Staying Out of Trouble While Playing Augmented Reality Games

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to sit down for coffee with two high-ranked players of the popular AR game “Ingress.”   If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s a massively multi-player experience  shared by people across the globe.  Players organize themselves into thousands of cells aligned with one of two factions–the “Enlightenment” or the “Resistance”–and battle each other for control of “portals” located at specific GPS coordinates all around them.  These constant local interactions are all in the service of a mysterious, slowly-unfolding meta-narrative as complex as the plot of Lost.  And all it takes to play are an Android phone (an iOS version is coming, I’m told) and an invite code.

This is exactly the type of location-based augmented interaction that I’ve been predicting for years, so I was fascinated to learn what it was like to be part of this burgeoning global phenomenon.  The folks I met are amiable, everyday folks who have fallen in love with the immersive, community-building experience of this game.  They play it when driving to work, when walking the dog, even while sitting in the coffee shop with me–exactly how millions of people play Words With Friends.  (Except that no amount of word-spelling will save our neighborhoods from Exotic Matter spilling through the dimensional rift above the local public library–but I digress.)  And they’ve met countless people in their local community through the game as well–relationships with neighbors that wouldn’t have formed but for this shared experience.  Apparently, there are even cross-faction bar nights, where members of opposing teams declare a temporary armistice to enjoy a night out together.

Being the guy who blogs about augmented reality from a legal perspective, however, I was also keen to hear about any unexpected issues they or their teammates may have gotten themselves into while playing the game.  As with any new medium, there are going to be new questions raised by unintended consequences and the dissonance of trying to apply old standards to new forms.  I want to start conversations about such issues now, so that we’re prepared as a society to adapt to these new circumstances, and don’t end up unnecessarily squelching innovation in the augmented medium.

Before I continue, a reminder: like the rest of this blog, this article is not about one specific application (i.e., Ingress), but rather about the augmented genre as a whole.  I use examples gathered from Ingress players here because that’s who I met, but the lessons learned apply to all AR games.

With that caveat in mind, here are some of things I learned:

Run-ins With Law Enforcement.  In December 2012, I wrote about the Ingress player who found himself briefly detained by the police after pointing his phone for an extended period of time at a police station.  My new friends tell me that this was not a unique occurrence.  For example, they know a player who was similarly detained by security guards outside a castle in Finland, and another who was stopped by a local traffic cop for circling around a building too many times in their car.  Apparently, the player needed to pass through this area several times in order to sufficiently recharge a virtual “resonator,” and found it easier to do so while driving.

Both players were soon released, without incident.  Of course, there’s nothing unlawful about pointing a phone at a public  building or driving in circles.  But as these examples show, AR games sometimes require players to do things that might look odd to those around them–and police are trained to spot and be suspicious of aberrant behavior.

On the other hand, the same players also told me about officers they know who play the game–and have made their fellow officers aware of what game-related behavior looks like.   Just as society eventually got used to people on Bluetooth headsets who appear to be talking to themselves, so too are people likely to someday grow accustomed to AR-inspired behavior.

Physical Injury.  I’ve also writtenspoken, and started discussions about the potential for AR gamers to hurt themselves while chasing digital objects in the physical world.  It turns out that this, too, has already happened–at least to both of the players to whom I spoke.  One admitted to slipping on ice and twisting their ankle; the other got themselves a bit scuffed up while searching through bushes for the exact coordinates of a resonator.

Other potential avenues for mishaps were spotted and avoided.  For example, they told me about one digital portal that was originally located in the driveway for a hospital emergency room.  This was reported to the game’s designers, who moved it out of the way.  Lessons like these should help future game designers avoid similar issues.

I’ve also wondered whether AR games will put players in dangerous situations that make them more vulnerable to criminal activity.  It turns out that there’s already a healthy debate on this very point among my new friends’ community of players.  Some say yes, and are wary of going certain places at certain times.  (Which, of course, remains their own responsibility in any event.)  Others argue that encouraging presumably law-abiding gamers to visit areas they don’t normally frequent will have a “neighborhood watch” effect, essentially deterring crime in those areas.

Time will tell on that point, and both arguments are likely to find supporting examples as time goes on.  One thing is clear, though; AR games are already liberating players from their couches and getting them into the real world.  My new friends report that they already get more exercise and have visited more local landmarks than they otherwise would have.

Commercial Tie-Ins.  Ingress has already run a promotion in which players could earn extra in-game points by uploading pictures of the license plates on Zipcar vehicles.  This was apparently so popular that users overloaded the system with their submissions.  These were planned promotions, but, at some point, players of some AR games will associate a company’s products or trademarks in ways that the company doesn’t approve or profit from.  When that happens, it will break new ground in the legal industry’s understanding of what it means to use a trademark “in commerce” or to infringe upon it.

I took all of this information away from one hour-long conversation about a genre that is still in its infancy.  As AR games diversify and proliferate, I’ll be excited to see how societal and legal norms adapt.

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