Gaming

The World's Most Dangerous Game: Pokémon's Strange History with Moral Panics

For over 20 years, Pokémon has been a scapegoat for crises social, political, and even spiritual.

av Lana Polansky
2016 09 05, 9:00am

Image by Stephen Graham

In April of 2000, two days before my tenth birthday, BBC News ran a story describing school administrations across the UK deciding to ban Pokémon cards. What starts out as a tale of exasperated teachers trying to stick a pin in a new source of childhood zeal turns into something much more sinister: "There have been stories of bullying, intimidation and 'aggressive trading' among children desperate to complete their collections of 150 cards. In the US, police denounced the cards as 'America's most dangerous hobby' after a surge in child crime. Six children were arrested in Philadelphia for a Pokémon-related assault," the article reads.

I didn't really understand why, at the height of Pokémania, the frenzied compulsion shared by millennial ten year olds became cause for concern for teachers and parents everywhere. I didn't read the BBC News item, but I do remember the panic over Pokémon card trading: How it was likened to gambling, and how conflicts that erupted over these schoolyard trade negotiations led to moral outrage at the recklessness of Nintendo, Game Freak, and everyone else involved in making and promoting Pokémon.

The recent hubbub over Pokémon Go has brought that all back. I think I finally understand, at the ripe old age of 25, why the hysteria over Pokémon "gambling" reached such a fever pitch despite the fact that gaming and gambling have always been conceptually linked. The game has managed to become about everything from violent youth crime to internet privacy and security issues.

Pokémon came on the scene in the middle of a spate of panics involving violent crime and youth delinquency, but a few years before the focus on mass shooters or terrorism.

Pokémon has been at the centre of so many heated controversies that Bulbapedia, a fan-curated wiki, keeps a running tab. The long list notes changes made to several generations of the games, including words altered or casino ("Game Corner") areas removed in order to ensure compliance with regulatory standards or to evade accusations of glorifying gambling—but it also notes the game's brushes with religious complaints, perceived Nazi symbolism, animal cruelty, and plenty of other issues.

Pokémon came on the scene in the middle of a spate of panics involving violent crime and youth delinquency, but a few years before the focus on mass shooters or terrorism. Panic gripped the heart of every God-fearing suburbanite in the 1980s when stories of the savage ritual abuse of children at the hands of Satanists started hitting the airwaves. The stories were bunk, but they were a boon to the career of schlockjock Geraldo Rivera, and kicked off a moral panic that lasted well into the 1990s. It was a classic case in accordance with criminologist Stanley Cohen's framework, popularised by his 1972 study, Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Cohen sums up the basic anatomy of a moral panic early on in his study:

"A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible... Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself."

"Satanists" became a boogeyman that could be blamed for all sorts of anxieties related to "family values," crime, safety, class, and a whole network of other social and economic problems. Strangely enough, Pokémon soaked up some of the remnants of the Satanic panic too: in 2000, the Vatican released a statement vindicating the game, after rumours had begun to circulate that it had been deliberately designed to promote Satanism. Some of these rumours persist. But by and large the panic dissipated by the mid '90s or was sublimated into other forms.

"Life in the 1990s was dominated by a sense that youth violence was out of control. The future looked bleak. To explain why, one word said it all," narrates Zachary Green in " The Superpredator Scare," a short documentary published by the New York Times describing the nature of the panic. There was some real-world basis for this, but instead of a structural explanation for the factors driving youth crime, the media and a number of academics instead amplified a more psychosocial theory largely predicated on racism and classism, and which Clyde Haberman's report on the phenomenon in the Times notes led to severe consequences: "It energised a movement, as one state after another enacted laws making it possible to try children as young as 13 or 14 as adults."

An advertisement for 'Pokémon Red'/'Blue'.

During the mid '90s—and well into the early 21st century—another devil was conjured from a grain of truth, again centred around the innocence of youth: violent media, and especially video games. The nature of Jack Thompson's 1997 lawsuit—explained in this nifty infographic timeline—was that blame for youth crime and delinquency could be placed squarely on video games, and he wasn't alone in that opinion, particularly after the Columbine massacre. But shooters and fighting games weren't the only scapegoats: International think tank The Schiller Group called described Pokémon as "the killing game designed for toddlers beginning at two and three years old," and even the Associated Press got itself into the mix with a story titled "Pokémon Stirs Up Crime". Where the blame could not already be placed on neglected or despised populations, transgressive media became the target. Something had to be turning good (wealthy, white) kids bad.

