For a brief, shining period last summer, Pokémon Go reigned supreme. It brought obsession, joy, and, according to a new paper, injuries and death.
This working paper, appropriately and evocatively titled “Death by Pokemon Go,” shows the darker side of the massively popular augmented reality game. Purdue University economists Mara Faccio and John McConnell combed through accident reports from Tippecanoe County, Indiana, in the first 148 days after the game was released in July 2016. In that county alone, the total value from injuries, damage, and the two lives lost is between $5.2 million and $25.5 million. If you scale this to cover the entire US, it would suggest that $2 billion to $7.3 billion were lost just in those few months.
The reports showed during those 148 days, 286 additional crashes occurred in the county, compared to the same period before. Of these, 134 were near pokéstops. In this scenario, it’s crucial to determine that Pokémon Go caused these damages directly, as opposed to just causing people to be outside more, thus more likely to be hit by cars.
To understand how they figured this out, it’s important to remember that in the world of Pokémon Go, there are pokéstops and there are gyms. Pokéstops are where you can get more pokéballs and pick up supplies; gyms are where you battle. You’re supposed to walk around to hit all these spots, but plenty of people cheated by driving to the various stops, then hopping out of the car and picking up some supplies or going for a quick battle. To prevent idiots from doing this, the makers of Pokémon Go made it hard to play the game while moving at a high speed. If you’re going too fast, you just can’t battle at a gym. But this wasn’t the case for all pokéstops.
By looking at the numbers, the economists realized that the number of crashes was much higher near pokéstops than gyms, suggesting that the crashes really were caused by people hopping out of cars while playing the game. The increased number of deaths wasn’t just because more people were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pokémon Go was actually causing people to be stupid.