Pokémon Go has spread across the country like an augmented reality forest fire and — like a forest fire– some people are getting burned.
The mobile app is like a treasure hunt where the treasure is a small Japanese spirit-animal that you can only see on the game’s map-like interface. Millions of people in North America downloaded the game since its release last week and now instead of the tech-entranced staying flopped on a couch or standing still in the middle of a busy sidewalk while pecking away at the screens in their hand, many Americans are now hurtling headlong through the real world in pursuit of imaginary beasts.
The only way to “capture” the digital Pokémon without a lot of in-app purchases is for the player to constantly seek out new places in the real world, and, unfortunately, those new places can hold bigger surprises than prize captures like Charmander (a bald, earless newt-like dinosaur with a flaming tail) or Aazumarill (a blue and white speckled egg with rabbit ears and a ball-and-chain tail.)
There are already many examples of people ending up where they don’t belong: including the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., running across a busy highway or falling off a cliff but for utility companies and members of the IBEW the game presents real dangers.
First, while the game warns users to pay close attention to their surroundings at all times, there are no in-game warnings about real world dangers. As every utility member knows, a lot of the equipment they work with every day is dangerous and, often, lethal.
AEPOhio released a statement warning people not to enter substations or climb company poles to try and reach transformers.
“Even when hunting for Pokémon, never go near or in an electrical substation – and stay away from power lines, poles and towers,” tweeted the official account.
EntergyNuclear also tweeted, “Do you really gotta catch ’em all? Not near secured nuclear power plants.” along with a link to the Nuclear Energy Institute’s plant security website.
Even before players get to power generation equipment they can endanger themselves. FirstEnergy, for example, announced that three teenagers were stopped by security at the Perry Nuclear Power Plant near Cleveland when they entered a restricted zone while chasing a Pokémon.
And it is not just civilians who get themselves in trouble. While there are few, if any, stories of Pokémon Go players losing their jobs as a result of playing the game, it has happened at least once because of a different virtual reality, phone-based app.
Ingress has been around for nearly four years and has millions of users across the globe. Pokémon Go is actually based on the platform used in Ingress and the games have many similarities.
Last October an IBEW utility member was fired from his job at a nuclear power plant for incorporating protected areas of the plant into the game. The IBEW member had a high-security clearance and the locations he included in the game were outside the most critical parts of the plant, but when civilian players of the game turned up on restricted ground at the plant, the IBEW member was terminated.
A recent arbitration ruling upheld the firing.
“Younger members might not realize that they can reveal information about the physical plant without knowing it though these games,” said Utility Department International Representative Anna Jerry. “The results can be catastrophic. It can get you fired and it has gotten people fired.”