While no study has ever conclusively established a strong causal relationship between fantasy violence and actual violent crime, one could understand why unprecedented "realistic" depictions of gore elicited a panicked response from parents groups, academics, lawyers, politicians, and news media. We saw how Pokémon got caught up in the web of bigger anxieties, from Satanism and child abuse to gambling to violent youth crime, but I think the new uproar over Pokémon Go provides an even fuller explanation for why this keeps happening.

Today the nature of the panic is different. We're constantly reminded that we live in the "post-9/11" era, marked by the interminable and counterproductive "War on Terror", of which mass surveillance and the stripping of civil liberties in the name of security play a huge part. People suffer from deepening economic inequality and political alienation, but have much greater access to mass communication. The internet has also become an intensely privatised space propped up by the sale of data to advertisers, and has evolved into a battleground for free speech, access to information, and safety from institutions and malicious individuals (especially when it comes to children). And then, wouldn't you have it, here comes Pokémon to once again become a symbol for all that plagues society.

For a minute, Pokémon Go became the scapegoat for every concern, real or imagined, people have with free apps, information security, and the alliance between corporations and the surveillance state.

Niantic's Pokémon Go became the subject of some fairly new controversies in the past few months. The panic was set off by a Buzzfeed piece entitled, " You Should Probably Check Your Pokémon Go Privacy Settings " by Joseph Bernstein. The piece explains at some length the extensive degree of access Niantic had to people's accounts (emphasis mine):

"According to the Pokémon Go privacy policy, Niantic may collect — among other things — your email address, IP address, the web page you were using before logging into Pokémon Go, your username, and your location. And if you use your Google account for sign-in and use an iOS device, unless you specifically revoke it, Niantic has access to your entire Google account. That means Niantic could have read and write access to your email, Google Drive docs, and more. (It also means that if the Niantic servers are hacked, whoever hacked the servers would potentially have access to your entire Google account. And you can bet the game's extreme popularity has made it a target for hackers. Given the number of children playing the game, that's a scary thought.)"

The piece now displays an update containing a statement from Niantic that they "fixed Google account scope" for iOS users, and that it was an error. Security engineer Ari Rubinstein clarified how the app generates a token that could, in theory, be used to access user information in a write-up on Github. He summed it up for me even more succinctly, stating: "The token in question technically had access at one point to connect to some of the Google users' information, but not in the programmatic way that many journalists had theorised. This is now fixed, and the fix was shipped out incredibly quickly."

Nonetheless, anxiety spread quickly; even journalists like The Intercept's Lee Fang tweeted about Niantic's police disclosure policy (which can be understood as an extension of Google's disclosure policy ). OpenMedia, a Canadian Internet freedom and privacy activist group have posted about the app a number of times, in one case providing tips for how to restrict permissions and stay safe, and in another case using the app as a springboard to circulate a petition calling for the end of data caps in Canada . David Christopher, Communications Manager at OpenMedia, told me that the organisation is concerned about the way entertainment apps help normalise the already pervasive collection of information like metadata, and the ways this information can be exploited by corporations as well as the state. But, he clarified, he doesn't believe Niantic was reading people's emails "East German-style". Rather, the biggest red flag for him rests in the much more commonplace disclosure policy that Fang cited in his tweet.

"There are no safeguards whatsoever," he says. "It's basically anything they think might be unethical in their sole discretion. So I mean, yeah, it's certainly a concern."

But Christopher fundamentally sees it as a good sign that questions of privacy concerning apps are drawing so much skepticism. "The positive side to this whole phenomenon is that 25 years after the internet really kind of went mainstream, people are still coming up with cool new ideas that are able to sweep the world like this," he says, adding, "And in a sense... There's an increasing awareness that there are privacy concerns when you use apps like this."

Christopher believes that the most productive way to deal with the problems of surveillance and information security is to organise and demand reforms which are in the public's interest, and which treat the internet as more of a public good. Christopher cites a number of specific goals OpenMedia seeks to accomplish that focus more on access to metadata (e.g. the duration of a phone call, the date an email was sent) than on app permissions, including the repealing of surveillance legislation, a legal requirement for warrants whenever police want to access personal information, and stopping the "practice of bulk collection of information on innocent people".

"Mass surveillance is wrong in principle but it's also just ineffective as a way to keep us safe," he says.

