Popular Pokémon promotes prangs


A new burst of popularity for an augmented reality game could mean a boost in vehicle accidents. Andrew Masterson reports.


Unseen by non-players, an augmented reality Pokemon lurks in a corner.
Unseen by non-players, an augmented reality Pokemon lurks in a corner.
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

The tech company Niantic recently announced a major update to its phenomenally successful augmented reality game Pokémon Go – and while that comes as good news to fans, it may well be raising red flags for police, paramedics and insurers around the world.

Pokémon Go – in which players move around city streets in pursuit of cute Japanese-derived critters called Pokémon – was an instant hit when it was released in July, 2016. The first countries to receive it were the US, Australia and New Zealand, and reports suggest that demand was so great that the makers had to delay release in other territories because its servers were overloaded.

Estimates vary, but one analysis suggests that by mid 2017 the game had been downloaded a staggering 752 million times.

For a while there, Pokémon Go – the first major augmented reality app ever released – attracted nothing but praise from gamers and commentators alike. To play, users moved from one spot to the next, with the result, researchers found, that fans went out and about and enjoyed healthy exercise. Standard computer games, by contrast, tended to render people inactive, raising health concerns.

Recent research, however, has discovered that the picture of 752 million people happily striding around catching mythical beasts and stretching their legs at the same time is rather too rosy.

Some Pokémon Go players, it turns out, don’t walk, but instead choose to drive – with sometimes painful, sometimes costly, and occasionally fatal results.

This is shown by researchers Mara Faccio and John McConnell, both of Purdue University in Indiana, US, in a paper lodged on the website of the US National Bureau of Economic Research.

Looking at motor vehicle accident statistics in a single county for the 148 days following the game’s release, Faccio and McConnell found that drivers playing Pokémon Go racked up as much as $25 million in damages, had 134 car crashes, experienced 31 personal injuries and suffered two deaths.

If the same levels of accident and injury were replicated across the country, the researchers note, the total damage bill could be as high as seven billion dollars.

To reach their conclusions, Faccio and McConnell combed through 12,000 police accident reports for Indiana’s Tippecanoe County. To assess the contribution of Pokémon Go, they exploited a singular aspect of the game: to replenish critter-hunting supplies players have to visit locations designated as “PokéStops”.

These are almost always situated at prominent intersections. Comparing vehicle accidents at these locations before and after the release of the game, therefore, provides a clear indication of Pokémon Go’s contribution.

“The incremental cost of users playing Pokémon Go while driving is significant,” the authors conclude.

“Indeed, even ignoring the value of lives lost, the incremental cost associated with users playing the game while driving implies a 3.34% increase in auto insurance premiums for the 148 days following the introduction of the game.”

After a couple of months of high popularity, Pokémon Go’s appeal faded dramatically (in line, it should be said, with expectations). By April 2017, daily users were down to a paltry five million.

The latest revamp, however, which introduces dedicated “quests” into the gameplay, may well see a resurgence in popularity. Pedestrians in the vicinity of PokéStops, therefore, are advised to keep an eye on the traffic.

  1. https://expandedramblings.com/index.php/pokemon-go-statistics/
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563218301109
  3. http://www.nber.org/papers/w24308
  4. https://www.vg247.com/2017/04/03/the-number-of-pokemon-go-players-still-logging-in-every-day-has-plummeted-by-over-80/
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