By Mar Firke Program Coordinator (Prevention and Education)
The recent release of the GPS-based mobile game Pokemon Go has prompted a number of safety concerns for users. Based on players’ physical location, the popular new smartphone app allows players to “find” and “catch” digital creatures. By physically walking and exploring a particular geographic area, players can find new Pokemon and items on their phones. The game relies on physical location and motion, and some functions of the game—such as “hatching” Pokemon—require players to walk a particular distance while playing the game. The game also provides opportunities for players to have their Pokemon “battle” others in the area. The app provides a warning screen when users log in, reminding them to be alert to their surroundings; however, the temptation to walk while staring at the game on a smartphone screen is too strong for many players. While stories of players sustaining minor injuries from trips and falls are relatively common, few have spoken about how focusing intently on a smartphone screen may make players more at risk for sexual assault.
Coverage of the new game has largely focused on how it has encouraged gamers to go outside, explore their neighborhoods, and forge connections in person with other players. However, this sense of camaraderie and community shared between players can create a false sense of security, particularly when players gather at “Pokestops” and “gyms,” physical locations that serve as hotspots within the game. Perpetrators of sexual assault deliberately exploit a variety of vulnerabilities, and being immersed in a smartphone game may present an opportunity for attackers to target a distracted victim. There has already been at least one report of a player sexually assaulting another player in such a location, and another incident where a man allegedly touched small children inappropriately while at a Pokestop.
Additionally, there are reports that one Pokestop in California was located at a facility housing released sex offenders—a potentially dangerous situation for the game’s young audience. It is critical that as we discuss these incidents and potential risks, we hold perpetrators accountable for their actions—we cannot blame a smartphone game (or the users who may be victimized while playing it) for sexual violence or harassment.
The location-based nature of the game may also pose a risk for victims of intimate partner violence and stalking. At first blush, reports that users' location data have revealed sensitive personal information may seem frivolous or entertaining. In the hands of a stalker or an abusive partner, however, the location data provided in Pokemon Go might reveal a victim’s daily habits, current whereabouts, or safehouse location. It is therefore also important that location-based apps, including Pokemon Go, be included in safety planning with survivors of sexual violence, dating violence, and stalking.