Pokemon Product Manager(s) – Killers?

Last week I posted about some issue regarding safety and such for autonomous vehicles. My goal was to make some points about the nature of some new technologies and to a degree how they relate to product management and such.

What I really didn’t anticipate is that within a week a new product craze would create a major public safety hazard.

I’m not much of a blogger. On occasion when an idea seems interesting and I have the time, I’ll whip something up just like a zillion other bloggers.

The thing is, as a long time digital products Product Manager and businessperson, I’m fully aware not to write, post, email, etc. when angry.

This time is different.

At what point are some risks of the variety that “common sense” suggests that a person of reasonable intelligence should have easily foreseen potential cascade consequences of their actions?

The Nintendo / Niantic Pokemon craze has resulted in significant share appreciation for the company. It has also resulted in direct safety risks that have already caused injuries and deaths. I get why it’s popular. Scavenger hunts are fun. And this is way easier than the original geocaching.


As I write this, I’m sitting at my firehouse. While I’m a Product Manager by day, I’m a volunteer firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician during some of my free time. I’ve been doing emergency services volunteer work for decades. I’ve witnessed the amazing and wonderful improvements in auto safety over the past few decades that have resulted in fatality avoidance and decreasing injuries. From seat belt laws to airbags to better crumple zone design and so on, things were getting better. Until cell phones and texting. At this point, it’s generally accepted that distracted driving is on par with drunk driving in terms of risks. Watch this actual test example. At least people seem to understand this as a risk and there’s some attempts to mitigate the issue.

And now… of all things… Pokemon? 10 minutes ago I watched a few kids walk by all with their heads down in their phones as they played… as they walked along a busy street pretty much oblivious to where they were going. We all have moments of inattention and risk on occasion. This is a new level of distraction.

Pokemon may well be worse than texting and driving.

The game has been out a week…

The list goes on. It’s not panicked just supposin’ by haters. There’s bad things really happening now.

The game may have some side benefits of increasing some fitness steps, but I’m not sure this is worth it. It may even – over time – help with childhood obesity. Of course, if this slimmer kid is hit by a car, I’m not sure the trade off will be worth it.

Augmented Reality and Average Users

This will be a value judgment on my part. But I’m going to say that I think that most average folks are not ready for certain types of distracting augmented reality or user interfaces between them and the real world. This may change over time as people build new skills with new tools. It likely will change.

For now though, it seems that special training is needed. Fighter pilots, or any pilot using synthetic vision, and other tools, generally are safer than otherwise. But they typically get extensive training and practice. Firefighters may use thermal imaging cameras as adjunctive help in locating survivors in a fire. Again, special training is used.

In vertical markets where special tools are useful and needed, usually there is some associated training. We’re not seeing this for consumers.

Who’s Responsible for Bad Outcomes?

If lawsuits haven’t already been filed, I’d guess within a few more days to a week or two at most we’ll see the first of these against the developer Niantic, their Nintendo partner, and more.

The legal questions or claims will likely sometimes fall into that nebulous category of “knew or should have known” about this or that risk. (Regardless of safety labels and such.)

Leaving aside any opinions on the right or wrong of the parties, it will likely be an interesting and possibly seminal case in the law surrounding responsibilities with regard to augmented reality software use.

So, What’s a Product Manager to Do?

So you’re the King or Queen of some hot new whatever it is. Who doesn’t want to have the hot product hand? And if you’re at a startup or have stock or stock options? Wow. Great Stuff.

Except… are you paying attention to cascade consequences and negative effects? What legal responsibilities might you have. (Maybe more of these are soon to be determined.) And what moral responsibilities do you have?

Part of our job is to try to see around corners a bit. We’re not always going to be able to do that. It’s a complex world and things interact in all manner of ways.  Once upon a time I read a review someone had written about a science fiction story. (Sorry, I can’t recall the source.) The crux of it was that the author was impressed not so much with the story’s foretelling of certain new technologies. But of all the political, social and economic impacts those technologies might have. It’s one thing to look at “the thing.” It’s another to look at relationships among things.

I’ll be watching with interest to see if the game producers do anything – either initiated by them or because they’re compelled to legally – in order to mitigate some of the harmful effects of what was supposed to be pure fun.

Edit / Update 8/8/16…

I may need to soften my tone on this issue a bit. While I still believe the Pokemon team needs to consider some aspects of their offering with regards to safety, it appears there are some very compelling positives to this game. For one, I’ve heard someone remark that Pokemon may have done more for childhood obesity prevention than just about any recent government program to address the issue. Kids are running around outside chasing these things and not just sitting in front of a console game. As well, I witnessed something interesting in person. Earlier I mentioned my volunteer work with a local fire department. Last week while on shift, my partners and I noticed a variety of vehicles pulling into our ramp. Kids would get out, hunt a Pokemon, and leave. In speaking with one of the Mom’s driving her little player around she said the game has helped them bond quite a bit as they go out together. I’m not sure what the philosophical / ethical balance is from a Utilitarian standpoint. That is, if there’s X benefit accruing via better parental ties and less obesity, does that outweigh the occasional injury or fatality. My hope is that you can achieve all the good without the negatives. And that the Pokemon team does in fact study some of the negative consequences and find ways to build more safety into the game. (I.e., not placing game goal targets in dangerous areas and such.)

In any case, they at least have a means to request removal of a Pokéstop that may be in a dangerous or inappropriate area.

U.S. Support Form

It’s likely that any report will take awhile to have any effect. The game is amazingly popular and my understanding is they’re getting a ton of requests, from the dangerous to the just inappropriate. (E.g., national cemeteries, private property and so on.)




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