Bring Your Own Boundaries: Pokémon GO and the Challenge of Ambient Fun

By James Williams (@WilliamsJames_)
(Words: 2500 | Reading time: 12 minutes | Gross misuses of the ‘Poké-‘ prefix: 6)


I’m not a Pokémaster; I haven’t ‘caught them all.’ If you were to hold a gun to my head and force me to answer Poké-trivia (as one does), my strategy would probably consist of murmuring ‘Pikachu?’ in varied intonations of anger and desperation.

Yet as someone who cares about the ethics of persuasion and technology, I’ve found the Poké-mania of the past couple of weeks really something to behold. In a matter of days after the so-called ‘augmented-reality’ smartphone game Pokémon GO launched, it rampaged up the app charts and quickly amassed more daily active users in the US than Twitter.

The slogan of the Pokémon franchise is ‘Gotta catch ‘em all!’ This phrase has always seemed to me an apt slogan for the digital era as a whole. It expresses an important element of the attitude we’re expected to have as we grapple with the Sisyphean boulder of information abundance using our woefully insufficient cognitive toolsets. (Emails: Gotta read ‘em all! Posts: Gotta like ‘em all!)

What’s noteworthy about the launch of Pokémon GO isn’t that its players are suddenly finding dead bodies in creeks, inadvertently flash-mobbing Central Park, falling prey to Poké-scams, or doing anything else that publishers can cite to catch all the clicks they can. Rather, it’s that Pokémon GO signals the first mainstream adoption of a type of game I’ve come to call ‘BYOB’—that is, games that require you to ‘Bring Your Own Boundaries.’

As such, this Poké-moment (sorry) presents us with a unique opportunity to advance the conversation about the ethics of self-regulation and self-determination in environments of increasingly persuasive technology.



One way of looking at games is as sets of constraints. When I play a game, I’m turning my experience over to some particular configuration of constraints designed by someone whom I (hopefully) trust with my attention, and which, if successful, will enable me to symbolically grapple with psychologically resonant aspects of my individual and/or social world. When games do this well, they perform an essential service for society.

Yet there’s a certain fundamental type of constraint that’s been present in almost all games throughout history: deep constraints of space and/or time—the game’s ultimate ‘boundaries’—that confine the game to some fenced-off region of human life. (e.g.: ‘Friday, 7:00 pm, Port Meadow. Be there.’) Fencing off our games from the rest of life means they can represent our psychological world without actually becoming it. In this way, these fundamental ‘boundaries’ function as extensions of our self-regulation embedded in the environment itself.

However, when these boundaries of time and space disappear—when the game is always on and always with you, a parallel rather than a punctuated experience—the regulatory responsibilities they bore are transferred off of the environment and onto you. You must now actively define and continually enforce (if you can) precisely where and when the game shall be afoot. There’s no support structure to lean on anymore; you have to bring your own boundaries.

‘Bringing your own boundaries’ means expending more of your scarce cognitive resources to achieve the same level of self-regulation you were able to achieve previously. In a given day, we all have a finite amount of cognitive effort we can expend—a finite number of decisions we can make, a finite amount of willpower we can exercise—before we become depleted, weak of will (or ‘akratic’), and more vulnerable to persuasive influences in our environment. In this way, the removal of a constraint itself becomes a constraint.

To be sure, many BYOB technologies already exist and thrive in our information environment. Ubiquitous computing, especially in collision with the so-called ‘attention economy,’ has collapsed spatio-temporal boundaries in many areas of our lives, resulting in the imposition of extensive cognitive and self-regulatory costs that we’re still just beginning to understand. All this makes the mainstream adoption of BYOB gaming more, not less, significant.

However, BYOB games deserve special ethical attention for two reasons. For one, games typically have no pretense of instrumentality. Games are designed to be immensely fun—maybe even the most fun things in life—yet the rest of life is so very not designed that way. Games rarely have to justify their existence any further than this. As a result, it’s easier for us to be less explicit about the net value we expect games to bring to our lives as a whole.

