Pokémon GO may be the first breakthrough game to use augmented reality (AR), but it certainly won’t be the last. The boundaries between virtual and tangible worlds have been blurring for a long time, and new games fuse the two into one irresistible package.
As everyone knows by now, Pokémon GO makes tiny monsters appear everywhere from museums and malls to backyards and kitchens. Entire families have cheerfully headed out into their neighborhoods and beyond to collect as many monsters as they can. So far so good. But augmented reality also creates risks. Thinking through the pros and cons of Pokémon GO gives parents a good platform for making common-sense rules about the many AR games that are likely to follow. As you develop family guidelines, keep these four Ps in mind.
Children under 13 can’t sign up for games unless they have permission from parents. That’s a reminder that younger children need augmented supervision in augmented reality. Play together if you can. Or ask your child to walk you (literally!) through the game so you can see and comment on what’s fun and what’s risky.
AR apps also ask for permissions when they are installed, and parents should get in the habit of reviewing every request. Obviously, smart phones hold lots of information — who a child knows, where she hangs out, what photos she’s taken, what social media she uses. This information may seem trivial, but it’s catnip to marketers. Even if the company that makes the app promises to use the information responsibly, tech companies often change hands.
The best policy is to give each app as little permission as possible. Pokémon GO, for example, needs access to the phone’s camera but not contact information. To revise your choices after installation, find the settings icon on the phone. Look for the apps folder. Find the relevant app and uncheck as many boxes as possible.
AR games encourage children to explore the world. That’s terrific! But kids still need boundaries. For kids mature enough to play without direct supervision, be very clear about where they are allowed to go. In the case of Pokémon GO, monsters may very well show up outside the approved play zone. Talk in advance about how you want your child to handle this situation. (To confirm that the rules are being followed, click the Pokéball button at the bottom of the screen. You’ll see a list of captured Pokémon and details about where they were caught.)
Before turning a child loose with AR, remind them about tangible concerns. Exercise special caution near water and never cross safety barricades. Don’t trespass on private property and don’t play the game in inappropriate places like cemeteries and churches. Use sunscreen and stay hydrated.
Traffic is another obvious risk. People staring at phones have bumped into things and stepped in front of cars. Some parents insist that kids set the phone to vibrate when a Pokémon is nearby so they can walk without distraction. To its credit, Pokémon GO reminds players to turn the game off while driving. The same rule should apply to other forms of transportation — bikes, scooters, skateboards.
The best games are often social, and AR is no exception. Chatting with others who are playing in the same vicinity seems natural, and some objectives require teamwork. Most of the people your child encounters will be fellow enthusiasts. But the Pokémon GO game includes devices that draw Pokémon — and their hunters — to specific locations, and that creates opportunities for predators.
Remind your child that all the usual rules about talking to or going anywhere with strangers apply. Encourage kids to play with friends and reiterate the fact that, even with friends, they shouldn’t go into isolated places like dark alleys or abandoned buildings. As an extra layer of protection, consider keeping track of your child’s phone with a service like Find my Friends (Apple) or Google+ (Android).
Apps are seductive because they seem to be free. Still, the people who develop these things need to be paid, so something is always for sale. In the case of Pokémon GO, players can purchase Pokéballs, Pokécoins, and lures that will make it easier to catch rare specimens. For parents, this is a teachable moment. Consider giving your child an in-game allowance or encouraging her to earn money for game items by doing chores. Make it crystal clear that your child needs to get approval before spending real money on virtual goods.
AR games are also likely to have other costs. Because Pokémon GO depends on GPS tracking, it consumes lots of data. Show older kids how to monitor usage so they don’t incur extra charges by exceeding the family limit.
Playing any game is a privilege that can be revoked if kids don’t follow household rules. In the case of a craze like Pokémon GO, you may want to be flexible at first to see how the game fits into family life. When is it OK to play? When do you expect phones to be powered down? Are there things your child can do to earn extra time? What behaviors will result in suspending privileges?
The answers to these questions won’t be the same for every family, and they may need to be hammered out in family meetings. Still, it’s always up to parents to be sure that the allure of AR is tempered with real-world common sense.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing Growing Up Online for more than a decade. She is also the author of Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart, available on Amazon and at cooperativewisdom.org. ©2016, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.