Jin Ha Lee on Pokémon Go: How to stay safe and play to win

Assistant Professor Jin Ha Lee leads the GAMER research group at the University of Washington Information School and is an avid player of augmented reality games, including the recent phenomenon of Pokémon Go. We talked with her about how to enjoy the game, how to stay safe, and how to play to win.

Q: You’ve recently been studying Ingress (an augmented reality predecessor to Pokémon Go). What aspects of it have you been studying and how do they apply to Pokémon Go?

A: We’re trying to understand, by studying Ingress as a case study, the information behavior of people in augmented reality games. For our Ingress study, we’re focusing specifically on understanding how your characteristics – who you are in real life, your race, gender and ethnicity, how you look and what kinds of things you do in real life – actually affect the way that you play the game.

Q: Do you find that people choose characters that are like themselves?

A: In Ingress, you don’t really choose your characters, but you do choose one of two teams – Enlightened or Resistance – and oftentimes people sign up for a particular team because they are recruited by someone else, and they will not be allowed to pick a different team.

Q: Does Pokémon Go work the same way?

A: What’s interesting about Pokémon Go is that when you sign up for Pokémon Go, you can select what the character is going to look like. Oftentimes when people are given this kind of option, they will immediately try to make the character look like themselves. That’s kind of the natural instinct. But one thing to also remember is that when you do that, you are actually making it really easy for people to identify you. So you could be the only Asian female player within a particular group, or you could be the only black male player, and that shows if you select a particular skin tone or something like that.

Q: What team are you on and why?

A: I am on Team Valor, and the reason is because you play to win, and that is what the true Pokémon master will do.

Q: How did you decide?

A: When you sign up for Pokémon Go, it will give you three different characters who are supposedly the leader for the team, and they all have their own characteristics or what they want to focus on. Team Valor had the most appeal for me because it is really about being passionate, being the best Pokémon master, training your Pokémon to really win and be the best, so that resonated with me most. I hear that most people pick the blue team, which is Team Mystic, and they are really portrayed as the intelligent group who want to research the evolution of Pokémon and whatnot. Blue is everybody’s favorite color, I feel like. Also if they played Ingress, which is a game that Niantic published before Pokémon Go, and they were Resistance, then naturally they will pick Mystic because they are also blue. So they’ll probably have the biggest user base, but it doesn’t really appeal to me because I’m not here to study Pokémon. I’m here to battle and win the game!

Q: What’s your strategy for winning?

A: Right now, it’s very intensive leveling up. … After level 20, then it gets harder, so that’s going to be sort of the cut-off point for identifying people who are really serious about this or people who are just playing to have fun. There are strategies for leveling up quickly. You find a spot where two PokeStops are near each other, you put two lures and an incense, and use a lucky egg, which will double your XP for the next three minutes, and you catch the Pokémon for 30 minutes. Make sure you identify all the Pokémons that are ready to evolve, mark them as your favorites so you can go quickly to your Pokémon inventory and evolve them in those 30 minutes, and you will level up pretty quickly.

Q: What level are you up to?

A: I am currently level 21.

Q: So that means you’re beyond the introductory levels.

A: It’s still not enough!

Q: Is it safe to play Pokémon Go?

A: It depends upon how safe you play it. We actually just wrote some safety tips for players that we’re going to convey to the Seattle Police Department so they can distribute the information. Ultimately, just like anything in life, you need to use your common sense about staying safe. Don’t go to some random places at 2 a.m. just because you see the lures, although it might be tempting. Oftentimes people will just find themselves in an unfamiliar place where they don’t quite know where they are and the phone is dying. … You go out hiking because you want to catch a rare Pokémon and you find yourself stranded there. Don’t do that.

You need to use your common sense. It’s always good to do it in a group, which is what Ingress players used to do. Or if you go solo, then you tell other people where you’re going to be and what you’re going to do, so that they know how to reach you.

I think people should be careful when they put a lure on a particular Poke Stop, every day at the same time at night. It probably shows that this person lives there. If you’re battling a certain gym every day at the same time, waiting for the bus, then people can figure out where you’re going to be at that time, where you’re going, possibly. So you have to just be aware of those possibilities, and it is kind of, I think, the player’s responsibility. It’s something that we need to learn because augmented reality games are kind of new, so we need to learn to protect ourselves.

Q: How old should children be before they start playing?

A: I don’t want to limit the age. For example, I have two children, 3 and 6, and they also like to play with me. They like to help catch some Pokémon, and it’s a good opportunity. We just went to Discovery Park because we wanted to see what kinds of Pokémons there are, and it was this great family bonding experience. So it’s not really about limiting the age. It’s more about making sure that they know what to expect when they play this kind of game, and how to stay safe, and making sure that they are looking at the street, not just looking at their phone because people will run into things.