The other reason is that digital games today can be designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities far more effectively than in the past. Pokémon GO, for example, makes extensive use of a technique known as random reward scheduling, which involves randomizing the rewards you give a user for taking some particular action (e.g. spinning the circles at PokeStops to get loot) in order to induce them to take that action even more. This is the same psychological mechanism at work in the design of slot machines, and a major factor in their addictive character.

There are countless other brain-hacks at work in Pokémon GO that appear to capitalize on cognitive quirks such as the endowment effect (you value a Pokémon more when you think you ‘own’ it), the nostalgia effect (thinking about the past makes you more willing to pay money—so if you played Pokémon growing up, watch yourself when buying PokéCoins!), territoriality, social reinforcement, the fear of missing out, and many more. My point here is not that these biases and mechanisms are in themselves bad—in fact, they’re often what make games fun—rather, it’s that games can target them to shape our behavior more effectively than ever.

Ultimately, it’s the combination of these two reasons—games’ persuasive power, and our relative lack of criticality in submitting to them—that makes it especially prudent to invest attention in ethical questions at the emergence of the first widely used BYOB game. Because imagine what the headlines would be if it weren’t an app, but instead a chemical substance, that were producing this behavior? (‘Vaporeon—Not Even Once.’)



As a lifelong gamer, I’m constantly frustrated by the lazy moralizing and lack of imagination in much of the so-called ‘ethical’ criticism of games. So much of it stems from the misunderstanding, if not the fear, of games as a medium.

At the same time, I’ve noticed a tendency among many gamers (though not all) to avoid entertaining any possibility that games can have negative effects (despite the fact, remember, that every technology or medium has some negative effects). I suspect this tendency stems from the outdated feeling that gaming’s value still needs to be justified or defended from assailants, as well as from the in-group signaling value that such defenses and justifications can have within communities of gamers. In any case, while noble in intent, this resistance to criticism in fact holds gaming back from realizing its potential as an art form: taking a medium seriously means asking the hard, transformative questions of it—not to tear it down, but to build it up.

In the case of Pokémon GO, what we have is a situation in which the most popular smartphone app is one that exploits its users’ psychological biases to induce them to physically go to particular places in their environments to perform actions on their phones whose value is at best unclear, and at worst a distraction from their other life goals, presumably all with a view to maximizing their further attentional (and monetary) expenditures. Furthermore, these influences are operative on users at all times and in all places. If alien anthropologists were looking down on this situation, wouldn’t they be quite justified in viewing such a game as one of our most promising control mechanisms?

Yet in response to this situation, the immediate concerns that have dominated the ethical discussion have centered on whether some company might be able to access some of the data on users’ devices. This is insane. It reflects how utterly the overinflated issue of ‘privacy’ has dominated the conceptual space in technology ethics as a whole, as well as how dangerously underprepared we are as a society to have the urgent and important discussions about how to preserve users’ self-determination in environments of high technological persuasion.



A few years ago I got really into Ingress, a location-based smartphone game that’s similar to Pokémon GO (and was created by Niantic, the same company). In Ingress, you fight for one of two sides in a perpetual, worldwide war. Your object is to capture virtual ‘portals’ that you can link to…actually, you know what—the details don’t really matter. The point is that soon I was always playing Ingress, wherever I was, and it was really, really fun.

Ingress gave me, consistently and with dopaminergic potency, what my day-to-day life couldn’t: precise goals, meaningful actions, immediate rewards, a clear enemy, social solidarity, and a feeling of advancement. I also found myself walking outside a lot more. As a result, the game quickly became a parallel process of task and goal pursuit running alongside that of my work and research. I felt like a secret agent: in one life, I was reading, writing, and discussing philosophy; in the other, I was blasting, capturing, and linking portals for the Resistance. I had always been at war with the Enlightenment.

But it wasn’t long before I found myself spending time in unusual ways. Like standing for thirty minutes between floors in the stairwell of the world-famous Ashmolean Library, battling an opponent for a strategically valuable portal. Or at the train station, suspiciously eyeing fellow passengers who were staring at their phones—were they my enemies? Or, when visiting Rome, loitering awkwardly outside the American Embassy portal and drawing the attention of men in suits who were talking into their wrists.

