It’s been a weird past 18 months, and one of the odder things has been the way games have evolved to deal with the ongoing pandemic. No game faced a bigger need to change, or a bigger challenge to its core concept than Niantic’s Pokemon Go, which is based on the idea of getting out and moving around places — often with friends. Niantic buckled down and made a number of changes over the time frame to deal with the pandemic situation, but they are now taking actions that, instead of helping end the situation, threaten to prolong it.
One of the big changes that Niantic made during the pandemic was to double the range players could interact with PokeStops and Gyms, a change that was popular for allowing players to play more from home and stay socially distanced. This, however, is beginning to change in certain regions, namely New Zealand and the United States, where they are being replaced by the new Exploration bonuses that are designed to incentivize people to visit new places.
Beyond making play easier for many and avoiding requiring people to sometimes crossroads that may prove hazardous, the increased range of PokeStops and Gyms was also great for accessibility. For myself, as someone who can’t always get out, it has helped me at times, but this is only why it’s unpopular and a bad idea — not why it is dangerous. Any time you are reducing the accessibility of your game and increasing potential problems (haven’t we heard enough trespassing Pokemon Go stories over the years?) is bad enough, but it is downright irresponsible to do so while the pandemic is ongoing... and heating back up.
Coronavirus Delta Edition
While some politicians and regions are pretending that everything is going better (Boris Johnson in the U.K. and Jason Kinney in Alberta, Canada), right now that is not the case. I’ll be largely confining myself to observations on stats in the United States, with caveats that reporting is an inexact science and that there are less tests now than there were a few months ago.
When this change was announced back on June 21, the U.S. was down to a seven-day average of just over 11,000 new COVID cases per day. This is not an insignificant amount given the potential seriousness of COVID-19, but it was the lowest since March 2020, and showed a positive direction going forward, with an over 1.2 million seven-day average on vaccine doses administered.
Things change. As of now, the Delta variant of COVID-19 is running rampant in many regions, with it making up over 80% of new infections. This more infectious variant has helped lead to a resurgence in coronavirus cases, with them approaching a new seven-day average of 80,000 a day. Florida even set a record with 21,000 new cases on July 31, and several states are setting new records for hospitalizations.
This is more than what the U.S. faced last summer, and more comparable to the fall in October. Meanwhile, vaccination rates have fallen off, with the seven-day average there being down to around 650,000 a day. This is part of the vaccine drive having plateaued in the U.S. with well under 60% of people getting a single dose of vaccine, and under 50% with two doses (or equivalent) of vaccine. While this is happening, almost all the new tracked cases are among unvaccinated people, showing a direct correlation between people not getting vaccinated and people being diagnosed with COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has even recommended again that vaccinated people wear masks indoors to help control the spread of COVID-19.
How The Delta Variant's Emergence Trapped Pokemon Go
This puts Pokemon Go in a rough spot, because the situation it was forecasting based on what was seen in June is not the situation we are seeing now in July. Factoring in the fact that it takes time for symptoms to show up for COVID-19 — and time for tests to be returned — this situation is unlikely to materially change for the better in the near future. The upwards trend of infections is going to be continuing, and more people are at risk.
Part of Niantic’s statement said, “We will be monitoring the situation and activating appropriate bonuses when and where available,” and it is time for Niantic to prove the reverse of that is also true. That when it is appropriate, they will be backing off, disabling the “return to normal bonus,” and re-enabling the COVID-19-era abilities.
This is not the time that you should be removing things from your game that help keep people separated, which is the biggest impact of the double distance — it lets people be further apart and still spin the PokeStops and Gyms. It gets even worse when you consider the new “exploration bonuses” that encourage people to go to areas where they’ve never been. This includes a 10x bonus on never-before-visited PokeStops, more raid passes (which require you to be close to gyms), and more effective incense when you are out moving around.
I get it. It’s been well over a year now with COVID, and the vaccines were supposed to solve everything. Until we get herd-immunity levels of the population vaccinated (both in individual countries and worldwide), even more infectious variants will continue to arise as the danger continues. And until we have reached those levels, until people are safe, actions like Niantic is taking are irresponsible and dangerous. It encourages the spread of a potentially lethal virus by telling people to get out in groups and go visit new places when it isn’t safe to do that. That’s just wrong.