On a hunt for a pokémon / Photo by Dani Deahl / The Verge
Full disclosure: I generally don't play games much anymore, whether video, online, offline, board, ball, table, or hunger. So anything I write about games is going to be at one remove as an observer, not a participant. That isn't necessarily bad, but in case you are an enthusiastic game player, you should know I am an outsider to all that.
Nevertheless, I can imagine what it would be like to get involved in Pokemon, the online mobile phone game, to such an extent that I would pay many hundreds of dollars to fly from Singapore to Chicago for a chance to play in a Pokemon Go Fest scheduled for July 22 in Grant Park. And I can imagine the eager anticipation I would feel as I waited in line several hours to scan a QR code, verifying I was in the park and ready to play, only to find that I couldn't even log onto the game.
According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, that was the experience of thousands of Pokemon players, some of whom had flown in from as far as Australia, Denmark, and Singapore. After four hours of problems, officials of Niantic, Pokemon's developer, canceled the event and awarded everyone a Lugia, a creature that was apparently one of the big attractions of the event.
I suppose those attending might be in the same mood as competitors in a deep-sea fishing contest who all arrived to find the boat was out of commission. But to make up for it, everybody who showed up got a package of frozen tuna. It's not the same thing as catching it yourself.
Philosophically, sports and games occupy a peculiar place in the wide realm of human behavior. Anyone who has watched a pair of dogs do what my wife calls “the puppy dance”—flopping their front legs flat on the ground while facing each other, butts in the air, then jumping up and chasing each other around the yard—realizes that the instinct to play is something we share with other animals. And yet it's not just instinct—it's the source of much delight, mutual aid, and fraternal feelings, even joy. Those who would dismiss sports, play, and the joy they bring as not being worthy of serious consideration are admonished by C. S. Lewis that “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.” And surely games are part of heavenly joy, I would hope.
As online games go, Pokemon has the comparative virtue of getting people out and about, and encouraging real-world interactions in the flesh, so to speak. Sure, it's silly to run around a public space staring at your phone in hopes that some server somewhere will cause a mysterious fictional creature to show up on it. But when you come right down to it, that silliness is shared by all games. Why do we pay certain individuals many millions of dollars to throw an oblate pigskin farther and more accurately than most other people can? Yet we do, and while football is enjoyed vicariously a lot more than it is enjoyed in person, it probably contributes its share to the sum total of human happiness.
So what was lost when Niantic dropped the ball, so to speak, and failed to prepare its servers adequately for the estimated 20,000 Pokemon players who showed up in Chicago? A lot of disillusioned people were only slightly mollified to get a Lugia as a consolation prize. And Niantic has metaphorical egg on its face after recovering from similar problems following the game's original introduction a few years back.
But other than that, as engineering crises go, this was a minor one. Nobody got hurt or killed, the monetary losses were limited to plane and hotel tickets, and if the old PR saying that there's no such thing as bad publicity is true, Pokemon got some free advertising, though not exactly in a form they would prefer.
I am no network specialist, and so I'm not going to speculate about the technical reasons for the failure. Like anybody else on the street would guess, I suppose somebody somewhere didn't correctly estimate how much resources would be needed, and they were caught by surprise when the demand peak clogged the available servers, and things froze up. We are used to this kind of thing in ordinary, as contrasted to digital, life when a performance event turns out to be much more popular than its organizers expected, and after the auditorium fills up lots of people have to be turned away. It's a good sort of problem to have, in a way, but when the limitation is electronic and not physical it can get frustrating.
Every game seems to attract a different kind of person, and it sounds like Pokemon players as a group, even the fanatical ones who fly halfway around the world to play, are a fairly well-behaved bunch. The worst thing that happened at the Pokemon Go Fest was that people booed John Hanke, Niantic's CEO. Contrast that to the bloody and even fatal riots that can happen at European soccer games, and the benign character of Pokemon looks even better. And the very choice of Chicago for this internationally popular event says something about the folksy and Middle-Western-style character of the game. It wouldn't have drawn the same type of crowd in New York's Central Park or Los Angeles's Griffith Park, and things might have gotten considerably uglier.
As a dedicated non-game-player, I'm still concerned that millions of young (and not so young) men and women spend thousands of hours of their lives playing video and online games instead of spending time with live friends, spouses, or even for example, working. You can always have too much of a good thing. But even after Niantic's epic fail in Chicago, I have to say that Pokemon seems to be a pretty harmless way for people to spend their free time, even if it doesn't always work.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.