By Peck Sangiambut
Media coverage in recent months may be focusing on Niantic’s continuous battle with Pokémon GO exploits and the game’s apparent demise, but here at Geothink we still see great potential in augmented reality (AR) games to promote community engagement. Our research examines communities and citizen-government engagement, particularly through geospatial technologies such as the geoweb. At the height of the craze, Pokémon GO resulted in conspicuous movements of people through engagement with a location-based service. This provides us with a convenient case study of the potential effects of a location-based service that causes movement of people through gamification. Geothink has also investigated gamification in urban planning and citizen engagement through platforms such as Minecraft and the precursor to Pokémon GO, Ingress. A recent publication from Geothink student, Lisa Mather Ward, and her supervisor, Dr. Pamela Robinson, has looked at Minecraft’s potential for public consultation.
Pokémon GO and Geography
Geothink co-applicant Dr. Claus Rinner (Ryerson University, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies) has written a post introducing geographic analysis concepts with Pokémon GO. In it, he writes about geographic distribution, catchment areas, and links them to geospatial analysis methods such as buffering, distance decay, and suitability mapping. Some of the built-in distributions of Pokémon (such as having certain types of Pokémon available for certain types of terrain, weather, continents, and time of day) are similar to what we look for in ecological species distribution. The same concepts and techniques are widely used by corporations conducting market research, retail analysis, and location intelligence. As such, Pokémon Go is a great way to introduce basic geographic concepts to students and the interested public.
A Medium for Contestation of Urban Places?
Movements of people that are a direct result of their interaction with a mobile app could result in new contestations of space and place. Pokémon GO is potentially one tool that influences and reassigns cultural identity and platial meaning. In downtown Montreal, we have seen a regular congregation of Pokémon trainers develop around Cabot Square to catch Pokémon, level up, and wrestle for control over its gym. Will this new influx of people change the identity of Cabot Square? Or has this already happened?
Geothink Head, Dr. Renee Sieber (McGill University, Department of Geography and School of Environment), has spoken of the potential abuses or biases that may result from the placement of Pokémon and pokéstops on the map. Algorithms are the determinant for a pokéstop and Pokémon spawn locations. However, as Sieber emphasises, technology itself should never be assumed to be neutral. Implicit biases may be injected by programmers, managers of the technology, and the underlying data. For example, it has been noted that certain neighbourhoods are poorer in pokéstops, potentially due to the distribution biases in crowdsourced contributions that formed a part of the underlying pokéstop dataset.
On the other hand, does location-based gaming have the potential for real-world community building? Are players actually exploring their own communities?
Geothink co-applicant Dr. Stéphane Roche (Université Laval, Département des sciences géomatiques) and his PhD student, Territutea Quesnot have studied landmarks and wayfinding, particularly through social networks with gamified interactions such as FourSquare. As Roche notes, the concept of ‘checking in’ to a location is not new. Pokémon GO’s uniqueness is in its content and in overlaying the Pokémon universe over the real world (such as through the camera feature) with more integration than Ingress. For Roche, such movements of people could also be a form of contestation or appropriation of places. He defines an urban place as “an equation between a physical location, an event, and the name associated with the phenomenon”. Landmarks in the city can therefore have multiple ‘places’ depending on their usage. For example, a pond has one use during the summer, but turns into an ice skating rink during the winter. Pokémon GO, Roche says, “has created new urban places, in a location where existing places were already there”. Roche cautions us to not immediately condemn the phenomenon of Pokémon GO players congregating in large groups, as contestation and appropriation of urban places is not a new process. Pokémon GO itself has not had an entirely negative effect on urban environments and has been attributed as a factor in revitalising the Brussels community after this year’s terrorist attacks.
Roche is optimistic that “gamification and technology has the potential to improve our understanding of the world, improve our skills, including spatial skills, and could help people to discover new components of the world”, but also echoes Sieber’s concerns over algorithmic regulation where, “because of the choices that are embedded in the code and algorithms, there is a kind of orientation and social classification…and it becomes more and more difficult to discover new things”.
For Rinner, government should not have to resort to gamification to promote community engagement or citizen-government interaction, but he admits,
“I am afraid that it will soon be necessary to get anyone to do anything good. So, yes, I expect that government will soon use gamification to motivate people to engage in planning questions or politics. And more concerningly, I expect that businesses will use geolocation games to steer people to the right, or maybe wrong, places.”
AR and Gamification: Potential for Civic Engagement in Urban Planning
Regardless of Pokémon GO’s success, Geothink is looking to investigate the potential of AR in promoting civic engagement at the municipal level. Geothink co-applicant Dr. Pamela Robinson (Ryerson University, School of Urban and Regional Planning) has brought together a group of six masters’ of urban planning graduate students to investigate AR’s potential for the City of Toronto. Their mission is:
To explore the potential of AR technology in relation to public consultation & civic engagement by local governments and to provide a framework for analyzing future engagement opportunities
According to the students, AR has a high potential due to its fusing of the digital and physical. Unlike Virtual Reality (VR), AR does not completely remove the physical world and users can still interact with each other face-to-face, rather than being restricted to a virtual environment.
Currently at a preliminary stage of their project, the students have investigated the distribution of pokéstops and urban accessibility to pokéstops to examine the geographic reach of the game in the city. The density and location of check-in locations for any gamified service are crucial when attempting to attract people to a particular location, such as the location of a public consultation or town hall meeting and also important for evaluating how inclusive the tool can be in terms of reaching residents. The students discovered that a player’s experiences of Pokémon GO can really differ depending on where they live in Toronto.
Team PokéPlan (as they have named themselves) is also looking at other issues that a municipality will be concerned with, such as legal considerations (privacy, liability), language barriers, issues of service coverage and accessibility (the digital divide), and how to reach broad and target audiences, and finally gamification. According to Geothink student Corinna Prior, the City of Toronto has already begun to experiment with more flexible types of consultation such as the Planners in Public Spaces programme where planners go to the people. For Prior, “gamification is a really powerful tool. The potential to get people out and about is really powerful”. If AR and gamification could be used to support public consultation processes, we may experience radical changes in how citizens interact with their municipal governments.
More updates on TeamPokéPlan once their project ramps up. In November, Team PokéPlan will host a World Town Planning Day breakfast (November 8th), be the guest speakers at Civic Tech Toronto’s Hack Night (November 15th) and present their final report on November 22nd. For more information about their work please contact Pamela Robinson.