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Pokemon Go has S. Koreans heading towards the DMZ
02:17 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Danny Cevallos (@CevallosLaw) is a CNN Legal Analyst and a personal injury and criminal defense attorney practicing in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

A South Korea town is seeing boom times due to the augmented reality game

Danny Cevallos says such games may reshape our economic landscape

CNN  — 

Twenty miles away from the demilitarized zone with North Korea lies the seaside town of Sokcho, South Korea. It’s a kind of boom town, with a fresh influx of both tourism and industry.

Danny Cevallos

Small towns worldwide dream of growth or just revitalization, and they often invest the little money they have in their coffers to entice companies or families to resettle in their ghost town. Every mayor and city council of a sleepy hamlet would love to figure out the formula for urban resurrection, even if it’s a risky, costly proposition. So what is Sokcho’s secret? What did they do? How many millions did it cost?

It turns out: nothing. They did nothing. It cost nothing.

It turns out Sokcho may be in the only area in South Korea where you can play the augmented reality game, as the result of a technical loophole. Apparently, complete map information from South Korea hasn’t been made available to Google Maps. Some local media have suggested the restriction is due to South Korean security concerns, but the government denies that. For some reason, though, Google is unable to take Korean map data across borders.

As a result, Pokemon Go’s developers used a grid to block the country, but geometric shapes cannot perfectly cover the natural contours of coastline. The result is a small area in South Korea where people can play Pokemon Go.

The game has been geo-blocked in other countries, too. Most of India is blocked, but northern and western parts of India are partially unblocked.

The game is still unavailable in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, with Singapore the unofficial front-runner to get the game next.

Back in South Korean, Sokcho has capitalized on the gold rush, as tour buses now carry Pokemon pilgrims several hours to Sokcho. They’re not there for the beaches or the boating. They’re there to play Pokemon Go.

Pokemon-generated commerce is not limited to South Korea at all. In the United States, industrious companies are using Pokemon lures to lure Pokemon players to their businesses. The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, with over 20 Pokestops and two gyms, is hosting “Pokemon mornings”, where it sets out “lures” to attract additional Pokemon (paid admission or zoo membership required).

Pokemon Go is a phenomenon, and one that may pass by relatively quickly, but it’s more than that. It’s a harbinger of things to come; of a new era of human interaction, migration and commerce. In the past, a boomtown was the result of a discovery of gold, or oil; money and families would migrate accordingly. A city like Detroit was known for — and depended upon — the good and bad fortunes of the automobile industry. Sometimes a city even tries to create its own boom, risking the remaining funds in the coffers to invest in new housing or “turn-key” business districts.

Sokcho? Its boom is the result of a glitch — not a natural occurrence or the glacial movement of an entire industry — but perhaps a casual choice by a single person. Maybe a single programmer, late at night, miscalculated the grid needed to block out South Korea from Pokemon Go play. A boom town created not by “bubblin’ crude” oil, or the film industry, or postwar reconstruction, but by an error in a fantasy landscape. Events in a virtual world having collateral consequences in our actual world (the one you’re in right now).

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What are the implications for future commerce? If you’re a mayor of a dying city, do you invest $10 million building a promenade by the river? Or do you contact the augmented reality game du jour’s developers, and spend a few grand to make your village a tourist destination?

A local bar owner hosting a Pokemon night only needs to make a few inexpensive in-app purchases to turn his pub into a hub of virtual creature activity. Or maybe your town just gets lucky, and gets the windfall benefit of an arbitrary glitch by an overworked developer, or even a nonhuman computer.

Science fiction movies always imagine some dystopic future where technology becomes “self-aware” and builds terminators or matrices to control us. It’s usually fun because we don’t really think it can happen. But the inaugural augmented reality game already is affecting real world human behavior.

Before, the most powerful force was nature: nothing else can change civilizations on the scale of earthquakes and floods. Only nature can bestow the gift of natural resources or other advantages upon a country. That’s a lot of power in one place, but because nature is arbitrary, we don’t really resent it; there’s no one to complain to. In a manufactured virtual world, though, Mother Nature is replaced by a person, or a computer.

In the matrix, the power of the creator is absolute; and it’s not arbitrary at all. The controller of an augmented reality landscape has that power to induce people to migrate, to spend money, to make economic decisions with real consequences. In the very near future, an app might have the same power as an industry, an elected official, and even Mother Nature herself.