Boon Sheridan is a user experience designer living in Holyoke, Massachusetts. His house, formerly a Methodist church built in 1886, sits across the street from a park and is somewhat of a minor local landmark. Services haven’t been held since it was converted in the ‘70s, but on Saturday, July 9th, Sheridan woke up to find a crowd of eager young visitors standing outside his doors. Had he been a preacher, this would have been a dream come true (even if the gathering was a day early), but for the UX designer, it turned out to be more of a draft.
Having been a bit of a Pokémon fan himself growing up, he opened up the Pokémon Go app that he had downloaded while out with friends the evening before, and as he suspected, discovered the reason behind the sudden influx of visitors. His house was now, without any input from him, a Pokémon Gym, and he had become the unwilling center of a digital territory war.
“I realized something was up first thing Saturday morning,” he tells me. “I was nursing a huge glass of iced coffee. Between sips I looked out the window and realized there were strangers out on the sidewalk. We see decent foot traffic because of the park across the street, but this was different—folks were standing on the sidewalk facing my house while deep in their phones.”
The way Pokémon Go Gyms are chosen is a bit of a mystery at this point, but it is largely suspected that they are based on the locations used in Pokémon Go developer Niantic’s previous game, Ingress (2013). In Ingress, players would travel from location to location, tagging them to create control zones held by whatever faction they were playing as. Some of these locations were chosen because of their popularity on Google—for instance, the Washington Monument might be an Ingress stop due to how many geotagged pictures of it are uploaded to Google on a daily basis—while others were submitted by users. For Ingress’s comparatively smaller player base, this worked without raising too many eyebrows, but with the addition of Pokémon comes a greater popularity and, more importantly for Sheridan, greater public noticeability.
“I hope my neighbors don’t think I’ve become a drug dealer”
“It just kept going on during the day. I’d go do something and I’d come back to make lunch or get a glass of water and look for people and, sure enough, there’d be one or two people, at one point there was a group of five or six folks,” Sheridan told GamesRadar. “In my head I was going ‘Oh man I hope my neighbors don’t think I’ve become a drug dealer.’”
Augmented reality as it applies to property rights is a relatively new question, and on Sheridan’s Twitter, he used his experience researching games as a designer to raise his concerns. “As a designer, I am OVER THE MOON at all the questions this gym situation raises,” he explained. For instance, he worried that “Pokémon Go + Stand Your Ground/Castle Doctrine = SOMEONE’S GONNA HAVE A BAD TIME,” wondering how other, more protective Gym owners might respond to strangers visiting their property at odd hours. “Does having a gym layered on my house enhance or detract from my home’s value?,” he also questioned. “The awkward truth is something bad is gonna happen eventually. There are too many variables in play to control ‘em all.”
He took to Niantic’s website looking for answers, finding a guide for player behavior that only tells them to “Adhere to the rules of the human world.” His response? “That’s a slippery phrase if I’ve ever heard one.” Additionally, when he looked if there were any ways to report his Gym and have it removed, he noticed that “Niantic’s support page says nothing about disputing/removing locations.”
So regarding his own situation, he’s trying to make the best of what he can. “It was a little weird at first, but it’s fine. Most folks have been considerate of the space so far,” he tells me. “My neighbors were a little confused at first, but we talked for a bit and now that the game has been all over the news they’re cool with it.”
Going forward, though, he’s considering putting out a sign asking players to have fun and respect the space, and for an extra touch, he’s thinking about adding lights that change according to whoever controls the Gym. As a Gym owner, he tells me that “It’s been an amazing experience and a great way to meet a bunch of neighbors,” but because the park across from him has seen an uptick in trash from the recent visitors, he wants to make sure players “keep being awesome about respecting fences, driveways, and the like.”
“It’s been an amazing experience and a great way to meet a bunch of neighbors”
Still, in a perfect world, he would prefer to have the Gym moved, preferably to the park across the street. That way, he told me, “the neighborhood keeps the gym, and I get a little more privacy.” As he explained to GamesRadar, “someone has superimposed this property on top of mine [and] I had no say in the matter.” When I asked him if he had spoken to a real-estate agent about his concerns as to how the Gym would affect his property rights, he told me “A real-estate agent I know was a little concerned about the situation as I described it and gave the distinct impression it was information he wouldn’t share when he listed a property. Some folks aren’t going to be excited by lots of foot-traffic to their home at all hours, who knew?”
For his part, Sheridan told me “I’m OK with the space being a gym,” and that “There’s no point in getting too bent out of shape over if it hadn’t happened.” Still, the affair does raise a new legal question now that augmented reality is adding a new layer of potential concerns to properties: to what point can a digital world use your property for its own purposes without getting permission from you first? Could future homeowners also see themselves buying AR rights (perhaps similar to a copyright) for their home along with physical property rights, or is something like Pokémon Go in the clear, being more like a map than an actual claim to ownership? Could AR be similar to school districts, in that despite not being a direct physical concern, it could still affect value? If a home becomes attached to a seedy AR game at some point in the future, could it be in a “bad AR district?”
“That’s a great question and one I don’t have an easy answer for,” Sheridan told me. “As a designer who works with data all the time, I hope there were discussions about how big the data set was, if all the locations were updated, vetted, and usable. The stories are rolling in of many PokéStops and Gyms in awkward or potentially disrespectful locations (graveyards, the 9/11 Memorial, etc.) so it looks like the database is rather messy.”
To close our chat, he wanted to assure me that “most players have been great.” He even advises others caught in his situation to “Make an excuse to be outside and meet some of the players. Everyone I’ve talked to has been happy to chat and say hello.” Still, as he posted on Twitter:
“Are you training?”
“Heck yeah, this is *my* gym!”
“Cool, this is *my* house! We should be friends."
— Boon Sheridan (@boonerang) July 10, 2016
All photos used with permission from Boon Sheridan and Caty McCarthy