Soon I realized that Ingress wasn’t just enabling me to have fun in new ways—it was also imposing new costs on my life. On one level were the self-regulatory costs: Ingress had become a second to-do list for my life, dipping into my pool of finite cognitive resources. On a deeper level, though, were the opportunity costs I realized I’d been paying. If you think about what you really ‘pay’ when you ‘pay attention,’ you pay with all the things you could have attended to, but didn’t—you pay with all the goals you didn’t pursue, all the actions you didn’t take, and all the possible yous you could have been, had you attended to those other things. Attention is paid in possible futures foregone.

A few weeks later, I got a new phone. When I was re-downloading my apps, I tried to remember why I had started playing Ingress in the first place. What had I wanted it to do for me? To help me have fun, I guess. Now, more aware of the costs, I asked myself that question again. What do I want this app to do for me? To help me have fun, I guess. After much consideration, I quietly declined to reinstall Ingress. If a game is going to make me bring my own boundaries, I’m going to hold it to a higher standard. Fun is not enough.



It’s apparently a universal law that any article on the topic of self-regulation in the face of bewildering technological change must end with some capitulatory sentence that expresses ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ in verbal form. Like: ‘Welp, guess we just gotta find it within ourselves to adapt to this zany new world!’

We must reject this impulse. We must reject the lazy notion that, sorry, it’s just up to users now to bring their own boundaries—to incur significant new self-regulatory costs—if they want to benefit from the digital technologies transforming our world. Similarly, we must reject the conjoined notion that if someone doesn’t like the choices on technology’s menu, their only option is to ‘unplug’ or ‘detox.’ This depressingly common all-or-nothing spirit is not only unsustainable in the digital age—it also requires that we assent to a corrupt and pessimistic vision of technology that sits at odds with its very purpose.

What’s the alternative? We have to engage the design. It’s curious how easy it is to forget that technologies are designed by real people, with real reasons—and that both those people and their reasons can be petitioned by users. Having worked at Google for ten years, I know that most designers genuinely want to make products that will win users’ love and transform their lives. However, I also know that even the most noble values (especially the most noble values) are hard to operationalize, and that designers need our help to understand how to do so.

In response to a BYOB game like Pokémon GO, what should we ask of designers? If the game is to remain BYOB in character, then at minimum we have to ask for increased transparency of goals. We should expect to have answers to questions like: What are the game’s goals for me? How do I know this for sure? Do those goals align with my own? For instance: let’s say Pokémon GO helps you take more steps each day, and that’s why you play it. Great—but is that what the game’s actually designed to maximize? If not, then how do we take that from being a design effect to being a design reason?

The other option is to ask that the game provide new boundaries of space and/or time to compensate for the ones it took away, so that it’s no longer BYOB at all. For example, the design could incorporate mechanisms that let you specify where, when, and how you want to play the game. Helping you ‘fence off’ the game into a subset of life again would minimize the new self-regulatory responsibilities it asks you to take on, enabling you to fit the game into your life in the way you want. To be sure, engaging with design in this way isn’t easy, and there are many headwinds against doing it well. It may be a long time before we achieve the sort of feedback loops with designers we ultimately need (if in fact we ever do).

Until then, by all means, give Pokémon GO a whirl. But do so knowing that you’ll have to bring your own boundaries to it—and that in the end, you may not be able to. If you can’t, it’s not your fault—because why should we expect the unoptimized game of life to be able to compete with a game of pure, engineered fun?

And yet, in the end, the games we choose do matter: because when we reach the end of that game—the Big Game—and we think back on all the side quests and microgames we played along the way, how many of them, even if really fun, will we consider to have been time well spent? You and I will no doubt answer that question in different ways, and by the light of different reasons. Yet for both of us, the answer will depend on whether, when a wild game first appeared, we asked of it the really important questions—whether we asked what we wanted it to do for us. In this Poké-moment, spectacle and novelty can easily obscure the fact that there are many, many such questions to ask. But we gotta ask ’em all.

In praise of ambivalence—“young” feminism, gender identity, and free speech

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine.


