Thursday, 26 March 2020

Niantic Wayfarer and Pokémon Go: Cultural Geographies of Wayspot Reviewing


During November last year, a significant new feature became available for players of Pokémon Go who had reached level 40, the maximum possible level in the game: the ability to submit nominations for new Pokéstop locations. Pokéstops are the in-game modules located at points of interest, which can be spun to receive items, quests and gifts to send to friends.
                    
Alongside this new capability, this same group of level-40 players has also been able to participate in the review system for these ‘wayspots’, called Niantic Wayfarer.

Here, submissions from other players are assessed according to a set of criteria outlined by Niantic, which new reviewers are tested on when they sign up. These criteria determine whether a location becomes a new wayspot, or is rejected. If approved, the wayspot will usually appear in all of Niantic’s games: Pokémon Go, Ingress and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

Over the past three months, I’ve been getting to grips with the process of submitting Pokéstop nominations and reviewing them using Niantic Wayfarer. In this post, I’m going to discuss the guidance given to reviewers of wayspot submissions, and the implications that these criteria have for how Pokémon Go players engage with the places they play in.


What makes a good wayspot?

On Wayfarer, Niantic give the following guidance to reviewers for identifying good wayspot nominations.


One immediate observation to note from these criteria is the focus on discovery.

Niantic want wayspots that draw attention to locational features that players might otherwise be unaware of, particularly from the perspective of visitors to an area. They’re asking locals to draw on their fine-grained knowledge of place to add content to their games – and particularly content that will enhance the experience of discovery and novelty among their mobile player base.

By aiming for these types of niche locational features, Niantic are potentially tapping into a broader trend of ‘offbeat’ tourism. Facilitated by Instagram, travel blogging/vlogging, websites and guides like Atlas Obscura, as well as locative media that make finding these sites easier, this slice of the travel and tourism sector has become remarkably lucrative with the growth of the so-called ‘experience economy’.

Indeed, it’s worth highlighting how Niantic as a company have been developing increasingly close links with the tourism industry and cultural sectors across the globe. For a while now, we have seen in-game events to mark World Tourism Day on Pokémon Go, as well as regional Pokémon that (in theory, at least) can only be obtained by travelling to another part of the world or trading with someone else who has.

They are even working with cultural departments in municipal authorities across the world to host events for players of Niantic games. For example, the locations of this year’s Pokémon Go Safari Zone events in Taiwan, St. Louis, Liverpool and Philadelphia (the last three now postponed) were decided following a bidding process by the cities involved. The competition was seemingly justified by figures reflecting the impact of previous Niantic events for the local economies of previous host cities.

But what do these trends mean for how players of Pokémon Go encounter and make sense of their surroundings?

Alongside these guidelines for making ‘good’ wayspots, Niantic have also included a list of specific kinds of nominations that they value highly.


Here, we see more explicit recognition of education and discovery being ‘cornerstones’ of Niantic as a corporation.

But what is most notable about this segment of the guidance is how Niantic are actively aiming to produce landscapes of play in their own image – to shape player engagement with places in ways that accord with their company values. These include transport hubs like train and bus stations that ‘connect and unite people around the world’, public parks that encourage ‘walking, exercising and enjoying public spaces’, and libraries for their core values of education and discovery.

Of course, thinking critically, we should be asking what aspects of place are left out of the imaginaries that Niantic are curating through Wayfarer. This is where their criteria for ‘low-quality nominations’ become significant.


‘Low quality’ nominations


In this section of the guidance, Niantic is clearly setting out exactly what kinds of places should not be interacted with by players of their games. From a practical standpoint, these would appear to be for reasons of safety (both of players and non-players), accessibility and potential legal ramifications for the company.

Clearly, as a large games company with a vast player base, and one very much in the public eye, there is little scope in Wayfarer for anything transgressive when it comes to the usual caveats of location-based gaming: private property laws, emergency service operations, key infrastructure and restricted sites (though examples abound of people playing Pokémon Go itself in transgressive ways).

But what I have found particularly fascinating about these guidelines for ‘low quality’ nominations is the ineligibility of those that are ‘natural features’.

Aside from the contention surrounding the word ‘natural’, which could be debated endlessly (e.g. how the concept of ‘nature’ itself is produced by humans; the social, cultural and/or political implications of designating certain entities as ‘natural’ and others not; how humans and our constructions are themselves part of nature, etc.) there are quite a few conceivable cases where the logic behind distinction can become problematic.

