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Pokémon Go: Harmless Fun or Hidden Hazards?

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Given the off-the-charts popularity and record-breaking downloads of the augmented reality app Pokémon Go from Nintendo and Niantic, you have probably at least heard of the game. More likely, you or someone you know has been playing it during the past few weeks since it was released for iOS and Android devices.

What you may not have heard of are the safety concerns involved in playing the game. People across the country have been injured in accidents and other dangerous situations as a result of playing Pokémon Go. In addition, there are potential risks involving the personal data that the developer — or a hacker — may have access to.

During the short time since the app has been released, there have been many reports of clear benefits of the game. People who perhaps had a tendency to sit at home playing games are now getting out, getting exercise, and interacting with others who are doing the same thing. Many kids who used to spend hours indoors by themselves are now walking several miles a day to collect Pokémon, hatch Pokémon eggs, and engage in Pokémon battles.

If you or a loved one play Pokémon Go, make sure you are familiar with the game’s potential safety pitfalls so that your experience is a positive one.

How Does Pokémon Go Work?

Pokémon Go is a smartphone app based on the Japanese TV show and Nintendo console game that was popular in the 1990s. The app uses the phone’s camera and GPS to superimpose Pokémon characters on a map or the camera image to make it look like the characters are there with you — on the street, in the park, at businesses, in museums, etc.

Once the player sees a Pokémon character on the display, the player throws a virtual Pokéball at it to capture it, using a finger swipe. Players see different kinds of characters around depending on the time of day and geography of the area they are in. For instance, some Pokémon can only be seen during the day, others only at night.

There are certain locations shown on the app’s map called PokéStops, where you can collect Pokéballs, and other locations called Gyms, where you can do battle with Pokémon once you have reached a certain level in the game. The PokéStops and Gyms are actual physical locations, such as local businesses or landmarks, where players tend to congregate.

The purpose of the game is to capture all 151 Pokémon.

Stay Safe While Playing Pokémon Go

One of the biggest problems with playing Pokémon Go is distracted playing — those using the app are too absorbed in the game to pay careful attention to their surroundings. There have been reports of people creating disturbances by trespassing on private property, going into hospitals or police stations, and causing traffic problems because of inattention, both as pedestrians and drivers.

If you or someone in your household plays Pokémon Go, consider the following safety tips while playing:

  1. Pay attention to your surroundings. If you are too absorbed in the game, you run the risk of falling, running into things, getting hit by a car, or wandering into a dangerous area at a risky time of day. There have been incidences where people have stepped into traffic, been hit by cars, and injured themselves by falling and breaking bones while playing. Some people are also going into areas they would not normally go, so make sure you know which areas are safe and which are not, especially if you are in an unfamiliar city. There have been reports of people being lured to a location to capture Pokémon and then being robbed.
  1. Avoid private property and locations where players are not welcome. If you see a Pokémon on private property, or if there is a PokéStop or gym on private property, that does not give you permission to trespass, and it could be a potentially dangerous situation if the property owner doesn’t know why you’re there and what you’re doing. The GPS does not restrict Pokémon to public areas, but the game’s developers are reportedly working on excluding certain locations that have asked to be removed, such as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and Arlington National Cemetery.
  1. Do not play Pokémon while driving. Distracted driving already results in hundreds of thousands of motor vehicle accidents per year in the United States. Here in New York, a driver went off the road and hit a tree while playing Pokémon Go. Trying to capture Pokémon while driving takes your eyes off the road and could cause you to make sudden stops or turns to get to a Pokémon. Just don’t do it.
  1. Risks for children. If a minor in your household is using the app, make sure you know where they will be going, and accompany them if they are too young to venture out alone. Also make sure that you restrict or control in-app purchases and guard against risks of exposure such as heat exhaustion or cold.
  1. Be aware of the privacy issues. It turns out that creating a Pokémon Go account on iOS asks for full access to your Google account. That includes access to your Gmail, calendar, location history, and everything else associated with your Google account. Niantic states that this was a mistake and that Google will soon reduce Pokémon’s permissions to the standard limited access, but in the meantime, your personal data may be at risk. Compounding this problem is the fact that if there is a data breach, your recourses may be limited because the app’s Terms of Service include a forced arbitration clause, which prevents a class-action lawsuit (or an individual lawsuit). As far as the potential for a data breach, nothing can be done on the user side, but you can opt out of the mandatory arbitration by sending notice to Niantic within the first 30 days that you have the app.

If you or someone you love in Long Island, New York, has been in an accident or harmed while playing Pokémon Go, contact the injury attorneys at the Law Office of Cohen & Jaffe, LLP for a free consultation. We can help.

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