Are developers responsible for their audience?

Are developers responsible for their audience?
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

July 20th 2016 at 12:49PM

Pokémon Go players are suffering injuries, arrests and worse, but is any of this Niantic’s fault?

I’m going to preface this article by clarifying that, like a dual-type Pokémon, it is a beast of two qualities – in this case, part-opinion, part-question.

The latter you already know: are developers responsible for their audience? Or perhaps a better question is: how much responsibility should developers take for their audience?

I ask the question because I, like many of you, have spent most of the week reading about Pokémon Go players endangering themselves in their quest to catch ‘em all: walking off cliffs, trespassing on military bases, stealing boats, walking along dual carriageways, hunting while driving, falling into ponds, getting trapped in mines, wandering into minefields – the list goes on.

It isn’t hard to believe so many incidents have surrounded this single mobile game – we’ve all seen the footage of fans stampeding to find a rare Pokémon when it appears. The response by the public has caught many people – no doubt creator Niantic included – by surprise.

It’s also easy to understand why elements of the mainstream media, those that are often keen to decry our medium, has positioned the game as the cause of these incidents. To an extent, that’s open to interpretation – undeniably Pokémon Go was central to each instance, but the people involved could just as easily have been texting or watching YouTube videos.

Some reports claim the game requires players to travel great distances in order to catch Pokémon and progress – which is not entirely accurate. While travelling is certainly encouraged by Niantic’s location-based game, it’s by no means essential (I myself have caught at least a third of my Pokémon from the comfort of my sofa).

But this isn’t about how the media is presenting the game – it’s about whether Niantic Labs should take any responsibility for all those incidents mentioned above.

“Remember to be alert at all times,” the game warns every single time you boot it up, depicting a Pokémon trainer about to fall prey to a Gyarados. “Stay aware of your surroundings.”

It’s a clear message, if presented a little comically, that should be enough to prevent these injuries, arrests and fatalities – and yet more stories of Pokémon Go players suffering from such events continue to appear every day.

What more could Niantic Labs have done? It’s a genuine question to anyone reading this, because I certainly don’t have all the answers. Yes, making the warning re-appear regularly may have helped but it wouldn’t stop people ignoring it. Perhaps the team could have introduced triggers that put this message back on screen when in particularly dangerous areas – e.g. near cliffs, large bodies of water, etc – but with an entire planet to scour through, we’d have been lucky if the game was released at all.

Is a simple warning enough? It brings to mind the messages in Wii Sports and other Nintendo games that triggered after half an hour of consecutive gameplay: “You’ve been playing for a while. Why not take a break?” Wasn’t this ultimately ignored too? How else would stories of ‘Wii elbow’ injuries have occurred so early after the console’s launch?

It’s something the games development community needs to think about as virtual reality starts to take off. Even with the advances Vive, Oculus and PlayStation VR have made, there are still significant groups of people who will be susceptible to motion sickness and other side effects over differing periods of time. Many devs I speak to believe VR should only be played for an hour or so at a time, and as such are crafting experiences designed to be enjoyed in short, sharp bursts. But as we move towards titles like Fallout 4 being fully VR compatible, that becomes harder to control – Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic franchise is often best enjoyed in lengthy sessions at the player’s own pace.

If we look at the greatest extreme, are developers responsible for those tragic stories of people dying in internet cafés after 24-hour-plus gaming sessions? After all, it’s their game that has these players engaged to such an extent that they forget to eat or drink – but that would never have been the intention as the team first sat down to design the game.

Ultimately, devs cannot control their audience and how players experience their game. Similarly there are limits to how well creators can predict player behavior and engagement, even with analytics firms giving much more insight into gaming habits. Short of actively locking players out of the game after a certain amount of time, or in certain situations – a move that is certain to drive players away and devastate that all-important retention rate – what more can developers do?

Should we be more cautious about our concepts, holding off from exploring the potential for things such as location-based games purely on the basis that some players might take things to extremes? I certainly hope not. It should go without saying that developers never create a title that is intended to harm the user, and any concepts built with such a notion should be scrapped. But what do you do when a harmless game inadvertantly leads to harm?

Okay, so it turned out this was less opinion, mostly questions. If you have thoughts or answers, get in touch. I’d genuinely love to know how other developers would tackle this.