On Feb. 27, 1996, the first Pokémon games, Pokémon Red Version and Pokémon Green Version, were released in Japan for the Nintendo Gameboy. After six years of development that nearly drove Game Freak, Pokémon’s parent company, into bankruptcy, Satoshi Tajiri and his comrades had taken the first step toward realizing his dream for the series: giving kids the same thrill and anticipation that he experienced collecting bugs and tadpoles as a child. The success of the video games would soon lead to a separate trading card game, a manga adaptation, and a hyperpopular anime series that transformed Pokémon from a popular game to a global sensation.
Twenty years later, Pokémon is still one of the most popular franchises in the world. The seventh generation of Pokémon video games—Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon—came out Friday for the Nintendo 3DS and is widely expected to be one of the highest-selling games in the series. Yet it’s unlikely to match the popularity of Pokémon Go, the latest and most divergent adaptation to the franchise to date, released for iOS and Android earlier this year. Pokémon Go’s use of augmented reality, location-based gaming, and mobile technology to collect Pokémon in the real world, plus a heavy dose of nostalgia, drove record-breaking first-week downloads (and drove some distracted players to make mistakes like falling off cliffs).
The conversation around Pokémon Go has already changed the way we think about games, particularly how they encourage us to interact with one another and our environments. But these conversations miss a significant point: The closer augmented reality and location-based gaming bring us to fully realizing Satoshi’s dream for Pokémon, the fewer people get to participate in that dream.
This is because Pokémon Go’s emphasis on real-time location as an element of gameplay introduces real-time location-based inequity. Before the app, Pokémon games came with shared experiences. A person starting Pokémon Blue and another starting Pokémon Red play through the same story with the same ending, save for a few exceptions. As James Paul Gee, a professor of literary studies at Arizona State University, highlights in his writings on education, these games are leveled playing fields that can enable and encourage learning. (ASU is a partner with Slate and New America, where I work, in Future Tense.) He says that with the analog version, there is no “Pokémon Gap” between the poor or players of color and their peers.
But Pokémon Go is different, because it is structured around Pokéstops, checkpoints based on popular real-world locations. As documented by outlets as varied as Grist, the Belleville News-Democrat, and the Urban Institute, the concentration of Pokéstops is significantly lower in predominantly black and ethnically diverse neighborhoods and in rural areas.
This is significant because interacting with a Pokéstop is the only free way a player can collect items critical to the game, like Pokéballs and Potions. Without them, Pokémon Go can’t be played as designed. Players who live in areas with low concentrations of Pokéstops experience a less complete version of Pokémon Go than their peers, and often have to resort to making in-app purchases to level the playing field. These implications are made even more troubling when considering that Pokéstop distribution is divided by lines of race and wealth. The disparities that traditionally poorer, smaller, and less-white communities already face are replicated in Pokémon Go, unlike in other Pokémon games before it.
Four months since Pokémon Go came out and these criticisms began, there have been no large-scale adjustments to geographical data to correct uneven Pokéstop distribution. Even though Niantic’s CEO acknowledged the severity of the issue and mentioned plans to crowdsource Pokéstop user submissions in an interview with Recode in October, the Pokémon Go support page still suggests players look for local parks and other “interesting locations” in their area. In fact, Niantic has instead focused on updates intended to sweeten the experience for the players who stuck around. Even the next massive update, which will reportedly make good on the promise of adding trading, player vs. player battling, and new Pokémon, appears to be lacking a geographic data correction. Adjusting and correcting the software to improve player experience is an attainable, short-term goal; adjusting for and correcting reality, and the inequities baked into it, is infinitely more complicated.