Within days of the launch of “Pokémon Go,” the new augmented reality game that uses phone cameras and GPS to show the classic '90s ‘pocket monsters’ in real environments, a number of sites and museums started complaining that they were not appropriate places to catch 'em all. Formerly public sites turned private were also reported as being marked as "pokéstops" or "gyms."
Some areas had the opposite problem: no pokéstops at all. Some social media users observed that their small town and rural neighborhoods lacked any pokéstops, though urban areas had plenty.
Based on the popular Pokémon franchise of cartoons, trading cards, and Gameboy games from the 1990s, in which characters caught and battled with adorable monsters, the game uses the GPS in players’ phones to place them in a virtual space that matches the real world. In that virtual space, there are set locations for items and battling, and Pokémon appear in random locations; when encountering a pokémon, the game uses the phone’s camera to show the pokémon as if in the real environment. The player then can throw “pokéballs” to catch the pokémon; pokéballs are collected at “pokéstop” locations, and then players can use the Pokémon to battle at gyms. Without pokéstops, the only way to acquire pokéballs is to pay real money in the in-game shop.
In some areas where most residents are minorities, Twitter users noted pokéstops are hard to find. Kendra James, a writer at Racialicious, noted that the mostly-black city of Irvington, New Jersey has "no stops on all of its main roads, despite... several monuments/locations of note," compared to Maplewood, a nearby majority-white town which she perceived to have many more.
Niantic, the company that made the game, does not publish pokéstop locations, but the locations of pokéstops and gyms are taken from the locations of "portals" in Niantic's previous augmented-reality GPS-based game, Ingress. And Ingress's portals, while not available as an exportable list, are viewable on a world map, making it possible to compare city demographics to the distribution of Ingress portals.
Ahh, but it gets really noticeable in places like Detroit.
The starkest case is Detroit, where the city's borders can basically be drawn from a map of the area's Ingress portals. The city proper, which is defined by the red line in the map below left, was 83 percent black as of the last census in 2010, and has very few portals, except for downtown. The same is true of the mostly black area northwest of the city. The majority white suburbs and enclave, on the other hand, have plenty of portals. The slider below shows a map of portals on the Ingress map on the left anda demographic map of Detroit on the right.
So yeah, Pokemon Go is a mess when it comes to diversity, just like the entire rest of the tech industry. Crowdsourcing locations only works if the population can get over the barriers to entry, and the one for Pokemon Go (and Niantic's Ingress app before it) is actually pretty high.
This kind of thing can be fixed, but only if Niantic makes an effort to do so. Somehow, I don't think they will. It may end up being the non-tech world of retail and fast food that helps to resolve this: Pokestops will be placed where retail and fast food giants are like McDonald's, Starbucks and Wal-Mart as they want to cash in on the craze.
We'll see how that works, but I don't expect Niantic to start looking at their own maps and how they can fix the obvious redlining issues without somebody paying them big bucks to do so.