Following Niantic’s criteria, a geological feature that has been present for tens of thousands of years would be rejected as a Wayfarer nomination. Yet a sign for the same feature that probably wouldn’t last 20 years without repair or replacement would be eligible.

This is despite advising reviewers to reject nominations that ‘do not appear to be permanent’ in the same section of the guidance.

Here, longevity as a factor for eligibility is seemingly trumped simply by the presence of man-made objects.

Furthermore, there are cases where, even going by conventional social and cultural norms, the boundaries between a man-made and natural feature can be hard to distinguish. These include sites like ruins, where plants will invade and grow without careful maintenance. How overgrown does a man-made object need to become before it is no longer seen as ‘man-made’? And how feasible is it for a reviewer to make this distinction from the photograph included in the submission?

One important geographical observation is that the impact of these criteria will be felt differently depending on the types of places where people play.

The difficulties faced by rural Pokémon Go players are already well-established, with fewer spawns (sites where Pokémon can appear), Pokéstops and Gyms than their urban counterparts, all of which are crucial for in-game events and general gameplay.

However, it is also in rural areas where these ‘natural features’ are more likely to be the culturally important sites that players will want to showcase by turning them into Pokéstops. Even where there are relevant man-made objects to nominate in rural areas, these are generally less likely to have signs and other associated ‘man-made points of interest’ when compared to similar sites in urban areas.

So while Wayfarer might appear to democratise the process of getting new Pokéstops and Gyms wherever you live, the criteria for assessing nominations still work in favour of player communities in more populated, built-up, well-signposted locations.


Grey areas and community standards

As we’ve already seen, the guidance given to Wayfarer users may not always be easy to apply in practice. Niantic itself recognises that its criteria could provoke differences in interpretation, and have created a page on ‘potentially confusing nominations’ in the Support section of Wayfarer.

This additional advice covers a number of cases that might be interpreted differently depending on which aspects of the guidelines reviewers prioritise, including graffiti/street art, cemeteries and memorials, playgrounds, post offices and trail markers. It also gives specific advice regarding the images used in nominations (they should be good quality, and shouldn’t include people).
  
When it comes to approving or rejecting these ambiguous submissions, the deciding factors seem mirror many of the key considerations already noted: levels of public and pedestrian access, permanence, personal privacy, distinct cultural value and accordance with Niantic’s ‘cornerstones’ of discovery and education.

An example of one of the 'potentially confusing' nominations Niantic discusses on their support pages for Wayfarer

Yet in recent months Niantic have added two further clarification pages to the ‘Wayspot Acceptance Criteria’ Support page, one in October 2019 and one in January 2020. These seek to clarify even more ambiguous cases that Wayfarer reviewers have raised; the latter reacting particularly to the massive influx in new reviewers since the function was opened to Pokémon Go players in November.

As the number and range of submissions has increased, it has become clearer that many landmarks on the ground are still not easily categorised by Niantic’s criteria. As such, the responsibility for distinguishing between worthy and unworthy wayspots is increasingly passed onto the Wayfarer community.

This power is not insignificant. If reviewers unanimously decided to accept a nomination that would be deemed ineligible according to Niantic’s criteria, the only way the wayspot would be removed from their games is if somebody reported it to the company. Because players of Niantic games benefit from these wayspots, it is unlikely that they will report it themselves (unless they are particularly community-minded). So it may not be removed until the wayspot has caused such a level of disruption that non-players become aware of it.

In practice, it would be difficult to coordinate such a unified response, as reviewers have hardly any control over how wayspot submissions are allocated. But all it takes is for a few reviewers to make the same decision, and an otherwise ‘inappropriate’ submission can slip through the net.

Notorious examples include strip clubs being accepted as ‘unique local businesses’, while more worthy sites such as Michelin-star restaurants or local charitable organisations are rejected as being too ‘generic’.

While these are worst-case scenarios,  the more significant observation to make is that the looseness of Wayfarer’s reviewer guidelines has created space for community standards to develop. This is particularly impactful when it comes to landmarks that are culturally specific, which may not be adequately accounted for in Niantic’s criteria.

In the UK, this has happened with postboxes. There is now a de facto rule amongst Wayfarer reviewers that only postboxes bearing the Royal Cipher of King George VI or earlier will be accepted as wayspots, due to their historic value. Meanwhile, the vast majority of postboxes that bear the Queen Elizabeth II cipher are ineligible.

Adjacent postboxes bearing the Elizabeth II cipher (left) and George VI cipher (right)

In establishing these standards, Wayfarer communities are able to assert a degree of agency in determining sites that are culturally valuable and therefore worthy of inclusion in Niantic’s games.

