Pokémon Go’s Routes Attempt To Fix A Contentious Issue, But Is It Enough?

The new feature allows players to make their own fun, but can it mend broken bridges for rural players often left out?

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A group of trainers and Pokemon are seen gathering in a city.
Image: The Pokémon Company / Kotaku

Pokémon Go has been under a lot of scrutiny from the rural community since it launched back in 2016, but things have been especially tense lately. Since developer Niantic rebalanced Remote Raid Passes, a feature that lets you engage with specific mechanics of the AR game without having to be in close proximity to places on its real-world map, rural and disabled players have felt like a tax has been put on them. These players strongly feel that the game is pushing those who aren’t in a walkable, accessible city out, because they no longer participate in raids from a distance without dealing with higher prices for remote raid passes. The game’s newest upcoming feature, Routes, is being touted as a way to give rural players a new way to engage with a game that historically has not been supported in their areas. But is it enough?

What are Routes in Pokémon Go?

Routes are essentially user-generated content. You boot up Pokémon Go while you’re out catching Pokémon, and you can create a start and end point for a designated path other players can follow and earn rewards and resources. Kotaku participated in a hands-on demonstration at Summer Game Fest, and despite some jank where the path didn’t register exactly right (Niantic attributed it to the high signal interference at the event), it seems like a neat idea to give people who can’t always find a Pokéstop close to home. Rural players often have to face a lack of landmarks, which means way fewer rewards and resources than others players, so theoretically giving them another way to earn those is a good thing.

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All that being said, because Pokémon Go is a game that, thanks to the changes to Remote Raid Passes, necessitates walking through the real world, user-generated content merits scrutiny and caution. To catch some problems before they’re ever seen by the public, Niantic has implemented an approval system that will require every route to go through the company before it shows up in any other player’s game. This starts with an AI-based system that will catch things like profanity or other inappropriate language in the descriptions, and flag paths that might run through something like a construction zone or government property. But the team will also have a dedicated team of people to catch what AI can’t.

“The sort of like the sneaky threat vector is the combination of if I write something that seems innocuous, but in combination with what I’m doing with the path [can be a problem for others using the route],” Senior Producer Chad Jones tells Kotaku. “Like let’s say I’m just circling somebody’s house and I’m like saying something about this person [in the Route description] because I’m trying to troll them. That’s hard for AI to catch. [...] And that’s generally our approach to try and like walk the line between getting great content out there in a speedy way while also being aware of the fact that not only are there bad actors, but the world is also dynamic.”

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While trolling and the like is a concern, one of the biggest is obviously ensuring players, children especially, are safe when following a Route. Jones says part of the AI filter will attempt to catch descriptions that could be viewed as CSAM. But in terms of alerting players to whether a Route might be in an unsafe place, Niantic says it doesn’t want to pass judgment on areas on its own and is relying on local communities and reporting features to field any routes that might be dangerous. Some places, such as New York, have banned registered sex offenders from downloading Pokémon Go, but Niantic says it will look to the locals to tell the company if a Route should be removed for safety reasons like a high-crime area.

The Pokemon Go map shows multiple PokeStops.
Image: The Pokémon Company

“Whether or not children are able to use routes is at the discretion of the parent,” Jones said. “We’re not trying to get kids out there running around in dangerous areas, but at the same time, we don’t really view it as our place to be full experts on what is or isn’t safe neighborhoods or to pass judgment on what communities are [composed] of or what their communities are like. We have to be working with and listening to the people that are on the ground to understand and know like what is good about the area that they live in versus what is bad about them.”

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How Routes create a new communal layer in Pokémon Go

Part of the hypothetical appeal for Routes is that they can act as a guide to finding things in the world they might not have found otherwise. Niantic talks about these user-generated paths as ways for people to insert a kind of narrative into Pokémon Go to commemorate things like a memorable catch, but it also is something that can draw someone’s attention to a new path or local area they might not have known about. Routes can therefore be especially useful to people who are traveling to new places.

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“So many times I hear of people traveling to, like, let’s say a new city and they go, ‘huh, I wonder what Pokémon Go’s like [here]. I haven’t played it in a while. Maybe I’ll open it up.’ Without fail, they’re like, ‘oh, my gosh, there’s all these Pokéstops over here in this part of Paris or Tokyo is working this way,” Director of Product Management Alex Moffit So routes actually make that way easier to digest where it’s like, ‘well, I learned something about the city and in the process, the game is bringing Pokémon to me.”

Ultimately, rural players are still fighting an uphill battle against Pokémon Go and Niantic’s insistence on making it harder for them to engage with it. Routes do offer something new that can be tailored to an area that often has to do without much support. Pokémon Go still feels like it was built for cities, but maybe with this, rural players can build something of their own in the void.

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Kotaku is covering everything Summer Game Fest, from the main show on Thursday to other events happening throughout the next week. Whether you’re into larger-than-life triple-A games or intimate, offbeat indies, you can keep up with all things SGF here.