23/11/2018 11:57 PM IST | Updated 23/11/2018 11:57 PM IST

The Strange Story Of How Pokemon Go Put Lakes And Parks In People's Homes

When gamers found out that Pokemon Go uses Open Street Maps anyone can edit, they started changing the map, turning their homes into parks and ponds for benefits in the game—even though it might not actually have any impact.

OpenStreetMap Blog
A photoshopped image of the OSM logo and Pikachu from Pokemon Go.

BENGALURU, Karnataka—Open Street Maps (OSM) is like the Wikipedia of maps—where Google Maps is highly controlled, OSM relies on community inputs to edit and update the data around the world.

Some time ago enthusiasts noticed something strange—lakes and parks were appearing inside people's homes, where none existed in real life. Vandalism is always a concern with any open project, but the source for these changes was something very unusual—Pokemon Go, the ultra-popular game that over 800 million downloads (almost the population of India), and still has around 150 million active players more than two years after the game launched.

If you're one of the few people who didn't catch the Pokemon Go bug when the game launched in 2016, here's a brief explanation. It's a game based on the hugely popular Pokemon franchise (a related game, Pokemon Let's Go has just released on the Nintendo Switch, and we just got the first trailer for a movie, Detective Pikachu, releasing in May 2019) that you play on your phone. To make your character move around in the game, you have to move around in the real world, as the map of the game is based on the real world map. As you walk around, you'll come across a variety of Pokemon that you can capture, level up, and take for battles.

The game launched at the time that data prices were starting to spiral downwards in India, and gamers ranged from kids to consultants. India's unsafe roads and nonexistent pavements were a problem though and many parents would have their kids play only inside their apartment complexes. Shreya Ghosh, 32, in Bengaluru said, "My son and daughter would complain that there weren't enough Pokemon in our building though, and so we got into the habit of driving to Kaikondrahalli lake nearby in the evenings." Her kids don't play the game anymore, Ghosh said, although its fanbase remains huge.

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Playing Nintendo's Pokemon Go augmented-reality game.

Pokemon Go switches to OSM

The game's developer, Niantic, got its start as a team inside Google, but was eventually spun off into its own company by the time Pokemon Go came around. It still made use of Google Maps data however, to populate the world with Pokemon, and also to show the roads, buildings, and other natural features around you.

Although the exact cost of using Google Maps varies with use cases, every expert agrees that it's not cheap. Dennis Raylin Chen, Deputy Managing Editor, visited India recently to share his experience at a conference as a mapper at OSM who was also interested in Pokemon Go, and at State of the Map Asia, said, "Niantic was very closely related to Google, but it has changed to OSM. It is quite clear that Google is very expensive at the kind of scale that Pokemon Go needed."

In July, Google launched a pay-as-you-go pricing plan, which is significantly more expensive that the older plans. According to reports, 25,000 map views per day were free, and an additional 1,000 views (per day) cost $0.50. Now, those views cost $7, the reports said. So it's no surprise that companies like Uber and Grab (the South East Asian ride hailing company) are supporting OSM, and Niantic also chose to use it instead of Google.

"In November 2017, Niantic moved to OSM for the game engine, but the map being displayed was still Google Maps. This caused some problems because some of the more rural areas have no mappers, so small roads, buildings disappeared," explained Chen. "In January 2018, the in-game map was updated to switch to OSM as well, and in this time, they made a lot of improvements to the map."

"Now at this time, what we observed was that the number of locations being added to the OSM also spiked suddenly," he said. This was seen by the rest of the OSM community as well, and the OSM Wiki added a page with tips for Pokemon Go players. Aside from the official update, there was also a community update. And one of the changes that Chen noted was that the number of parks being mapped shot up very quickly.

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Fans gather to watch a Pikachu parade.

The map is a lie

When the game had launched, the developers said that different types of Pokemon would be found in different environments, so if you wanted a water type Pokemon, you should find your way to a river or a lake, for example. And this, Chen said, was behind the profusion of parks that was taking place. "People started to put fake lakes, fake parks, in order to get different types of Pokemon," he said. "And then you would have edit wars as people tried to fix the vandalism and other people tried to keep making the map better for Pokemon."

A European mapper, who goes by Spanholz online, wrote that they were happy to see a lot of discussion about Pokemon Go and OSM, and the influx of new mappers. However, they noted, "some of you added parks in the backyard of your Grandmas home, every tree was a garden and every puddle a pond. Please only 'map what's on the ground', a common phrase among mappers, meaning be accurate to what you see." They also suggested that edits from new Pokemon Go mappers should include the word Pokemon, so that more experienced mappers would know to check the change, but it's hard to say how many people followed this.

Another post on Reddit also talked about this phenomenon. User LeviathanDabis wrote, "Many people on this game seem to view nothing wrong with taking every avenue possible to get ahead of other players, even if they have to use scanners, multiple accounts, spoof, or bot to reach their goals. Being able to plop down new nests and spawn areas near one's living residence is too much of a gold mine to pass up sadly."

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Kids show their smartphones with Pokemon Go.

'It's like a cargo cult'

As another attendee of the conference sitting nearby remarked that this behavior is a bit like a cargo cult. Chen noted that the impact of these changes would often not be seen for months, if at all, as Niantic also processed the maps before updating them; further, the exact degree to which spawns were influenced by the map was also unknown to users, beyond the observed effect that some types of terrain led to some types of Pokemon becoming somewhat more common.

People are making these changes in the vague hope that something will stick, something will bring forth the results they desired, just like the stories of people in villages ritualistically building wooden facsimiles of airstrips in the hopes of making an airdrop of supplies take place.

The only people who really know what impact these changes will have are the developers at Niantic, who aren't giving out the specific details, but that hasn't stopped people from trying, even if it risks running afoul of the OSM community, and getting stuck in edit wars. Eventually though, while there might be a few surplus lakes and parks by the end of it all, the overall map has stayed close to what's on the ground, Chen noted.