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Pokemon Go: Fun, But At Whose Expense?

14/10/2016 11:02

Boy, has Pokemon Go taken up a lot of time this year, what with all those critters to find. But what have its developers been taking? And are we paying a very high personal price for all this enticing fun?

According to one report, the augmented reality game from Niantic Labs that launched this summer is raking in about £4 million a day from in-app purchases in the United States alone. An estimated one in 10 American now play every day. There is no reason to suppose that percentage is any different in the UK, or any of the 37 countries where Pokemon Go can now be played.

But what we pay for is not the issue. While I'm searching for dratini, mankeys or squirtles that may be down the street, Niantic already knows exactly where I am. It also knows my IP address and the web page I visited just before playing.

This is potentially valuable data, especially when aggregated with that gathered from millions of other players. The question it raises is not whether a game should be free to use, as this is, but whether users should actually be paid to play them.

As we access Pokemon Go and myriad other sites are we giving away the modern equivalent of entire nations for a handful of coloured beads: Our personal data for a funny cat video?

It's certainly interesting to note that alongside Nintendo one of the investors in Niantic is Google, which is all about swapping a search functionality for release of personal information then used for advertisers.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with such an exchange freely entered into. But the economics of what we are giving away, and the enriching of others that results, may now be changing.

Whilst there has been plenty of debate about privacy and data protection, and regulations are rightly in place to protect both, little has been said about whether the terms of trade games and internet services apply are actually any longer fair.

A starting point is that deciding to use Google, or to hunt a dratini, is a choice. I make it freely (Level 21, since you ask). The developers of internet activities invest money, time and risk in creating something entirely optional. Why shouldn't they be rewarded by information for delivering an otherwise 'free' service? It might also be argued that search engines have so enriched our lives in extraordinary ways that it's churlish to request any further enrichment.

Still, usually there are clauses in contracts, or simply free market inevitability, that ensures more fluidity as circumstances change to accommodate market shifts, as has arguably happened here.

I have yet to hear of a successful games operator, or search engine owner, offering to payback any money to the millions of people whose data they mine in some sort of variation to pay-per-click advertising.

The time has come to consider this. We are not at some early digital frontier any longer, but in a mature market with some very dominant players in an industry that actually, in its widest sense, is now defining and determining our lives.

Already, whilst most people could name half dozen brands of chocolate, they can only name one or two search engines; and games are now far beyond the sunless rooms of teenagers and almost ubiquitous in lives as they swap entertainment for information.

It may not just be national exchequers that are missing tax revenues from wildly successful digital industries, we may be missing some money as well. Meanwhile, time to go out and hatch an egg (a Pokemon Go thing, which a quick hunt on Google will helpfully explain to the uninitiated).

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