Augmented Reality: Nostalgic Escape, or Legal Nightmare?

In late July Pokémon Go, an app for smartphones, launched and instantly made headlines. For years, Niantic worked to create the first “real world gaming” platform, and created the app for a worldwide market. The game immediately gathered a huge following, with millions of people roaming parks, neighborhoods, and busy cities to catch virtual monsters. Teens travelled in packs with their eyes on their phones, hatching eggs of the creatures they once only saw on trading cards. While the app died down, losing a third of its players by mid-August, it still ignited a wave of crimes, which showed up in newspapers around the country.

One woman was walking to a river to find Pokémon, and stumbled upon a body in the water. In another city, a group of armed robbers lured players to a Pokestop, where players can gain valuable items like Pokeballs and eggs from which to hatch Pokémon. The robbers targeted Pokémon Go players specifically, knowing the stop was in a secluded area. The game had to install warnings before players could begin the game, telling players not to drive while playing, not to go to dangerous areas while playing, and not to trespass while playing the game, because players began to trespass into marked mine fields to catch more Pokémon.

While Pokémon Go has been declining in popularity, other companies are clamoring to take its place in the augmented gaming world. A petition called “Accio Harry Potter Go: We Want A Harry Potter Version of Pokemon GO!” had 65,000 signatures as of March seventeenth of this year. Zombies, Run! is an app that offers missions to joggers or runners. The app uses GPS to follow the runner, who picks up supplies, and occasionally must run from zombie attacks.

While the games are a groundbreaking new experience for gamers and non-gamers alike, the rise of augmented or real world gaming experiences also comes the rise of legal questions.

For one thing, the interactions or crimes can happen over a span of many miles, or just over the game, resulting in confusion over which physical jurisdiction the interaction can be prosecuted in.

Another legal issue being explored is the “blurry border” between virtual and real, concrete actions. Women have begun complaining that they are being sexually harassed by other players. However, it is not their bodies that are being commented on, but the digital representations of women avatars that are being assaulted by male avatars, usually used by male players. With the emergence of augmented reality, it is thought that these claims feel more and more similar to actual physical assault.

While augmented reality games provide a sense of nostalgia or entertainment, there are real world implications. The legal issues have been compared to young startups that fail because of legal burdens; and certainly, money is at stake when these app companies are involved. In any case, the new legal hurdles that augmented reality games are facing need to be addressed before more crimes are committed.