Is it safe to go outside and join the Pokémon-chasing hordes gathering at parks and public landmarks? It CAN be, if you take the right precautions. And if you aren’t sure what this suddenly super-popular Pokémon Go thing is, then you can consider yourself in the minority.

Pokémon Go is a mobile app game that stormed on to smartphones across the world. In just a matter of days it was making headlines in major news media and causing everything from mass public gatherings to traffic snarls. From its release on 6 July, Pokémon Go has come from nowhere to steal the spotlight from virtual reality (VR) as the must-have tech of the year, despite recent long-awaited launches of high-end VR headsets from Samsung, HTC, Oculus and Sony.

Why should you care? Because you may need to know what’s going on when you suddenly encounter large groups of people staring at their phones by landmarks.

The game

Pokémon Go is part of games maker Nintendo's long-running Pokémon (short for Pocket Monsters) franchise, which has fuelled sales over the past 20 years of innumerable Gameboy handheld units and Nintendo consoles. It allows players to capture, train and battle the virtual Pokémon game characters when they appear, triggered by the phone's GPS, at real-world landmarks and other locations.

Pokémon Go superimposes animated characters over real-world locations via your smartphone's camera.
Pokémon Go superimposes animated characters over real-world locations via your smartphone's camera.

New Zealand was among the first countries to get access to the game via the iOS App Store and Google Play Store, with the game being progressively released in other countries. Just hours after release to the app store, Pokémon Go became the top free app in the US.

In this incarnation, Pokémon appear in real streets, parks and buildings via the screen of an iPhone or Android smartphone loaded with the Pokémon Go app.

Pokémon Go is based on a game called Ingress, where players chose one of two sides and waged hi-tech battles over landmarks across the world. The game had a massive, if underground, following. Pokémon Go is essentially the same, players choosing between three teams and battling to control “gyms” and find Pokémon also based on local landmarks. This can make the game frustrating for those who live in the suburbs and unplayable for those in rural areas.

AR vs VR

Pokémon Go is based on augmented reality (AR), which combines digital technology with the physical world, in this case superimposing animated characters from the popular Pokémon game franchise over real-world locations via your smartphone's camera. VR is more of an indoor and largely solitary pursuit that replaces the real world with a 3D digital world, via use of a headset.

The game Ingress, mentioned above, was the first worldwide, large-scale game to be made only for mobile devices.

Real-world dangers

Because Pokémon appear overlaid on the backdrop of real world locations the game has attracted criticism for leading players to “off-limits” areas. Reported cases include the former concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., Arlington National Cemetery in the US, a funeral home, war memorials, and even a Hells Angels clubhouse.

Warnings have been issued about the dangers of real-world hazards while using the game, most notably traffic.
Warnings have been issued about the dangers of real-world hazards while using the game, most notably traffic.

The “gotta catch ’em all” catch-cry of the Pokémon franchise has led to police and emergency services issuing warnings about the dangers of real-world hazards while using the game, most notably traffic. The game itself has built-in warnings for players to stay alert and be aware of their surroundings, though it has reportedly resulted in at least one major accident with a driver in New York State running his car off the road and into a tree while playing the game. A video has also surfaced of dozens of fans swarming across a road in New York’s Central Park when a rare Pokémon appeared.

If your children are playing the game, make them aware of the dangers. It’s great to have them playing outside (even in winter and even while playing a video game) but they need to be aware of their surroundings. This includes other people.

Running up bills

The app is free to install but makes its money from in-app purchases, which has raised concerns about unrestrained and unintentional spending. Like nearly all “free” games there are things players can buy (in this case Pokéballs, lucky eggs, bags and extra storage within the game) using in-game currency (Pokécoins). Users can spend as little as $1.49 or up to $150 for different coin bundles.

There is the danger that children, left to their own devices and with a parent’s credit card, can run up sizable real-world bills. We recommend turning off in-app purchasing in the phone's settings. It's also a good idea to have a lock screen passcode to prevent unauthorised users.

Privacy concerns

The game requires you to login using Gmail or Facebook, but this has raised concerns of personal privacy and mobile device security. When the game was first released on iOS devices it required granting full access to users' Google account. A public outcry prompted the game's developer Niantic to quickly issue a fix for the app to revoke those permissions.

A statement on the company's website reassuringly states: "We recently discovered that the Pokémon GO account creation process on iOS erroneously requests full access permission for the user's Google account. However, Pokémon GO only accesses basic Google profile information (specifically, your User ID and email address) and no other Google account information is or has been accessed or collected … Google has verified that no other information has been received or accessed by Pokémon GO or Niantic. Google will soon reduce Pokémon GO's permission to only the basic profile data that Pokémon GO needs, and users do not need to take any actions themselves."

You can also take a more cautious approach by creating a new Gmail account specifically for the game, so it can't access your main Gmail account and related information.

Other privacy tips include:

  • Limit tracking: The app uses GPS tracking, similar to fitness tracking or mapping apps, so only turn these settings on while the app is in use.
  • Check privacy settings: In common with many apps, Pokémon Go requires some personal information such as name, email address, country and language, and some information will depend on Gmail or Facebook settings. We recommend reviewing your Gmail and Facebook settings separately in their apps to limit what information is shared with connected apps.
  • Avoid imitators: We recommend only downloading apps from the official Android and Apple app stores, to avoid fake copies.
  • Install security: We also recommend running security software on your smartphones and tablets.
  • Watch data usage: The app can reportedly consume up to 20MB of data per hour, so use a data-monitoring app to keep an eye on how much mobile data your phone is using.
  • Battery back-up: Using GPS can quickly deplete your phone's battery, so keep a charger or backup battery handy.

Not just kids

And it's not just children that are running around chasing the animated AR creatures. Adults, at least relatively young ones that presumably have grown up with the franchise, are taking to the streets and parks and getting fresh air and incidental exercise that some are using to justify the pursuit. For some it's proved an interesting way to meet new people.

Such is the sweeping popularity of Pokémon Go that opportunists are springing up everywhere, as opportunists do, to take advantage of the phone-based phenomenon. Tech-savvy businesses, such as bars and cafes, have been using the game to lure potential customers to their location and some Uber drivers are offering to drive while you chase the elusive critters around the sprawling real-world canvas of the game.

Tech-savvy businesses, such as bars and cafes, have been using the game to lure potential customers to their location.
Tech-savvy businesses, such as bars and cafes, have been using the game to lure potential customers to their location.

The astounding success of Pokémon Go points the way forward for AR technology as a games platform as well as an educational technology for mapping information to real world objects. Expect a flood of live-action AR titles to hit app stores as quickly as developers can code it.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in joining the virtual Pokémon hunt you can find out everything you need to know to get started via the support section at game developer Niantic or at the Pokémon Go database, an unofficial site, which includes tips such as how to get the iconic character Pikachu as your starter Pokémon.