The Ladder

Is It OK to Play Pokémon Go at Work?


Gotta catch ‘em all, right?  

Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Images by karammiri/iStock and via Bulbapedia.

Since Pokémon Go debuted in the U.S. on July 6, the augmented reality game has set off many waves of moral panic. Would thieves use it to lure unassuming players into traps? Would sexual predators use it to target children? Would it turn normal, functioning members of society into single-minded obsessives?

If you ask Boeing, the answer to that last question is yes. In a memo to staff last month, the company threw shade on employees who couldn’t resist playing the game at work and announced a ban on installing the app on company mobile devices. The tech website 9to5 obtained the memo, which reportedly reads:

Due to the popularity of Pokémon Go and users not being able to make the conscious decision to not play Pokémon at work—we had a near miss for a user getting hurt while playing the game. Due to that, we had to react and disable the Pokémon app from all devices—we had over 100 active installs of that application.

Alas, the memo does not specify the nature of the near-injury. Did an aircraft mechanic nearly walk into a propeller while hunting for Golbats? Did an engineer come close to pulling a thigh muscle while lunging for a nimble Vulpix? Did a sales manager almost sprain his finger by compulsively spinning the Photo Disc on a nearby PokéStop to collect endless Poké Balls?

We may never know. But it is clear that Boeing’s executives do not think it’s OK to play Pokémon Go at work. Are they right?

If the world were fair, playing Pokémon Go at the office would be perfectly fine. No human can work through the day without taking breaks. Adults should be free to do whatever they choose during those breaks, as long as it doesn’t distract or hurt other people. If you play Pokémon Go quietly at your desk, or conscientiously while strolling from your desk to the kitchen, no one should judge you for it.

But the world is not fair, and people do judge. And there are some things about Pokémon Go that make it particularly likely to attract judgment. Unlike checking your Gmail, scrolling through Facebook, or reading Slate, which can all be done discreetly on your desktop, Pokémon Go must be played on a mobile device. For most people in white-collar jobs, checking your mobile device at work attracts more attention—and reads more as slacking off—than doing non–work related things on your computer. Then there is the fact that Pokémon Go cannot be played with your phone laid flat on your desk. In order to catch a Pokémon, you must lift your mobile device perpendicular to the ground and shoot Poké Balls at it by swiping upward. Sometimes the Pokémon move around while you’re trying to do this, which requires changing the angle of your phone or even swiveling in your chair. The game is practically designed to draw attention to whoever’s playing it.

What this means, in practice, is that you probably shouldn’t play Pokémon Go at work unless you’re confident that your boss and co-workers won’t judge you negatively for doing so, because there is a good chance that they will notice you playing.

As with most questions about workplace etiquette, whether or not you should play Pokémon Go at work really comes down to the culture of your particular office. A Facebook friend who works as a producer for an indie game platform reports, “We play all the time at my office, but we’re also a game publisher so it might be a bit skewed. We all joined red and sometimes even go on walks together to get Pokémon.” At Slate, we have a Slack channel devoted to Pokémon Go, where we alert one another to rare Pokémon sightings in our office park and also brainstorm important Pokémon Go–related content for our website. Once a designer caught a Pikachu at his desk and invited other people over to see if they could catch one too (they could). It was a heartwarming moment. When Pokémon Go is at least kind of relevant to your work, or if you just have a casual office culture and a critical mass of players, it can become a tool that boosts morale and facilitates bonding.

If you have a public-facing job, or your office culture is a more buttoned-up, it’s probably a good idea to save your Pokémon training for after work (or at least be discreet about collecting items from PokéStops). A man I’m connected to on social media recalled that he “just had to reprimand multiple SEA-TAC employees on the clock playing as they were walking the concourses,” a fact that does not reflect well on the Seattle Airport. If you work in the service industry, playing Pokémon Go in front of customers who are waiting for help is a terrible idea.

It’s impossible to talk about Pokémon Go without talking about millennials, the generation that includes the game’s most enthusiastic players, and the generation that is the most heavily stereotyped at the office. If you work at a majority-millennial office, it probably seems like no big deal to play and talk about Pokémon Go at work. If you work at a minority-millennial office where nonmillennials still hold most of the power, playing Pokémon Go at work might reinforce your older co-workers’ worst preconceived notions about millennials: that we’re overgrown children, that we don’t take work seriously, that we feel entitled to unearned privileges. To be clear, generalizing about entire generations is stupid, but if your older bosses don’t take you seriously because of your age, it’s probably not worthwhile to alienate them further by playing Pokémon Go on their watch.

Whether your office culture allows you to catch Jigglypuffs out in the open or forces you to keep your training under wraps, it’s a good idea to set boundaries on your playing. One Pokémon Go player I chatted with keeps his phone open on his desk with the Pokémon Go app open and set to vibrate when a Pokémon enters the vicinity. I believe him when he says it’s “never taken me away from work or anything,” but I also know that I am not capable of keeping the app open on my desk without getting really, really distracted. I—and most other Pokémon Go players, I reckon—are better off keeping the app shut until we have made a conscious decision to take a break from work. No one wants to be the asshole who feels his phone vibrate during a meeting with an important client and says, “I’m so sorry, I have to take this, it’s a Scyther.”

Read more in Slate about Pokémon Go.