Should you let your kids play Pokemon Go?

Wow, we go away for a few days (vacation!) and the whole world goes crazy over a mobile app.

Yep, we’re talking about Pokemon Go, which Nintendo released for iOS and Google mobile devices over the weekend, and apparently has taken the world by storm.

We’ve seen a lot of crazes come and go, and for a mobile app to become this popular this quickly either says something about Nintendo, the Pokemon game or the fact that we’re all so connected now that news like this amplifies and spreads so much quicker. But that’s a post for another time, perhaps.

What you really want to know is, “Should I let my kids download/play this app?”

At first glance, the app seems harmless – it’s an augmented-reality game that merges the animations of Pokemon with the “real world” – the basic game is telling users to go outside, walk for a bit and then try to “catch” the Pokemon with the app (usually done with the flick of a finger). Anyone who was obsessed with Pokemon as a kid (or if you have Pokemon-obsessed kids now) will likely find this app a cute distraction (or just another app to get hooked on as you try to ‘catch them all’).

But as stories started circulating about the app over the weekend, we started hearing about the owner of a house who kept getting harassed as players treaded on his property looking for a Pokemon “gym” (areas in the game where you can train Pokemon and fight other players) and other funny tales. Then some darker stories appeared – kids getting robbed by others who used the game as a way to lure them into shady areas, or the player who found a dead body while playing. Today, a lot of the stories revolved around the privacy details of what players are giving up in terms of their private information (basically, you give the app access to most, if not all of your Google information if you sign up via Google).

We expect to see a whole lot more of these types of stories as the world takes a step back and goes, “Pokemon Go: Threat or Menace”, which is what the media does when it sees a hot story.

The hype around this game and people’s obsession with it reminded us of a Doctor Who episode (you know, the one where everyone had those cars that ended up being a trap set by the Sontarans), as well as the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Game”, in which all of the crew were hooked on a game that stimulated the pleasure centers of their brains (everyone got hooked except for Wesley Crusher).

In addition, we’re concerned a little bit about the gameplay, especially one that has players out and about and possibly not paying attention while walking on a sidewalk or dirt path, looking at their phone. The game has a warning screen reminding players to pay attention to their surroundings while playing, but some of the gameplay has some of these Pokemon showing up on roads, or in backyards of people’s homes (if you believe some of the news reports coming out). When I spotted Pikachu, the augmented animation was showing up on a road with traffic whizzing by (see photo above). I think the app tries its best to keep players safe, but GPS and location-based services on smartphones is still not 100% accurate in its placement of where players are and where their phones think they are (for example, it often takes Waze a few minutes to pinpoint my car to get me home every day from work).

As a geek parent, we like the idea of the app, especially one that parents can play along with their kids as they go outside and walk around in an attempt to collect more Pokemon. It sure beats everyone just sitting around their living room trying to collect more characters in Crossy Road. But as tech geeks, we are concerned about the app developer getting a whole ton of information about players, including access to the camera and location information (we’re not at that trust level yet with the developer), especially information about kids if they’re using the app.

If you can still control what your kids download on their devices, we’d recommend a “wait-and-see” strategy. Monitor the news over the next few days to see what the developer says about the privacy details of the game and what they will / won’t do with it. You can tell that they over-reached if they change their policy or allow for other login access methods other than Google (there is a “Pokemon account” method but we think most people will login via Google).

UPDATE: Niantic, the developer behind the game, has acknowledged that the Google full access was a bug, and has issued a fix/update to the situation. The folks at 9 to 5 Mac have offered a cool way to update your Google settings if you’ve already downloaded the game previous to the fix – check it out here.

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