"Pokemon Go" CEO Pushes For Safety Over Profits To Fight Gaming Addiction

By Paul Gaita 10/30/19

"If you're being led by profit and the dollar sign, and you don't have other goals, the outcome may not be great."

Image: 
gamer playing Pokemon Go
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The chief executive officer of Niantic, the software development company behind the popular mobile games "Pokemon Go" and "Harry Potter: Wizards Unite," told CNBC that gaming manufacturers need to focus as much attention on safeguarding users against compulsive or addictive game play as they do on their profit margins.

Integrating Reality Into Gaming

Speaking in London at One Young World, a UK-based global solution forum, John Hanke said that his company's games require players to interact with the real world during game play, and encouraged other manufacturers to adopt similar measures.

"I think it's a great example of how you can design technology that leads into positive impacts," he said.

Both "Harry Potter: Wizards Unite" and "Pokemon Go"—which, as of September, was the second highest-earning mobile game in the world—use augmented reality and location data based on the player's actual geographical location as part of game play. As players move around the real world, their game avatars follow a similar path on the game's map.

But as CNBC noted, the games' rise in popularity also raised issues of "gaming disorder," which was identified as a health condition by the World Health Organization in 2016. Exactly how many people can be diagnosed as exhibiting the signs of gaming disorder is a subject for debate, with some sources claiming that 10% to 15% of gamers currently qualify as suffering from gaming disorders, while others urge caution and further research.

Playing In Small Doses

Hanke told CNBC that Niantic's games actually discourage compulsive game play through the company's core tenets: promoting community exploration, incorporating exercise into game play and encouraging interaction with the real world.

"I would really look at our games as an alternative to traditional video games, because they're designed to be played in small doses as you're moving around outside, and they're meant to be played together with people in real life," he said.

Hanke also urged other companies to consider similar measures for their product in addition to the monetary rewards. "Technology is not inherently evil, but if you're being led by profit and the dollar sign, and you don't have other goals, the outcome may not be great," he noted.

Finding The Balance

Niantic's gaming principles have not only determined how their games are played, but which games the company releases.

"In a game like 'Pokemon Go,' there are hundreds of features you could build, and many would not fulfill one of those three objectives," said Hanke. "It's about finding that balance between purpose and profit and pursuing both in the context of a private company."

"It's not easy—it's a constant challenge—but I do think it's possible to combine those things."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.