Q: There’s a red-blue-yellow divide in Pokémon Go. Do you see any parallels between that and the growing tribalism in culture?

A: It’s a little too early to say. But if we think about the experience in Ingress, one of the things that we actually are trying to find out in our research project is about understanding if there is any kind of correlation between what people choose as their team and who they are in their real life, about their race, their ethnicity their gender, their socioeconomic status, their political stance. We’re trying to understand that. We do know from playing Ingress for quite a while in Seattle that some locations stay as predominately green or blue, which we think kind of shows the characteristics of the players in that area. It might turn out to be that way for Pokémon Go, too. There are a lot of internet memes already, and a lot of misunderstanding of particular teams and what kind of players they are. For Team Valor, I know the common understanding is that we are the most aggressive players, which may or may not be true. Yellow are the ones that are sort of unique. Blue are the mainstream. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Q: For those who have trouble understanding it, what benefits are there in playing?

A: It’s not (just) Pokémon Go, but also other online augmented reality games, including Ingress. (It can be beneficial) for a lot of players who are less inclined to go outside – and that could be for many reasons. It could be because they are physically disabled and it’s actually painful for them to go out and walk down the street. It could be because of mental issues that they just don’t want to go out, they want to isolate themselves. We have heard many cases where those players were finally motivated to go outside because you need to go down to that portal and hack that portal or go catch a Pokémon. There’s that benefit of making people go out and actually walk. On the internet, people are also making memes about “sore leg syndrome” and how that’s taking over the world because people are actually going out and walking, which is definitely a good benefit.

Another thing that often comes up is the increased awareness of your community and where you are. A lot of Poke Stops are based on Ingress portals, and these were portals because a lot of people submitted these places in their neighborhood, like murals and memorial benches and landmarks as portals. Now they’re Poke Stops. When you go to those places, you’ll discover things that you never knew before. That was the case for me too, when I ended up finding these parks in the neighborhood that I never knew existed. It brings this increased awareness of the community. One thing I realized was how many memorial benches are actually out there, how much of these structures are built in our community so we can remember the people who are not with us anymore. I think that’s added benefits.

Also, creating opportunities to connect with other people. A lot of Ingress players will say, “Hey, I now go and do these things with these people that I would have never met in my real life, in my social circle,” so it really broadens your perspective in life.

Q: Are businesses taking advantage of this?

A: Based on the information that I’ve read so far online, I think most businesses are taking one of two paths. One is to try to make it more difficult for players, like “Oh, you have to purchase something if you want to come in and catch Pokémon,” or, “No, don’t stand in front of my business.” So you can take that route, or I think you can take the other route. You can put the lure actively around your businesses; you can try to attract those people. If I owned any of those businesses, I would actually hold a different night for different teams. So you can get some kind of bonus if you’re Team Valor on certain days. You can actually promote those kind of meetings. A lot of Ingress players, what we call it is “farming,” which is to get together in a group and you go to these portals and you put the frackers on, which is the lure in Pokémon, and you get gears and all different stuff together as a group. And when they do that, they also like to get together to eat and drink and spend time at your businesses, and this is a big group of people. I think there are ways to take advantage of that in a good way. You support the fun gameplay, you provide a venue where they can connect with each other and do good business. 


Safety tips for Pokémon Go players from the GAMER group:

  • Don’t use your name as part of your ID. If you do, it makes it easy for people to find out who you are. While this may seem obvious, iSchool researchers were surprised by the number of people who use their real names in both Ingress and Pokémon Go.
  • Consider whether you really want to make a character closely resemble how you look in real life. Given the option to customize the look of a character, people often tend to make it look like them, but this can potentially make it much easier to identify you from a group of people.
  • Don’t Poke-drive. In general, operating any vehicle while playing these kinds of games can be dangerous and should be avoided unless you are in the vehicle as a passenger. If you are a driver and need to engage in gameplay, stop the vehicle before doing so.
  • If you are walking, make sure to take your eyes off the phone once in a while, especially when you are going up and down stairs. It is easy to get immersed in gameplay, and you WILL find yourself walking among trees and other obstacles. The default setting in Pokémon Go makes your phone vibrate when a Pokémon is nearby, so it is not necessary to constantly look at your phone.
  • Be aware of your environment. These games can be quite immersive, and as you follow the Poke Stops and gyms you may end up in an unfamiliar area.
  • If you are a parent, explain all the points above to your children. They are particularly vulnerable if they are not fully aware of the possible pitfalls of the game. Make sure they are well-protected and prepared by sharing these tips, or play together. It can be a great opportunity for family bonding.