According to a post on Reddit (I know, I know – but stay with me on this), an Ingress player in Ohio was detained by police for his in-game actions. Specifically, he was “hacking a portal” near a police station. His phone had technical difficulties, which led him to linger by the portal/police station for a bit, catching the eye of local law enforcement and leading to the detention.
After the original post, other Ingress players responded with similar stories. One aroused suspicions by wandering around an empty parking lot at night. Another, trying to hack a portal next to an air traffic control station, had to run from the local sheriff. A third was called in for questioning after hacking a portal outside of a “high-traffic drug area.”
It’s In The Game
As Dan Rowinski mentioned in his earlier post, there’s plenty of “creep” factor built into the game. In fact, much like geocaching (Ingress’ non-digital ancestor), lurking in strange and hard-to-get-to places at odd hours is kind of the point.
Getting detained (as many Redditors pointed out, the poster wasn’t technically arrested) probably adds to the intrigue, and certainly gives a player a certain amount of street cred. It could also call into question the boundary between the First Amendment and public safety.
Legal, But Risky
All of Ingress’ portals are on public land. There’s no law against walking past a police station, post office or airport. There are, however, very legitimate safety concerns held by the people charged with protecting those facilities and keeping an eye out for potential risks.
As one law enforcement professional joked, “I hope they don’t put one of those in front of the White House.” In fact, there are apparently a bunch of portals in front of the White House, embassies and other sites that could be high-interest targets for vandalism or worse.
At least Ingress doesn’t require players to dig up or bury physical objects, a phenomenon that has caused some high-profile problems in the geocaching community. Still, as similar games take off (and they will), we’re going to see more friction between gamers and law enforcement, particularly in full AR environments that use cameras. In addition to trespassing and loitering violations, there’s greatly increased potential for distraction, perhaps leading gamers to injure themselves or others. It’s all the danger of texting – plus headphones – with the added possibility of being labeled a terrorist by overzealous cops.
By all accounts, Niantic labs has been responsible about these issues. The game doesn’t encourage trespassing or dangerous behavior, like using your phone in a car. Other developers may not feel the same sense of duty, or their goals may encourage “creative” players to take unnecessary risks.
If enough negligence, trespassing, and public nuisance suits (and maybe some claims of police harassment) hit the courts, we’ll eventually wind up with legislation governing the balance between gameplay and public safety. We might see an increase of no-device buffer zones around sensitive areas, or certain games limiting accounts to only users of age to accept legal responsibility for their actions. There could even be outright bans on AR games in certain areas.
Until then, it’s up to game developers to police themselves and players to stay smart. One dumb move could lead to a ton of regulation that could really spoil everyone’s fun.
Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.