Your Commute

‘Pokemon GO’ game ushers in new era of distracted driving, walking

If you’re already tired of watching pedestrians accidentally step into traffic while playing Pokemon GO, safety experts and psychologists have a somber message for you:

Get used to it.

The immensely popular Pokemon GO game made by Nintendo and available for free download on smartphones has taken the United States and other countries by storm since its Wednesday release. In downtown Fort Worth this week, several hundred pedestrians young and old could be seen roaming the streets during lunch breaks, in search of the cartoon creatures.

“It’s just fun,” said Jace Lawler, 31, an information technology employee who captured Zubat, Nidoran and other Pokemon characters while walking along Eighth Street near General Worth Square. “I am walking from building to building, and they pop up on the sidewalks and in doorways.”

The game uses the camera function on players’ smartphones to transpose images of the pocket monsters onto real-world settings. For example, a player walking through downtown’s Burnett Plaza might come across a Doduo — a creature that resembles a two-headed dodo bird — standing next to the Briefcase Man statue. The player can take a snapshot of the creature and its surroundings before “capturing” it in the game.

Some safety experts have issued warnings about the dangers of driving — or walking in traffic — while playing the game. And there have been many other strange reports, including one in Missouri, where police say a large number of youths were lured to a park by a feature in the game and then robbed. In Wyoming, a teenager searching for a water Pokemon instead found a dead body.

The Texas Department of Transportation on Tuesday began asking its followers on Twitter and Facebook to submit artwork and slogans for a “Don’t #PokemonGO and Drive” social media campaign. Followers responded by submitting written slogans, photos and at least one video.

Washington state also initiated a campaign urging motorists not to drive while playing Pokemon GO.

Raul Rodriguez, 17, a senior at Arlington Heights High School, said he saw several people walking in downtown Fort Worth while playing the game, and not watching closely where they were going. Thankfully, nobody got hit, he said.

Rodriguez said he hasn’t yet seen anyone playing the game while driving, although many people have admitted doing so on social media. That, he added, “seems like an absurdly bad idea.”

Alternate universe

The popularity of Pokemon GO can hardly be exaggerated. Less than a week after its release, the game software was installed on more Android phones than the popular Tinder dating application, according to SimilarWeb analytic firm. Pokemon GO also has nearly as many daily users as Twitter, and more usage time than Whatsapp, Instagram and Snapchat.

Whether Pokemon GO is a phenomenon that’s here to stay or just a flash in the pan, experts say it’s just the beginning of what promises to be a wave of new virtual reality games that are sure to sap our already-thin attention spans away from our earthly obligations.

Pokemon Go is the biggest step the culture has taken so far toward virtual reality,” said Elias Aboujaoude, a Stanford University psychiatrist and author of Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the e-Personality.

Virtual reality gaming has been around for years, although most gamers would agree that the technology is in its infancy. Many games require a bulky headset and are played indoors.

But there are other outdoor uses. Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington this year is giving riders of the Shockwave roller coaster the option of putting on a headset — and in the process converting a traditional amusement park ride into a futuristic alien space battle.

Headset manufacturers such as Facebook’s Oculus are pledging millions of dollars to get video game manufacturers to start creating new content, according to the Wall Street Journal. And, the Wall Street Journal has begun aggregating VR content in its digital editions, even offering viewers instructions on how to watch the material.

Aboujaoude and other futurists have warned for years that, when virtual reality becomes more commonplace — possibly in just a few years — humanity will struggle with new moral issues. The new games, they say, will give players a chance to commit acts of sexuality and violence that are supposed to be off limits in the real world.

And gamers of the not-too-distant future, they warn, will have the option of spending most if not all their waking hours in an alternate universe. The result could be a future generation of people lacking in the social skills considered so important today.

Of course, Pokemon GO doesn’t go anywhere near that far. The game is a subtle combination of the real and artificial worlds. But the game’s ability to psychologically place players in an alternate reality setting so easily — simply by pressing a few buttons on their phone’s touch screen — is a breakthrough that is sure to be copied by other game manufacturers.

“Augmented reality, used by Pokemon Go to fuse virtual images with the physical environment, is the logical next step before embracing virtual reality more fully and before radically detaching ourselves from the physical world,” Aboujaoude said in an email. “While Pokemon Go has put some people in harm's way by sending them to the wrong place at the wrong time, it is too early to fully appreciate its psychological impact. However, because it makes players interact with their physical environments, it is different from practically all other video and mobile games and can appear healthier as a result. This may lead us to underestimate its consequences.” titles

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson

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