Unless you have managed to avoid all public places for the past few weeks, you have more than likely experienced the worldwide phenomena that is Pokémon Go, either as a player or as an unfortunate bystander who has been bumped on the sidewalk by one.
While the game itself is entertaining and provides a number of valuable lessons for entrepreneurs, Pokémon Go has been, for me anyway, a gateway of understanding into the growing subculture of technology developers and hackers.
Recently, a group of former Dropbox developers reached out to tell me about InstaPokéGo, an "advanced Pokémon Go bot (simple computer programs used to perform highly repetitive operations) that lets you automatically collect Pokémon from your browser in one click."
Angela Li, one of the app co-founders, explained further that, without ever leaving the comfort of your couch, your Pokémon Go account, or "trainer," could now instantly be transported digitally to anywhere -- New York, London, Tokyo -- in search of Pokémon.
It turns out that hacking the Pokémon Go code is rather easy and has even been made available to everyone. Since the game’s launch, a host of applications have been built with the specific goal of hacking the Niantic (the developed of Pokémon Go) application. The most popular of these apps, many of which are open-sourced, were maps that provided locations of Pokémon, stops and gyms.
InstaPokéGo, however, was the first app that allowed users to bypass the geo-locating feature of Pokémon Go to capture Pokémon and collect items without actually physically being where they were located.
Clearly, this is cheating -- at least on the surface. It is, in fact, where I have discovered a significant moral dilemma.
After creating my own Pokémon Go trainer to test the bot myself (for investigative interests only, of course), I was quite easily able to raise my trainer to level eight in just two days. To put this in perspective, my 10 year-old son, spent weeks in the hot summer sun -- riding, walking and sweating -- to achieve a level 18.
Needless to say, he was ecstatic to hear about the shortcut, especially when he realized that my trainer had found and captured a very rare Pokémon, Tauros, which is only available in certain regions.
And while I should have used this experience as a valuable teaching lesson, explaining to my young and impressionable son that these kinds of activities are outright cheating and should be avoided, I could not help but also be excited for the idea that such a "hack" was even possible.
Personally, the idea of "hacking," not just in technology but in life, is a valuable life skill, and one that I try to instill with my kids. We should all aspire to some level of life hacking, as it can provide us with the freedom and time to enjoy things we love. Hacking the Pokémon Go app demonstrates the power of this mindset.
So the bigger question to ask is whether bots are creating a cheating culture? The answer is complicated, so I went to the source.
I spoke with Steve Bartel, ex-Dropbox employee and co-founder of InstaPokéGo. Bartel explained that the application was developed by a team of ex-Dropbox developers during a Dropbox hackathon. The group of 20-something developers, who are working on a number of different technology projects post-Dropbox, simply wanted to create an app that bettered the user experience and provided a value to players.
According to Bartel, hacking and developing a bot for the world’s most popular game seemed like a natural choice.
More important, bots are a cutting edge technology that are already starting to filter into our lives. Bartel’s fellow co-founder, Chris Varenhorst, went on to say, "As bots get smarter, they have the potential to change the way we interact with technology. Bots are already being deployed to automate simple customer service tasks. People and investors around the worlds are excited about the potential of chat bots."
Fellow co-founder Dima Ryazanov also points out, "For the first time ever, bots are starting to be able to understand simple requests, leading to a whole new way of interacting with technology. For example, bots have the ability to book travel, shop, and schedule meetings for you. The list goes on and on."
When I asked Bartel if he thought InstaPokéGo was cheating, he laughed -- though not in a maniacal, cyber-villain movie-character way one might expect. He emphasized that his group of developer friends and he meant no harm in their project. They never charged for the service, and while they accepted donations, moneys were used to improve server capacity. There was no profit motive. The team have in fact taken careful measures to warn individuals that using the bots could get them banned from the game.
And, as it became apparent that Niantic was cracking down and developing software patches, the team simply shut down the website. Of course, not before InstaPokéGo players from 174 countries ran over 350,000 bots, capturing 3.3 million Pokémon and collecting 32 million items from Pokéstops. Overall trainers gained 1.9 billion experience points -- the equivalent of 10.6 years of game time.
All in one week of being online.
So while some (ok, most) would consider this cheating, I think the lesson we all need to learn is that hacking is just becoming part of our vernacular and our lives, and we can choose to combat it or embrace it. Fortunately for us, there is probably a bot that can help is with that decision too.