Jayne Dowle: Our private data is the real prize in Pokemon hunt

A view of the Pokemon Go app launch screen on a phone. The app launched in the UK recently . (PA).
A view of the Pokemon Go app launch screen on a phone. The app launched in the UK recently . (PA).
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Don’t believe everything you hear about Pokemon Go. My son, who is 13, reliably informs me that a person has walked straight off a cliff in pursuit of a creature from the augmented reality game which is taking the world by storm.

I can’t believe this is true. Neither can I believe that playing it will warp our children’s minds and send them straight into the path of, if not a lorry, at least a lamp-post.

For goodness sake, even one of my cleverest friends is playing it. She’s almost 50 and does some fancy job in finance in central London. The other day, she posted a Facebook picture of herself on a Tube train chasing a Squirtle.

She has always been a competitive sort. I’d imagine that the thrill of the chase she gets when closing a deal is pretty similar to the excitement of moving up a level in the game.

Instead of caving in to moral panic over the dangers – real and perceived – of Pokemon Go, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why this phenomenon might be a positive thing. For a start, it’s getting people out and about.

In fact, it’s sending my son to places he never thought he would find himself in a voluntary capacity. Such as church. He’s been at least twice in the past week, because churches are on the list of “places of interest” where the Pokemons are likely to hang out. Into this category also come museums, parks, and in Jack’s words, “those places where you find art and that”.

I have had to draw the line at becoming a Pokemon-taxi. I did feel sorry for my 10-year-old daughter over the weekend though, who ended up being dragged on a three-mile trip to the park with her brother on a hunt. She phoned me at half-past five and begged for a lift home because her legs had caved in.

All those who complain that children don’t get enough exercise or fresh air these days should be gratified, but I bet a lot of them are the same ones who are complaining that Pokemon is a ridiculous and dangerous craze.

They miss the point, because of course, parents can get involved. Indeed, I know of one dad who ended up hunting in the middle of the moors at Langsett the other evening. I’m not sure whether this was to satisfy the demands of his little lad, or for his own personal game-playing gratification.

What happens is that users hold up their smartphones and images of elusive Pokemon creatures are super-imposed on the screen in front of a real location.

If this sounds like something from the future, unimaginable only a few years ago, that’s because it is. To be honest, I think it’s an absolute genius idea and I only wish that I had thought of it. And although it is reported to be making millions of dollars every day for its creators, its appeal is based on very simple human instincts: curiosity, and competition.

There have been some incidents of unwitting Pokemon acolytes getting into danger. In Missouri, for instance, it’s reported that a gang of teenagers were lured by armed robbers who created a false beacon to attract their attention.

As far as I am aware though, there is no cunning plan by the game’s makers, Niantic, to send our offspring down dark alleys straight into the arms of waiting danger. That said, a concerned friend keeping a close eye on her son’s Pokemon activities did report that she spotted him in a bush talking to a man who looked at least 30.

The speed at which the game has taken off does owe much to the nostalgia factor. Pokemon first came out in the 1990s, and was played on a quaint old-fashioned device called a Game Boy. The snowball effect of the revival owes much to the excitement of those who first played the game as youngsters.

As the example of my Pokemon-hunting City-slicker friend illustrates, it gives evidence to the theory that many of us are “kidults” now, reluctant to fully embrace the adult world. It also reminds us of the frightening power of technology and shows us how it can be adapted and shaped to create alternative realities.

What I want to know is what will happen next, when all the Pokemons have been tracked down? If one app can get millions of people walking in circles – and my son into a church – what powers of technology are yet to be unleashed?

And, call me cynical, but underlying it all is Google’s determination to take over the world, to find our email details, to see where we go and what we do. You can’t have a Pokemon Go account unless you have a Google account to give you Google maps, as I discovered when I spent a really tedious hour setting one up for my daughter so she could join in the fun.

I’m not calling it an evil plot, just a telling example of the power which huge corporations are beginning to wield over our lives. Remember that when someone starts wittering on about not walking into a lamp-post.