As streets and parks are increasingly populated by screen-illuminated trainers trying to find and evolve their digital critters, it's time to ask a few questions about the kind of "play" that
is going on here.
For many, Pokemon Go is great fun. And it is free to download. Niantic - the game's creator and a Google spin-off company - Google, Nintendo and others have invested cold, hard cash into developing the game and trying to maintain the infrastructure that supports it. A closer look at how the app might provide some return on that investment tells us something important about the nature of "free play" in our digitally-augmented urban playground.
Pokemon Go helping business?
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Pokemon Go helping business?
As players try to capture the fictional creatures in Nintendo's new game, local businesses try to lure them in, and campaign workers search for new voters.
How does Pokemon Go make money for its creator and investors? Of course, as with many free apps, there are "in-app purchases". Some analysts estimate earnings of more than $1 million per day from such purchases. These in-app purchases are the most visible form of revenue from the game, but they are by no means the only, or even the most lucrative, revenue source.
At present, the real-world location of important places for players like PokeStops and Gyms have been set by Niantic – based on spatial data acquired from another of their augmented reality games, Ingress. In that game, retailers and others can pay Niantic to have portals located in, or near, their premises. McDonald's has become the first company to do a deal with Pokemon Go to sponsor gym locations in Japan. These partnerships are expected to occur elsewhere very soon.
But the revenue potential does not stop there. As the saying goes, "surveillance is the business model of the internet". Augmented reality games like Ingress and Pokemon Go have the potential to open up a very lucrative new revenue stream based on the acquisition and sale of data – not just personal data, but aggregated spatial data about urban activity patterns.
There has already been some controversy about the terms of service for players, which give Niantic access to all manner of data on their phones – including email contacts and social media profiles. This data could potentially be sold to third parties with an interest in targeted advertising. Concerns about this arrangement resulted in a modification of those initial terms of service – but this modification has not satisfied the likes of Senator Al Franken in the US or consumer advocates in Germany, who have raised on-going concerns with Niantic.
This not only has the potential for surveillance of an individual gamer's movements through the city but also has the potential to be incredibly lucrative.
Niantic is now harvesting "geospatial data" about millions of people's movements: about how far they are prepared to travel as part of game play; about the kinds of places they stop during game play; about the groups they travel with; and the connections they make during game play, and much more.
The commercial potential of such information is huge. These markets for personal and geospatial data are closely guarded, and notoriously difficult to track. While Niantic's founder and chief executive officer John Hanke has remained tight-lipped in response to questions about the game's revenue model, the collection and "sharing" of such data is undoubtedly a core part of the business model.
So, even gamers who never spend a cent on in-app purchases or promotions are effectively producing information that becomes a commodity owned by Niantic. The free distribution of Pokemon Go can be likened to the free distribution of a tool that lets us make stuff that then belongs to someone else.
This tool is pretty fun to use. But this should not distract us completely from what's at stake. Work might be fun but that doesn't make it any less a form of labour. And as our everyday urban lives are increasingly commodified, it's time to start seeking answers about how the spoils of our labour (or "playbour'') are collected and distributed.
Kurt Iveson is an Associate Professor of Urban Geography at the University of Sydney.