported for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. After not being able to hold Pokémon Go developers Niantic Inc. accountable for the damage, the situation prompted Milwaukee County to pass an ordinance last February that would require all augmented reality (AR) games or apps to apply for and receive a permit before they could use those real-world locations in their game. In other words, if you wanted to put a gym in any Milwaukee County public park, you had to go through the city first.

It appears that this does not fly at all in the eyes of the laws of the United States. AR game developer Candy Lab took Milwaukee County to federal district court over the ordinance, and a judge found that the ordinance both violates principles of free speech and gives county employees far too much discretion. As of this week, the Milwaukee was recommended the county settle to the tune of $83,000.

The case is a phenomenal example of what happens when games, which we tend to think of as being self-contained, bleed over into daily life. This is like when government agencies have to rule on the divides between gambling and gameplay, or when harassment starts in a game and spills over into phone calls and people showing up on your doorstep.

Games are not hermetically sealed in a bubble. Games have real-world consequences because our games exist in concert with our laws, our policing, and our politics. These systems are not separate. They are all intertwined. As augmented reality becomes more ubiquitous, we might start seeing these different systems of organizing life come into contact (and create friction) more often.