In response to last summer’s Pokemon Go craze, the city of Milwaukee started requiring game developers to obtain a permit before making any of its parks a site for people to play their games — and now, one game developer is suing.
If all of this sounds a little confusing to you, allow me to explain: Pokemon Go is a smartphone-based virtual-reality game that requires its players to venture out into different “PokeStop” locations, including parks, to catch and battle the virtual creatures that will appear on their phone screens once they’re in those locations. It is important to note that these are not real, actual creatures that the game’s developers are physically placing in the parks, it is just that certain creatures and battle options will only appear on players’ phone screens when they’re in the PokeStop locations that have been designated by the game’s developers.
In other words: Milwaukee is actually requiring game developers to get real event permits in order to be able to pretend to “place” virtual creatures in its public parks.
According to local news source KOMO News, the city claimed that it needed this ordinance because Pokemon Go players had been flooding its parks with trash, and it wanted to use the revenue it would receive from the permits to keep the parks clean. The city claims that the developers of games like Pokemon Go are essentially hosting events in city parks, and that therefore, they should have to get event permits like everyone else.
The game developers, though, are not convinced. In fact, as Reason reports, a California gaming company called “Candy Labs AR” is suing the city — claiming that the ordinance violates the First Amendment, and that designing a virtual game is nothing like planning a real-life event.
Make no mistake: The logic that Milwaukee uses to justify its ordinance is completely absurd. It may claim that including a public park among the sites where people can play a virtual game is the same as hosting an event there, but it’s just not – and taking a look at the city’s own event-permit process makes this fact abundantly clear. For example: As Candy Labs AR’s lawsuit notes, the information required for an event permit in Milwaukee — such as the number of people who will attend, the time that they will attend, and the plan for cleaning up any trash that they might produce — is not information that any game developer could possibly be expected to accurately predict. After all, how could any company ever predict a new game’s popularity, let alone what times people will be playing it and how much trash those people might produce?
As Reason notes, the city’s guidelines also hold the permit-holders responsible for any damages that occur during their event — meaning that game developers would be responsible for any damages caused by people who were playing their game. So, in other words, if some dude goes out to play Pokemon Go and then winds up smashing the bathroom mirrors, the developers of Pokemon Go would be responsible for that. If some lady goes out to play Pokemon Go at the park and a candy-bar wrapper falls out of her purse, the placement of her candy-bar wrapper would be the developers’ fault. Pretty much anything any individual player might possibly do could be legally considered the game developer’s fault, and as Candy Labs AR’s lawsuit notes, “the liability requirements for every single person who plays the game ‘would be financially prohibitive.’”
Virtual-reality gaming is still a developing industry. It’s one that could certainly have a positive impact on society — Pokemon Go, for example, did a great job of getting video-game-loving couch potatoes off of their butts and moving — but not if government interference gets in the way of it first.
— Katherine Timpf is a National Review Online reporter.