Kudos to Niantic for Anticipating Storms of Liability in Its New AR Gaming Mechanic

Although mainstream media still propagates the narrative that Pokemon Go crashed and burned after it exploded onto the scene in July 2016, the truth is that the game remains quite popular, continues to plow new ground in location-based AR gaming. Niantic’s latest update to the game, released last week, not only adds a third set of pesky critters to catch, but also a fascinating new mechanic that adds mixes realities on a whole new level.

Now, in addition to displaying creatures visually in a manner that makes them appear physical, the game recognizes the real-time weather conditions in the player’s physical location, and integrates them into the game’s digital environment. So, for example, snowy weather will make Ice-Type Pokemon more plentiful and stronger in combat, while rain does the same for “Water Types,” as sunshine does for “Fire Types.” Like everything else about Pokemon Go, the idea is conceptually simple, but significant enough to make for engaging gameplay and to distinguish itself from the rest of the genre. Now, players can go to the same physical location and yet have different gaming experiences depending on the day or even the time of day, making gameplay more dynamic and less predictable. In this way, the update advances Niantic CEO John Hanke’s stated goal of encouraging kids to get outside and move.

From a lawyer’s perspective, though, new methods of interacting with the physical world brings new ways for people to hurt themselves. Niantic already responded to early criticisms along this line by adding pop-up messages when the game opens warning players to avoid various dangers, and by disabling certain game features while driving. In the same vein, this new aspect of the game contains the ability to detect severe weather conditions. When weather alerts have been issued in the player’s area, instead of adding a bonus based on the type of weather, the game will display an “extreme weather” warning instead–something I discovered first-hand during Detroit’s first snowstorm of the winter yesterday. The message also says that “Pokemon seem to dislike these conditions,” a subtle assurance to kids that they won’t be missing anything by heading back inside.

In this way, Niantic has attempted to balance its new incentive for players to take advantage of the weather with an added awareness of when that weather might pose additional risks to players. Already some players are complaining that the warning is triggered too easily, but I find it a proportionate and thoughtful feature. To be sure, no court or other authority has yet found a location-based AR game maker responsible for what happens to its players outside; to the contrary, most indicators to date have suggested the opposite. But I and other have long anticipated the day when such arguments will be made, and developments such as the still-pending nuisance and trespass claims against Niantic and Milwaukee’s failed attempt to regulate the genre certainly suggest that the day is not far away. For better or worse, Niantic finds itself the leader in this industry, and as such has obviously put a lot of thought into how to develop the technology responsibly.

Kudos to them.

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