Alice Dreger, the historian of science, sex researcher, activist, and author of a much-discussed book of last year, has recently called attention to the loss of ambivalence as an acceptable attitude in contemporary politics and beyond. “Once upon a time,” she writes, “we were allowed to feel ambivalent about people. We were allowed to say, ‘I like what they did here, but that bit over there doesn’t thrill me so much.’ Those days are gone. Today the rule is that if someone—a scientist, a writer, a broadcaster, a politician—does one thing we don’t like, they’re dead to us.”

I’m going to suggest that this development leads to another kind of loss: the loss of our ability to work together, or better, learn from each other, despite intense disagreement over certain issues. Whether it’s because our opponent hails from a different political party, or voted differently on a key referendum, or thinks about economics or gun control or immigration or social values—or whatever—in a way we struggle to comprehend, our collective habit of shouting at each other with fingers stuffed in our ears has reached a breaking point.

It’s time to bring ambivalence back. Continue reading

Love by design: when science meets sex, lust, attraction and attachment

A version of this post was originally published in the Conversation 

You are on holiday with your partner of several years. Your relationship is going pretty well, but you wonder if it could be better. It’s Valentine’s Day and you find a bottle on the beach. You rub it. A love genie appears. He (or she) will grant you three special Valentine wishes. Here are some of your choices:

  • to have more or less sexual desire (lust);
  • to remain always as “in love” as you were when you first fell in love (romantic attraction);
  • to be more or less bonded to your partner emotionally (attachment);
  • to be (happily) monogamous or polygamous.

What would you choose? What should you choose? What would your partner choose? Would you choose together, if you could? What would you choose for your partner?

Continue reading

Crosspost: Bring back the dead

A version of this post was originally published at The Conversation.

A trial to see if it is possible to regenerate brains in patients that have been declared clinically dead has been approved. Reanima Advanced Biosciences aims at using stem cells, injections of peptides, and nerve stimulation to cause regeneration in brain dead patients. The primary outcome measure is “reversal of brain death as noted in clinical examination or EEG”, which at least scores high on ambition. The study accepts healthy volunteers, but they need to be brain dead due to traumatic brain injury, which might discourage most people.

Is there any problem with this? Continue reading

Private education: in defence of hypocrisy

eton_2855585b(Photo: Daily Telegraph)

I am a bitter opponent of private education. All my political hackles rise whenever the subject is mentioned.

Yet of my four currently school-aged children, one (‘A’) is educated privately (at a specialist choir school), and another (‘B’, who is dyslexic) will shortly be in private education (at a hip, Indian-cotton swathed, high-fibre, bongo-drumming, holistic school). The two others (‘C’ and ‘D’) are currently in state primary schools. There are two older children too (‘E’ and ‘F’) They were both educated privately, at a fairly traditional school.

How can I live with myself?

One way would be to avert my eyes from the apparently plain discrepancy between my actions and my political convictions. That’s often been my strategy. But I want to attempt some kind of defence – at least in relation to A and B, and lay the ground for a potential defence in relation to C and D, should we choose to educate them privately. Continue reading

Animal suffering and the pointlessness of moral philosophy

(Above image here) Consider the infamous Chinese dog market. Dogs are rounded up, sometimes beaten while still alive (ostensibly to improve the flavour of their meat), killed, and eaten.

Everyone I know thinks it’s obscene, and that the suffering of the dogs cannot possibly be outweighed by the sensual satisfaction of the diners, the desirability of not interfering, colonially, with practices acceptable in another culture, or by any other consideration. It’s just wrong.

‘It’s just wrong’ is the observation that moral philosophers exist to denounce. They draw their salaries for interrogating this observation, exploding its naivety, and showing that the unexamined observation is the observation not worth making.

But what can the moral philosophers bring to the discussion about the Chinese dogs? Alone, and unaided by science, not much. The philosophy turns out to be either (a) reheated science or (b) a description of our intuitions, together with more or less bare assertions that those intuitions are either good or bad.  Continue reading

Should Rhodes stay or should he go? On the ethics of removing controversial statues

This is an unedited version of an article originally published by The Conversation.

