Pikachu, Agent of Google AdWords

A few days ago, I was walking by a creekside deck near my office and notice a sign had been posted in front of it. The sign indicated that anyone caught sleeping on, or even sitting for extended periods, on the deck, would be subject to arrest. As you have probably gathered, this deck is a popular spot for homeless folks to rest and sleep. I'm not a fan of giving people who have nowhere to sleep even fewer places to sleep, but that's a subject for another day.

As I was walking, I was also playing Pokemon GO. The area near the deck is a pokestop and it's normally surrounded by four or five monsters. It struck me as curious that there were none whatsoever. It struck me as strange when I didn't see any monsters there the entire day, but the nearby stops seemed to have any unusually high numbers of monsters nearby.

The coincidence of the posting of the "no sleeping" notice and the lack of pocket monsters was almost certainly just that. The monsters have returned to that stop even though the sign remains. There were two unrelated events that caught my attention due to their being so close to each other in time and space, and it got me to thinking.

Pokemon GO is a step towards gamifying "real life." To receive rewards in the game, you have to move around outside of the game. I expect this sort of thing to get more sophisticated, more immersive, and to become even more popular in the near future. Wearable technology will get less obtrusive so people can play whatever game they're involved in at the same time they're working or shopping or whatever. It's a brilliant model and I expect it to continue to succeed.

So, the games can reward behavior in the real world, but who is deciding what those behaviors should be? Think about how impressive marketing technology is today. At home, Nicole and I have had conversations about a restaurant or a product near our phones and found ads for the same restaurant or product pop up on our browsers on our desktops. Imagine the kind of marketing database which exists for each and every one of us. This information could be used, in-game, to guide people down certain streets and certain shops at certain times of the day.

If that isn't creepy enough for you, imagine the demographic knowledge in these databases and how it might be used. The game experience, overlaid on to real life, could offer be custom tuned based on your income, your ethnicity, your religion, your gender identity, or any number of factors. Imagine segregation enforced, not by policing, but by in-game rewards.

If this sounds like an episode or two from season three of Black Mirror, well, sure, I can see that. Charlie Brooker's awfully good at envisioning this sort of scenario. However, my original point of reference is Bruce Sterling's short story Maneki Neko. If you're familiar with the story, you'll see the connection right away. If not, you owe it to yourself to click the link and read it. As usually, Sterling was a good five years ahead of the curve.