‘Pokemon GO’ community stands up for accessibility and safety

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Although Niantic believed the increased radius would discourage exploration, it encouraged players to visit previously inaccessible locations from a respectful and safe distance.

Niantic’s controversial decision to remove a popular accessibility feature in “Pokemon GO” was reversed following uproar by the game’s community. This is a victory not only for “Pokemon GO” players but for accessibility and inclusion.

“Pokemon GO” encourages exploration by spawning wild Pokemon on its in-game map, but also by designating landmarks as points of interaction (POI), where players spin Photo Discs with pictures of locations to collect items. POIs include PokeStops, which grant Field Research tasks with rare rewards, and Gyms, which host raid battles and are the only places where the game’s premium currency, PokeCoins, can be earned for free.

Players could previously interact with POIs within a 40-meter interaction radius around their avatar. However, during the first wave of lockdowns amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Niantic doubled the interaction radius to 80 meters so players could explore from a distance, along with introducing other features like remote raid passes for distanced or international raids.

Niantic intended for pandemic bonuses to last three to four months and assumed the pandemic would end after the first lockdowns. Needless to say, the pandemic continued, and so did the bonuses. Because the increased distance allowed for safe playing, the game retained an active audience; in fact, “Pokemon GO” saw its most profitable year ever in 2020, with over $1 billion in revenue.

Bonuses were gradually reversed, but certain features like remote raid passes became permanent. A blog post on Nov. 19, 2020, listed the increased distance as a feature that would “remain implemented for the foreseeable future.” However, the developers went back on their word by returning to 40-meter interactions in the United States and New Zealand on Aug. 1, replacing it with bonuses like extra daily raid passes from visiting POIs.

On Aug. 5, prominent community members, ranging from “Pokemon GO” content creators to fan websites, released an open letter with the hashtags “#HearUsNiantic” and “#PokemonNODay.” The hashtags, which pressured Niantic to respond by Aug. 9 regarding accessibility and safety issues created by the reduction, topped Twitter trends with nearly 100K tweets. Thousands of players committed to not opening the game or at least going free-to-play.

Graphic by Niantic.

Since “Pokemon GO” is designed around navigating real locations, it’s bound to said locations’ accessibility issues. Numerous POIs are located behind staircases and steep inclines that are inaccessible to physically disabled players. The increase circumvented this, as well as benefiting neurodivergent players with sensory conditions, who could interact with POIs in overwhelming locations while avoiding sensory overload.

Accessible POIs are often placed in locations where playing is disrespectful, such as graveyards or churches. The letter outlines how increased distance allows players to be courteous to others by ”not crowding or blocking entry to businesses, private property, playgrounds, emergency services, places of worship or memorials.”

Even accessible and respectfully placed POIs can be unsafe with a large enough crowd. Not only is the pandemic ongoing, but the highly transmissible Delta variant and rising breakthrough cases are cause for concern. It’s still possible to play “Pokemon GO” with others, but with higher interaction distance, players can adequately space themselves while interacting with POIs together.

Although Niantic believed the increased radius would discourage exploration, it encouraged players to visit previously inaccessible locations from a respectful and safe distance. Reverting the radius demotivated players, and the replacement bonuses lacked value. What good is one extra raid pass from spinning PokeStops if players can’t reach a PokeStop, let alone a Gym where they can use it?

Removing accessibility was far from players’ first issue with Niantic. “Pokemon GO” has more bugs than Viridian Forest, but instead of bug fixes, Niantic prioritizes adding features that inevitably bring more glitches. Niantic also doesn’t disclose the odds of catching rare Shiny Pokemon from raids or hatching specific Pokemon from eggs, which function identically to loot boxes and encourage paying for extra chances through raid passes and egg incubators.

The impact of #HearUsNiantic speaks to one of Niantic’s worst flaws: communication. Niantic ignores criticism on social media and lacks transparency or understanding of what fans want. Avoiding toxic negativity is one thing, but Niantic indulged in toxic positivity by ignoring constructive criticism. This level of backlash was bound to happen eventually, and the interaction radius was the straw that broke the Camerupt’s back.

Niantic responded on Aug. 5 with a vague, corporate message stating that a task force of community members would be assembled to discuss changes, with an extended deadline of Sept. 1 for their decision. This proved the protest was effective, but Niantic’s response further disillusioned the community. Communication was promising, but committing to changing course doesn’t take a month.

In detailing their goals, Niantic defended the reduction rather than apologizing, placing “inspiring people to explore the world together” as a higher priority than “addressing specific concerns that have been raised regarding interaction distance.” Niantic claimed its top priority was “health and wellbeing of players,” but didn’t explain why the reduced radius benefitted that priority outside of “taking walks outside is safe.”

This was enough for some players to return to the game, but not everyone. #HearUsNiantic continued throughout August, as did player hiatuses and discouragement of microtransactions. On Aug. 17, Niantic increased the radius in New Zealand early as the country entered Alert Level 4. This infuriated players, since Niantic continued to frame the radius as a safety issue while not applying it to America amidst rising COVID cases.

Four task force meetings featuring 30 representatives occurred during this period, and representatives were allowed to share what they discussed. Zeroghan, creator of the fan website PokemonGOHub.com, wrote about his task force meeting. While his impression was positive and suggested the developers were passionate about his feedback, his article also explains why Niantic was adamant about the lower radius.

According to Zeroghan, Niantic reiterated their pillar of exploration and disagreed that players have nothing left to explore. Their defense for the reduced radius was that, from farther distances, “players can barely see the PokéStop and there are often objects that obstruct the view.” If physically seeing POIs is a primary concern, this shows how out of touch the developers are with how players explore, due to ignoring criticism.

For disabled players who can’t visit inaccessible PokeStops up close, or even for players who only play on a daily route, POI visibility doesn’t matter. The overworld map is technically a map of the real world, but that doesn’t mean players were using POIs to discover landmarks like Google Maps. If anything, players find landmarks they can visit and look for surrounding POIs.

On Aug. 25, Niantic finally announced that the 80-meter radius had permanently returned, and on Sept. 1, the blog outlined steps to rebuild the community’s trust. Task force meetings will continue regularly, along with blog updates prioritizing bug fixes and bimonthly diaries to communicate development priorities.

This is a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen if Niantic will truly regain goodwill. Reinstating the increased radius doesn’t reflect the developers’ commitment to accessibility or safety, because it could’ve changed the moment they responded to #HearUsNiantic. Feedback and transparency are key to Niantic’s redemption, but it shouldn’t take a global protest and a month of waiting for them to listen or communicate.

While exploration is an important pillar of “Pokemon GO,” Niantic must remember that it’s nothing without its community. When the game launched in 2016, it seemed like the whole world came together to catch Pokemon. Many early players have left, but that sense of camaraderie hasn’t. It’s no surprise that the “Pokemon GO” community stood up for the inclusion and safety of all players.

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Opinions Editor | + posts

Sean Mullins (she/they) is the opinions editor and webmaster for the Journal. They are a media studies major who has participated in student journalism since high school, having previously been a games columnist, blogger and cartoonist for the Webster Groves Echo at Webster Groves High School. Their passion is writing and editing stories about video games and other entertainment opinions articles. Outside of writing, Sean is also the treasurer for Webster Literature Club.