When is it okay to hack? When is it ethical to hack? For the Pokémon GO gaming community, these questions became more than just hypothetical after thousands of players studied the game’s programming, shared knowledge in video tutorials, and experimented with a range of techniques to exploit glitches. Did this hacking expand access and enhance the game experience? Or was it just plain cheating?
Pokémon GO garnered 21 million active users within two weeks of its US release in the summer of 2016, and by the end of the year the augmented reality phone game had been downloaded 500 million times in over 100 countries. The game was hyper-social, requiring the physical presence of players who used their mobile device to locate and “capture” virtual creatures which game designers made uniquely discoverable in different locales around the world. Commentators praised it for its healthy, crowdsourced approach to smartphone games. But tens of millions of players also meant hundreds of thousands of players interested in hacking the game—coming up with a wide variety of tricks to evade the necessity of being physically present at the lucky times and places where the virtual creatures would appear. Hackers and would-be hackers used YouTube videos (like the one seen above) to crowdsource the hacks. Many people even started learning programming to better game the game—turning to Reddit, Discord, GitHub and other discussion and coding platforms to receive and dispense technical advice. They discussed the nuances of GPS and argued over the best programming languages for the job. Learning communities formed online, complementing the social groups that formed around the “pokéstops” built into the game. Only in these groups players traded strategies for gaming the game itself—playing what we might think of as a metagame.
Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux describe metagaming as playing games with games, whether by modding them or changing their goals. As one github project proclaimed: “It’s really simple in essence. We’re making Pokémon GO more awesome by giving an edge over others (face it, that’s why most are here) but still making it fun to play by actually going out there. We’re augmenting the experience.” Many players liked this approach, because it meant less frustration and more fun. While some non-augmented players condemned these activities as cheating, others pushed back–pointing out that not all “outsides” or outdoor areas were created equal; that Augmented Reality games like Pokémon GO had built-in infrastructural biases that made it easier for some players to catch pokémon than others. People with limited mobility, kids not allowed out at night, players who lived in remote areas—each of these groups of people were already confined to a different metagame. Most egregiously, data scientists demonstrated that pokéstops tended to be more numerous in demographically white neighborhoods than any others.
Living in a white neighborhood, being able to roam free at night, being able to travel by car or bike or walk into wheelchair-inaccessible zones, all effectively functioned as ready-made cheats for those able to benefit from them. Hacking communities thus remade the user experience, potentially leveling it to serve a diversity of players and play-styles.
So rather than see it as a form of cheating, we could flip our perspective. These metagamers aren’t trying to gain an unfair advantage; they’re hacking Pokémon GO in order to play the “same game.”