Even Rubinstein believes that the initial reaction to Niantic's mistake was reasonable, saying, "People were justified in being upset at how the application actually functioned out of the box, however it was quite clear through analysis that this was a coding mistake and not a malicious action to abuse the privacy of Pokémon Go users. Niantic worked quickly to correct this coding error and rolled out a fix shortly after the issue hit the news. To me this shows that Niantic knew that providing a warm and cuddly experience without any of the teeth that many journalists and privacy skeptics imagined was going to be important to the success of the game."

Still from 'Pokémon Go' trailer. Courtesy of Nintendo.

But it's not just frantic articles about Niantic reading your emails that have caught people's attention. And, to be fair, the game does require persistent use of your GPS and camera to run, and Niantic's CEO John Hanke has a spotty track record when it comes to user privacy. Niantic's error may have been just that, but there remains a degree to which it became something of a springboard for a vast array of issues concerning freedom of movement and privacy on the internet. (Niantic did not respond to requests for comment regarding Pokémon Go's privacy concerns.)

Rubenstein attributes this in part to the game's success: "I personally believe that the privacy concern that once existed in the Pokémon Go app is due to the fact that it is a popular app with no reason to need access to such services. The real problem here is that there are zillions of other apps that have requested similar permissions and definitely don't need them, and those applications are still installed on many many user accounts. Users don't often check these permissions to see what has access to their account, and the Pokémon Go privacy panic is a great opportunity to communicate the need for users to periodically check these permissions to make sure they are sharing what they want to share on their terms."

Like child abuse or delinquency or gambling addiction, privacy and information security issues have a definite basis in reality. The background radiation to panic over Pokémon Go is one in which whistleblowers are regularly criminalised by the state, in which we know about XKeyscore and the deals companies like Google and CenturyLink have with the NSA to keep vulnerabilities in their software so the surveillance state may exploit them. We know about government attempts to install a "backdoor" on Apple products, of Canadian federal police buying metadata from telecoms after it was deemed unconstitutional, and of broad, sweeping "anti-terrorism" legislation in a number of Western countries that seeks to suppress a range of dissident activity and profile, chiefly, Arab Muslims. We know that in some cases, what you tweet can get you thrown in jail or worse.

"So many apps are already collecting this data—Pokémon Go is just the latest." - Leigh Honeywell

The dizzying laundry list of intrusions into civilian privacy by both the state and corporations is almost enough to make you want to pull your molars out so Eric from the NSA can't hear your dreams anymore. But what about every other third-party app that mines your data to sell to advertisers, or has vague standards for information it's willing to share with police about you? It's all so much bigger and more pervasive than Pokémon Go, but perhaps the app has a role to play in our understanding of the vastness of the problem, and our desire to control it.

"So many apps are already collecting this data— Pokémon Go is just the latest. Google Maps keeps amazingly detailed history of your movements, for one example," says security engineer Leigh Honeywell. Like Rubinstein, Honeywell is less concerned about people reading our emails, and more concerned with the sheer volume of authorisations that people grant to apps on a daily basis—something she refers to as "privacy fatigue".

"That's why it's so important for developers to be responsible in what they request—the average user is probably going to click 'yes', and now the developer is responsible for being good custodian of whatever data the user has granted them permissions to," she says.

Both engineers agree that Niantic—and software developers in general—need to be more careful with how they request and handle user information, as well as more transparent. But whether Niantic is reading people's emails or, as would be more likely the case, handing over metadata about users to law enforcement and government agencies, needs to be put in perspective. "I wouldn't worry about the government here, specifically in the case of Pokémon Go. They have this data en-masse anyways due to certain operations that have been published already," says Rubinstein. Edward Snowden and others have already cracked that case open, lending some credence to the exhortations of conspiranoiacs everywhere. That our metadata is accessible by governments, corporations and malicious third parties is already a fact of life that we're often ready to rationalise and take somewhat for granted.

Liam Esler, video game producer and writer, doesn't believe that Pokémon Go represents any sort of unique threat, and that framing it as uniquely different than any other free app shows a lack of understanding about how free apps work. During the height of the panic, Esler tweeted, "Treating Pokémon Go like the scapegoat for internet privacy and security concerns which have existed for years is hugely unfair."

Esler clarified his position to me, explaining that "we provide our data to companies in order to use their products," and that this model is pretty much unavoidable. He expressed frustration with continued misunderstandings around how the free app model works, saying that this is the wrong thing to focus on. "The current battleground should not be whether companies collect data on us," he says. "It should be about ensuring that users know what data is being collected, how it's being used, and how it's being collated and analysed. We should be given the information to make informed decisions about our use of applications that make use of and sell our data and information."

"This is one of the basic fundamentals of the internet as we know it today. Whatever battle we fought to protect our data in this way was lost long ago," he adds.