Before we praise this as an exemplar of successful community cohesion in Niantic’s games, it’s worth pointing out the process through which Wayfarer reviewers are allocated submissions for new wayspots.

The submissions that reviewers receive can derive from any of the following categories: sites within a 150-mile radius of a reviewer’s last play location; from anywhere across their home country; from any of their home country’s territories; from bordering countries; or from the ‘home’ and ‘bonus’ locations that reviewers can set in their Wayfarer settings.

Due to the wide distribution of reviewers assessing any given submission, there are likely to be differences in the value judgements these reviewers make of sites that are submitted, particularly if the value of a given landmark is only likely to be recognised at a very local scale.

An example from my local Wayfarer community is the lampposts supplied to the city of Canterbury by the Biggleston company until 1963, which have very distinct features. Though the Biggleston lampposts that remain arguably have significant cultural value to citizens of Canterbury, to many reviewers from outside the city these lampposts will seem too generic to accept as points of interest.

So while there is scope in Wayfarer’s model for community standards of cultural value to develop – promoting discovery and learning about places that players of Niantic games visit – there will always be inconsistency in how both these and Niantic’s own criteria are applied to any individual submission.


Degrees of agency

Though Wayfarer is evidently not an uncomplicated system, it does serve some very clear purposes for Niantic.

As you would expect from a company whose profit is directly tied to user engagement, Niantic want to increase engagement with their games. One effective way of accomplishing this is to increase game content at a local level. Because Pokéstops and Gyms in Pokémon Go are so essential to the enjoyment of the game – giving you items that allow you to catch and heal your Pokémon, eggs you can hatch to get more Pokémon, and being the primary conduits for in-game events – the more that appear in a given area, the greater the ability of players to enjoy the game and play it as Niantic intends.

If Niantic were to evaluate all of the suggested wayspot locations themselves, there is simply no way they could cope without hiring a large and expensive workforce. By offloading this labour to a more-than-willing workforce – committed players who have already spent countless hours (and money) on Niantic games – not only do they avoid these significant costs, but they actively deepen the investment of players in Niantic’s values, objectives and the wellbeing of their games.

For these reasons, it is easy to see why Wayfarer exists and has made a notable impact on Niantic’s player communities.

Yet, like any form of distributed authority, its application is largely dependent on the individual people and communities of practice making the decisions, as well as the particular cases they deal with.

Niantic’s guidance for Wayfarer reviewers at once articulates a quite distinct set of values and responsibilities, yet leaves ample room for ambiguity and interpretation when dealing with the specificities of real-life submissions. This system can potentially account for local cultures and community values better than a single centralised reviewing operation run by Niantic Headquarters.

However, the process of allocating nominations, whereby reviewers can receive submissions from places and cultures with which they have very little familiarity, also works to hinder the development of coherent community standards.

This situation isn’t helped by the current lack of incentives for players of Niantic games to actually review Wayfarer submissions. As it stands, there are no in-game rewards for doing what is basically user-friendly admin, meaning that the only players helping to shift the backlog of wayspot submissions derive from the most commited segment of this already highly-committed group. Because the number of committed reviewers is low, the geographical range of submissions they receive is extensive. The potential for inconsistency in how these nominations are valued grows.

What the development of Wayfarer certainly has done is illuminate some of the geographical implications of Niantic’s particular brand of location-based gameplay. By revealing the underlying architecture of values, standards and systems that guide how content is added to their games, we can critically examine how the company is seeking to shape how we interact with our environments, and how this architecture is negotiated in practice by communities of players.



2 comments:

  1. Interesting article. The man made only rule is largely because Ingress and Pokemon Go share the same database, and the back story to Ingress is very much about man made objects - arguably with the heavy borrowings from Shinto, natural features would be a better fit for Pokemon. If you wish to be depressed I'd recommend looking at the new official guidelines community: https://community.wayfarer.nianticlabs.com/categories/clarifications it makes the reddit groups seem positively sensible...

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    1. Thanks for this Richard. I wasn't aware of the relationship between man-made objects and the backstory of Ingress - I've only installed the app to influence gym creation in Pokémon Go, so haven't been particularly invested in actively playing and engaging with the story! Thanks also for the link to the Wayfarer Community link - there are certainly some interesting conversations going on in that forum about what is and isn't acceptable. I'll definitely have to spend some more time there to see how reviewers are interpreting the criteria.

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