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Web Science Institute

An Investigation into the Ethics of Mixed Reality Games and Experiences


In 2016 Nintendo’s augmented reality game, Pokemon Go!, hit the headlines for the wrong reasons, when it was revealed that players were able to capture the creatures in the game at Auschwitz, including one that defended itself with poisoned gas[1]. While there was no accusation that the developers were being deliberately provocative, it was also clear that they had not fully considered the implications of randomly distributing play across real world environments, and the inappropriate juxtapositions that this might create.

Digital gaming and storytelling in physical environments are becoming more commonplace. They are discussed under a variety of terms including mixed reality, augmented reality, hybrid spaces, and locative or ambient literature. Because of their integration with the real world, they raise a number of new ethical questions for creators and developers and re-frame existing discussions around the ethics of established media.

For example, the creators of mixed reality experiences have ethical responsibilities under at least two broad themes. The first is a responsibility to the place, in terms of avoiding physical trespass, respecting cultural norms of behaviour, control over virtual graffiti, and respect for names and other symbolic representations.  The second is a responsibility to the person, in terms of safe passage, expectations of accuracy, and respect of social and psychological norms. The latter have always been a complex issue for artists and designers, especially when their intention is to challenge those norms, but they gain new importance in systems where the person is embodied, socially present, and immersed.

In both cases there are unresolved cultural questions around identifying the stakeholders involved in place and balancing their competing claim rights with the liberty rights of the artist/writer and their mixed reality participants. In fact, despite the growing popularity of these kinds of systems there is relatively little work on the ethical aspects of mixed reality experiences, and no studies that seek to establish those responsibilities or map them to legal frameworks.

While the responsibility to place could potentially be facilitated by technological means, for example through automated permissions systems, the responsibility to person will require interventions at the level of policy, guidance, and education. In both cases there is a need to establish the ethical questions already being encountered by mixed reality creators and how they are already approaching and resolving them.

This work will enable us to create an initial ethical framework and legal mapping for mixed reality experiences, with the intention of submitting this contribution as a journal article to IEEE Transactions on Games. This will be followed by an EPSRC proposal to develop this further into a permissions model and prototype platform for establishing the bounds of mixed reality experiences, and what is permitted within those bounds. The goal is to ask what robots.txt would look like for real world places. 


Principal Investigator: Dr David Millard

Co Investigators: Dr Heather Packer, Dr Kieron O'Hara, Eleonora Rosati


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