Boyle’n Bulbasaurs! Pokemon Go Augments the Dockets of a Kentucky Courthouse

More proof that augmented reality is destined to affect all of society: according to a local newspaper in central Kentucky, a 21st-century version of the Hatfields and McCoys is playing out within the local Pokemon Go gaming community–and now the law is getting involved.

It all began with a disagreement within the Boyle County, Kentucky gaming community over who would serve as the group’s admin. The feud ran deep enough that the deposed administrator and his cadre split off to form their own posse–but it didn’t stop there.

Apparently, the new group knew that a member of the original group was a convicted sex offender. As payback to their former squad, the separatists “began circulating flyers, posting pictures of his home and other messages online” to warn others that these were unsafe people with whom to hunt digital monsters. The sex offender responded by seeking–and obtaining–a personal protection order from the local court against this harassment.

And still the feud raged on. According to the article, no fewer than six protective order applications have been filed, and two were issued. “Pages upon pages of harassing messages and fighting between the two groups have been entered as evidence in the family court cases. Verbal altercations between the groups while playing the game happened while children were present, according to court record.”

All of this would be easy to write off as “ridiculous” and “silly”–as Boyle County Attorney Chris Herron himself put it–except that the County’s reaction to the whole debacle threatens to take the mess to a whole new, and scarier, level.

Rather than merely policing these rowdy gamers, County officials have been demanding that Niantic remove the Pokestops and Gyms from the local public square, where the groups apparently congregate. That reaction–to punish the speech rather than those who abuse it–is exactly the sort of knee-jerk reaction we saw from municipal authorities all over the country in response to Pokemon Go’s 2016 launch, and that I successfully challenged under the First Amendment in the 2017 Candy Lab v. Milwaukee case.

Issues like this are certainly foreseeable. For example, I blogged in 2013 about the dangers of minors and adults mixing to play location-based AR games, and I wrote in 2014 about rival AR gamers fighting over the same real estate. But these are the inevitable consequences of human being playing games with each other, not the fault of any particular game publisher. I nearly broke into fisticuffs myself once after a friend (illegally, I argued) paratrooped his infantry into my capital city 15 hours into a rousing game of Axis & Allies. Whatever came of that altercation, though, would have been on me, not Milton Bradley.

In this situation, let’s hope cooler heads prevail–both on the streets of Boyle County and in the chambers of its elected leadership.