Over the last few weeks, the furore over PokémonGo's security and privacy settings has died down. But like any good panic, that doesn't mean that the anxiety is over, it's just sort of morphed. There's a small cottage industry now dedicated to bestowing unto Pokémon Go its own brand of trutherism. My personal favourite of these posits that Pokémon Go exists to distract people from the chemtrails.

Stories about how reckless and irresponsible the app is—or how people behave while using the app—seem to be experiencing their own amplification spiral. One story notes how a couple left their toddler home alone while playing the game; another describes a man who drove into a school while playing and driving; others still warn of people using PokéStop lures—an in-game item that causes Pokémon to spawn in one specific area—to mug unsuspecting players. But the absolute pinnacle of this permutation of panic has already been compiled by Wesley Yin-Poole for Eurogamer, in which he runs down the list of breathless tabloid articles warning of safety risks posed by the game—particularly, of course, to children. One of the more remarkable headlines came to us from the Daily Mail, which asks if Pokémon Go is the "world's most dangerous game".

Pokémon's strange, cute, benign universalism allows it to be all things to all people.

There are aspects of this game that are no doubt reckless, which is part of its appeal. There isn't any sort of depth to the game itself, but a big part of the conceit is "adventure"—which is always a bit self-destructive because the thrill of going somewhere and maybe finding something new implies a little risk-taking. That can be gratifying even if you don't like what you find. This is also part of why the new update contains little warning popups upon startup, like imploring players not to trespass on private property. At the same time, media amplification of these issues draws the app to the centre of a complex of anxiety surrounding technology. Pokémon Go is isolating us. Pokémon Go is alienating us. Pokémon Go is making us less secure, less alert, easier to track, easier to control. Pokémon Go is distracting us from all the real problems, and that's on purpose, and like lemmings we fall in line.

On the other hand, for as many doomsayers that the game seems to inspire, you get as many musings about the bright future of augmented reality, odes to the way it offers players new perspectives on the same old world, or zealous exaltations about how the game is this transcendent force bringing people together. Perhaps this in itself tells us something about why Pokémon Go—and more broadly, Pokémon—has a way of becoming a scapegoat for all the world's ills. There's its gargantuan popularity, particularly among children, that always draws a little bit of anxiety, and there's its universal appeal. But what does that really mean?

The roving moral panics that Pokémon has always magnetically attracted are not necessarily all unreasonable or totally unfounded. But the real problems at the root of these panics are complicated and full of unsexy little contradictions and compromises and resolutions that are far off from actually becoming reality. Pokémon is just a game, and Pokémon Go is just an app—one of many that are guilty of similar or worse sins that we choose to tolerate all the time.

And panics, for their part, don't always have to transform into official moves to persecute and banish scapegoats. It would be absurd to expect people to suddenly opt out of all the apps that mediate modern life and go live off the grid because of Pokémon Go, but perhaps this can have the effect of making people a little less complacent about stuff we take for granted everyday, and a bit more careful. Perhaps Pokémon Go will get some people to further explore the question of information security, and perhaps even get involved in broader internet freedom movements that demand things like transparency, better privacy standards, and the codification of the internet as a public good.

The grain of truth from which the devil sprouts is that entertainment apps do have some role to play in our understanding of how technology fits into our lives—the good and the bad. More than that, it reveals the tendency of modern discourse to try to redeem the psychological tortures of capitalism through commodity fetishism and consumption. The anxieties and deferred desires we have about forces that seem so huge and unstoppable suddenly become a lot easier to deal with if we feel like we can foist blame (or hope) on one peculiar thing. Where apps are our salvation to some, to others they are invariably our downfall, with a few people left considering the actual material circumstances that influence their creation. This mass spectacle— in the way that DeBord meant that word—will not stop all the evils of the world, but it allows us to defer the general sense of malaise we all have onto something a little more pocket-sized. It's a process that's typically very alienating, but it's also cathartic.

Pokémon's strange, cute, benign universalism allows it to be all things to all people. Even its own canon is a confused, incoherent mass, at times promoting some uncomfortable ideals of noble struggle and at others being an innocent tale about adventure and companionship. Something this fundamentally empty—for if it means everything, it doesn't mean anything—can't help but flatten anything that moves through it. It's another facet of the ongoing spectacle of late capitalism that forces us to dream up monsters that we can fight, capture and have under our control. We impose these monsters feverishly upon reality and then pivot, so that we can seek to root them out of the world's darkest corners.

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