Picture this: it’s 20 April 2021 and the charming Austrian village of Braunau am Inn – Hitler’s birth place – reveals a new statue of Adolf Hitler on the main square. In his inauguration speech, the mayor stresses that although Hitler obviously did many immoral deeds, he also achieved some good things, such as building motorways and railroads, and advancing rocket science. With the new statue, the village wishes to commemorate Hitler’s valuable contributions to Germany and Austria, contributions from which many still reap benefits.

If this scenario were to occur,[1] it would cause a public outcry. It would be considered offensive and disrespectful towards Hitler’s victims and their families. It would also be seen as conveying implicit approval or tolerance of the atrocities that were committed in his name, perhaps making the village authorities complicit in the continuing stigmatisation of those same groups targeted by Hitler. In no time, the village would succumb to the pressure to take it down.

If there are good reasons not to erect a statue of Hitler, are there also good reasons to remove existing statues that some find problematic, such as that of the controversial British imperialist Cecil Rhodes?

In January, after months of heated debate and Rhodes Must Fall activism, Oxford University’s Oriel College decided to leave a statue of Rhodes on his pedestal at the front of the college. But protests are continuing against Oriel’s decision – mixed in with calls to remove statues of other controversial imperialist figures. Continue reading

Using birth control to combat Zika virus could affect future generations

Written by Simon Beard
Research Fellow in Philosophy, Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford

This is a cross post of an article which originally appeared in The Conversation.

In a recent article, Oxford University’s director of medical ethics, Dominic Wilkinson, argued that birth control was a key way of tackling the Zika virus’s apparently devastating effects on unborn children – a strategy that comes with the extra benefit of meeting the need for reproductive health across much of the affected areas.

However, although this approach might be one solution to a medical issue, it doesn’t consider the demographic implications of delaying pregnancy on such an unprecedented scale – some of which could have a significant impact on people and societies. Continue reading

The unbearable asymmetry of bullshit

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine. The official version is forthcoming in the HealthWatch Newsletter; see


Science and medicine have done a lot for the world. Diseases have been eradicated, rockets have been sent to the moon, and convincing, causal explanations have been given for a whole range of formerly inscrutable phenomena. Notwithstanding recent concerns about sloppy research, small sample sizes, and challenges in replicating major findings—concerns I share and which I have written about at length — I still believe that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth. Or to put it a slightly different way (if I may paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous remark about democracy): it is perhaps the worst tool, except for all the rest.

Scientists are people too

In other words, science is flawed. And scientists are people too. While it is true that most scientists — at least the ones I know and work with — are hell-bent on getting things right, they are not therefore immune from human foibles. If they want to keep their jobs, at least, they must contend with a perverse “publish or perish” incentive structure that tends to reward flashy findings and high-volume “productivity” over painstaking, reliable research. On top of that, they have reputations to defend, egos to protect, and grants to pursue. They get tired. They get overwhelmed. They don’t always check their references, or even read what they cite. They have cognitive and emotional limitations, not to mention biases, like everyone else.

At the same time, as the psychologist Gary Marcus has recently put it, “it is facile to dismiss science itself. The most careful scientists, and the best science journalists, realize that all science is provisional. There will always be things that we haven’t figured out yet, and even some that we get wrong.” But science is not just about conclusions, he argues, which are occasionally (or even frequently) incorrect. Instead, “It’s about a methodology for investigation, which includes, at its core, a relentless drive towards questioning that which came before.” You can both “love science,” he concludes, “and question it.”

I agree with Marcus. In fact, I agree with him so much that I would like to go a step further: if you love science, you had better question it, and question it well, so it can live up to its potential.

And it is with that in mind that I bring up the subject of bullshit.

Continue reading

Five ways to become a really effective altruist

Written by Professor Julian Savulescu and Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

This is a cross-post of an article which was originally published in The Conversation

Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement which aims not only to increase charitable donations of time and money (and indeed more broadly to encourage leading a lifestyle which does good in the world), but also encourage the most effective use of these resources, usually by looking for measurable impacts such as lives saved per dollar.

For an effective altruist, the core question is: “Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?” It might be argued, for example, that charity work isn’t the best use of time; a talented financier may be better off working for a bank, and use their earnings to pay for others to work for charities instead. Continue reading


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