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."
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.
The slider below shows a map of portals on the Ingress map on the left and a demographic map of Detroit on the right. Each dot represents 25 people, with blue dots representing African-Americans, red dots whites, orange dots Hispanics, green (cyan) dots Asians, and yellow dots "other." On a map of all claimed portals, you could almost draw the city's borders, but on a map with all portals -- including unclaimed -- the effect is much more subtle, if there is an effect at all. The parts of the city with the greatest concentrations of white and Hispanic residents appear to have the highest concentration of portals in the city, but otherwise the city proper and the suburbs seem to have fairly even distributions, other than the (mostly-white) areas directly north of the city and to the southwest of the city.
Jeff Lundberg, a Detroit-based player, explained that competition for the city's portals is so intense that many portals are never claimed long enough to reach high levels, meaning they did not render on our original map. The city proper, defined by the red line in the map below left, was 83 percent black as of the 2010 census.
Washington D.C., which was 51 percent African-American as of the last census shows that the more African American parts of the city appear to have many fewer Ingress portals.
The minority-dominated areas of downtown D.C., like the mostly white areas, have a lot of portals, thanks to the abundant historic sites, monuments and public spaces. The southern section of the city on the Potomac and neighboring northern Virginia also boast several places for mostly white residents to gather new pokeballs or show their skills at a gym. But in Southeast Washington and Maryland, the mostly black population has a much sparser distribution of portals, meaning they would have to travel further to collect items from multiple pokéstops.
New York City, which was 25 percent black and 28 percent Hispanic in 2010, has pokéstops everywhere in Manhattan, as James observed in Harlem. But a map with all portals rendered shows that the outer boroughs, particularly Brooklyn and Queens, have uneven distributions. Portals are densest in majority white and Asian neighborhoods.
Other cities’ disparities mirror D.C.'s. Miami, which was 19 percent black and 70 percent Hispanic in 2010, seems to have more pokestops in the coastal white areas and Hispanic areas than in black neighborhoods. (The demographic maps specify Hispanic as an exclusive term, so black and white indicate black and white non-Hispanic).
Chicago, 33 percent African American and 29 percent Hispanic in 2010, shows reasonably good portal distribution in mostly white and Hispanic areas, but notably not in the majority black South Side.
How did some neighborhoods end up with fewer pokéstops?
Locations for Ingress were mostly crowdsourced, so Niantic did not deliberately distribute markers unevenly.The company started with the Historical Marker Database, a crowdsourced collection of historical markers from around the country that they bought rights to in 2011.
J. J. Prats, who started the database in 2006 before selling the rights to Niantic, said site visits had gone up in the last week but he did not realize it was due to Pokémon. His site's 87,000-marker collection, he explained, comes from a corps of 3,000 volunteers about whom he knows little.
“All we ask is their name and town. They're all over the country,” he said. They are mostly male, which he can mostly tell from the names, and his guess is that the correspondents also “skew old.” He does worry about a couple of gaps, like Arkansas and west Texas, “where I don't really have any correspondents,” he said.
When Niantic took the database and used the sites in Ingress, their first augmented reality game, they also allowed players to submit locations for review, so the crowdsourcing process continued. Submission was shut down in September 2015 "temporarily" to work through a backlog, and there are no signs they plan to reopen.
Ingress players, like the database volunteers, appeared to skew male, young and English-speaking, according to informal surveys of the community in 2013 and 2014. Though the surveys did not gather data on race or income levels, the average player spent almost $80 on the Ingress game, according to the 2013 survey, suggesting access to disposable income.
Jack Thompson, a Lowell, MA-based Pokémon Go player, theorized that pokéstops and gyms are plentiful in affluent areas but not lower income ones because those who crowdsourced locations tended to be higher-income and more educated — and less likely to venture into poorer neighborhoods.
"Ingress crowdsourced its areas of interest from its players, but its players weren't diverse and crowdsourcing is only as representative as the crowd doing the sourcing,” said Thompson, who dabbled in Ingress. “So instead of a representative map, you get a map drawn, basically, by people with smartphones, tech knowledge, and spare time - high school kids, college students, nerds, and people with desk jobs.”
But Pokemon Go, which is more user-friendly and based on a massively popular franchise, is a more universal phenomenon.
“Pokemon Go has far broader reach - privileged people supplying data to a game for other privileged people is an insular experience, but privileged people supplying data to a game for everybody means the maps don't line up,” Thompson said.
Obviously, income and race are distinct, so we cannot draw a direct connection from the spending habits of Ingress players to the racial demographics of cities, but it is clear that, as Ingress locations came from crowdsourcing and many majority black neighborhoods have relatively few Ingress locations, most of the players were not spending much time in those neighborhoods.
A 2015 Pew poll shows that gaming crosses demographic lines among young people. But Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, pointed out, “Just because someone is black, it doesn’t mean they are living in a black place. If you are talking about young people you are maybe talking about college campuses, or young black folks living and working in much more diverse places. When you talk about gamers, it also gets to questions about leisure, who are folks that have the time... Working class, working poor, they do not have the time.” And studies have shown that poor black people are more likely to live among other poor people than are poor white people.
Network effects, which can reinforce racial segregation, were a major force behind the spread of Ingress; some 11 percent of players received their access codes from friends.
“People are living in very segregated places, so it would not be surprising that a game like this would reproduce those separations,” said Neal.
Those who live among dense pokéstops and gyms can earn more experience points, collect more items, and take and defend gyms. Collecting items without pokéstops is possible via in-game purchases, but players in pokéstop-plentiful areas need not spend any money on the game at all.
And this is not the only way Pokémon Go might play differently for minorities than it does for white people: multiple black players have worried that they will face racial profiling while wandering in circles playing the game. The two issues may feed each other. “I could imagine some instances where young black men would see where the object is and decide not to go,” said Neal.
Though Pokémon Go locations and Ingress locations are closely related, it is unclear if they are an exact one-to-one match. Niantic did not respond to our questions about the diversity of pokéstop locations.
“It’s an early stage. As the game develops, these issues will be explored,” said Neal. “There's an opportunity to create better relationships across race and class.”
CORRECTION: This article has been corrected with maps that include all Ingress portals, not just the claimed portals. These new maps show increased disparities in the outer boroughs of New York City, but fewer disparities in Detroit. Jeff Lundberg and Craig Hennigan, two Detroit-based Ingress players, alerted us to the issue.