In early 2020, as a countermeasure to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments issued limitations on the movements of their citizens, cancelling social events and advising people to stay home. As location-based games (LBGs) have been found to influence human movement, their role during COVID-19 deserves closer inspection. Under regular circumstances, the very aim of these games is to motivate people to go out, explore and meet other people. However, during COVID-19, people were advised to do the exact opposite. To study how LBG developers and players reacted to the situation, we used the netnography research method utilizing three types of data: (1) COVID-19 related in-game changes made by seven popular LBG developers during March 2020; (2) social media reactions on 20 posts across three popular Pokémon GO subreddits; and (3) the raiding activity (collaborative play) in Pokémon GO in a Finnish municipality during February–May 2020. All observed LBGs made in-game changes due to COVID-19. The social media reactions showed overwhelming appreciation towards these changes, and two central second order themes arose: (1) LBGs have the ability to influence human movement during pandemics; and (2) people should be able to self-regulate their behaviour during COVID-19 independent of LBG influence. Surprisingly, recorded Pokémon GO player activity in Finland was more influenced by offered in-game rewards than the COVID-19 pandemic. Our findings have implications on how games and gamification can be used to direct human movement in situations such as COVID-19 where population-level interventions are needed.
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