Andrew Small/CityLab

The game broke the Internet, but not everywhere equally.

This week, the Urban Institute released a report on the equitable distribution of resources or lack thereof in Pokémon Go. As it turns out, in Pok—don’t laugh! It’s a thing! The most interesting thing about playing Pokémon Go is where you play Pokémon Go.

There is a disparity between neighborhoods when it comes to the location-based features that make Pokémon Go work. Depending on where you live or spend your free playing time, the game is either break-the-internet stimulating or kind of meh and potentially even expensive. The report, which focuses on Washington, D.C., finds that there are more “portals”—Gyms and Pokéstops, for the initiated—in whiter, more affluent neighborhoods than in blacker, less affluent neighborhoods.

“In neighborhoods that are majority white, there are 55 portals on average, compared with 19 portals in neighborhoods that are majority black,” reads the report by Shiva Kooragayala and Tanaya Srini. Those results control for population density and the distribution of Millennials, two factors that would naturally distinguish one Pokéneighborhood from another.

The Urban Institute report makes use of portal data from Ingress, the original Niantic Labs game on which Pokémon Go is based. While Niantic has not released much in the way of Pokémon Go data, the distribution of Gyms and Pokéstops in the game draws from the same database of user-generated, location-based Portals that players helped to develop for Ingress. One major difference between the games: Players cannot (yet) generate their own stops in Pokémon Go. Therein lies the problem.

“Ingress used to allow players to suggest relevant portal locations in their areas, but because Ingress players tended to be younger, English-speaking men, and because Ingress’s portal criteria biased business districts and tourist areas, it is unsurprising that portals ended up in white-majority neighborhoods,” reads the report.

Breaking down portal locations by U.S. Census tracts, the Urban Institute researchers discovered an inclusivity problem in the game. The researchers aren’t the first to notice: McClatchy’s Christopher Huffaker outlined the problems with the distribution of resources in the game back in July, noting how the network effects of early adopters (white players) and people with more spare time (affluent players) led to concentrated portals in affluent white neighborhoods. My colleague Laura Bliss saw the same pattern in the new Google Maps “areas of interest” markers—areas of interest to whom?

Some players refer to the disparity as “Pokémon redlining,” which, whoa there. We’re still talking about Jigglypuffs, right? “Pokémon privilege” might be the better term of art—at least it refers directly to an aspect of placemaking underlying the location-based aspect of gameplay. The Urban Institute:

More traditional placemaking projects, like the creation of parks, art installations, or public markets, face similar problems. These endeavors are subject to several challenges: projects must comply with a myriad of rules and regulations; they are time, resource, and capital intensive, they are often in environments with scarce financial and intellectual resources; and they are usually difficult to get off the ground, frequently owing to a lack of public motivation. As a consequence, many placemaking projects that fail to start from inclusive and collaborative planning processes have excluded disadvantaged neighborhoods.

There’s more to it, though. Not only do cultural resources need to be well distributed and maintained across geographic communities (for reasons well outside the game!), they need to be made accessible to communities of color. Proximity is not the only delimiting factor. As my colleague Brentin Mock has explained, black people are less likely to use parks, even nearby parks, where “the threat of or the real presence of racism marred their ability to have an enjoyable park experience.”   

Once Niantic opens up the game’s points of interest up to user editing (however that happens), the game is bound to become easier to play for lower-income or majority-minority communities. (And less expensive: To have the same gameplay experience, players in places with fewer Pokéresources need to spend more on in-app purchases to make up the difference.) The same could be said for suburban or rural communities that may lack for cultural markers identified previously by Ingress players.

The disparity of resources is easily solved in Pokémon Go—which is one way you know that it’s only a game.

UPDATE: The headline of this post has been updated to more accurately reflect the language of the study’s data.

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