Several weeks ago, Fred Bryant saw a group of people standing outside his store, Accents by Fred on Madison Street, all looking at their smart phones. Curious, he walked outside and asked them if he could help them. “Oh, we’re just looking for Pokemon,” they replied.
Bryant could be excused for not knowing about the new craze, since Nintendo and Niantic only made the app available in July. On the other hand it seems as if everyone under 30 years old knows about what has become a phenomenon.
“It was all over social media,” 19-year-old Forest Park resident Rafael Gillett, explained, “so I just checked it out.”
So did a lot of others. Wikipedia estimates that over nine million people were playing the game just a week after the public was able to download it, and more recently the Gameplay website reported that 75 million people were playing worldwide.
Unlike Bryant, 22-year-old Max Puente grew up with Pokemon and video games in general. A second lieutenant in the 814th military police company in the Army Reserve, who graduated with a degree in criminal justice and sociology, is a camp counselor at the Forest Park Community Center for the summer while looking for a permanent job. Puente explained the game in a way that AARP members could understand.
He called it an “augmented reality” game because it has imaginary digital figures like Pokemon behaving in real life locations like in front of Bryant’s store. To play, you need an iPhone or an Android with a GPS and a camera. Download the Pokemon Go app from Niantic and Nintendo on which the game is played. Then the player walks around the neighborhood finding Pokemon which pop up and “Pokestops” where the player gets supplies.
When players find a Pokemon using the GPS on their smart phone, they look through their cameras, and a little Pokemon character will appear superimposed almost magically on real space on the sidewalk or in the store or somewhere nearby. After finding the little virtual guy, the next challenge is to capture him. For this task, the program gives you ways to get “Pokeballs” which you throw at him.
Some are harder to grab than others, and hanging onto them is another challenge because other players have ways of taking them from you.
Puente said the goal of the game is to catch all 150 Pokemon which Nintendo has scattered around the area. Puente himself has caught around 60 right in Forest Park at the park district, the community center, the pool, near Grant-White School, along Madison Street, and even in front of his house.
Thirty-year-old Sarah Kane, who was a camp counselor with Puente this summer and teaches sixth grade in Chicago during the school year, confessed she sometimes asks the kids at the camp to teach her how to do something in the game. Although she never played the original Pokemon game before, she said it’s relatively easy to pick up, adding, “Because I don’t know much about it, the kids will explain stuff to me.”
The fascination does seem to be a generational thing. Mike Sinisi, the maintenance man at the Community Center laughed when asked about it. “My daughter is into the game,” he said. “Once I asked her about Poke-man and she corrected my pronunciation saying, ‘Dad, it’s Poky-mon.'”
Puente acknowledged that the game can have a downside, e.g. people who are so engrossed in their smart phone’s GPS app that they wander into the middle of the street without paying attention to traffic. And the same problems caused by people who text while driving can occur while playing the game in the car. Gillett added that some people have even lured gamers into alleys with the game and stolen their phones.
Puente compared playing Pokemon Go to drinking responsibly. “When you open the app,” he said, “the first thing it tells you is to be aware of your surroundings.”
But there are also benefits. The game encourages exercise.
“You can’t sit on the couch,” Puente noted. “In order to play the game you have to get out of the house and walk around.”
Pokemon Go also counters one of the criticisms of video gaming — that it isolates people.
“Sarah and I do this all the time,” he explained. “We will walk around for two hours and we’ll meet people at a location who are working with their phones, and we’ll start up a conversation with people we’ve never met before.”
The game can even be good for business. When he gets hungry from all that exercise he’ll stop at a place in town to grab something to eat. The staff at Brown Cow confirmed that a few people have come in for ice cream because the store is a site in the Pokemon Go game.
Is the game addicting? Kane acknowledged that she has the app on “all the time.” It makes connecting with the kids in day camp very easy. Being aware of her “surroundings” and responsibilities, she only looks at the screen when she’s sure all her charges are safely involved in an activity.
One 39-year-old man who grew up in Forest Park, identified on Facebook as Ben, who now lives in Kenosha summed up the game’s draw, observing, “This week has been pretty incredible. I know some people may be in large groups just staring at their phones, but it’s so much more than that. The Kenosha-area Pokemon hunting community is courteous, helpful, and generally friendly. I’ve found myself walking 8+ miles a day. I hurt all over but can’t wait to go back for more. This isn’t a fad. This is a phenomenon.”
If you want to learn more about this augmented reality game, go online. Or, better yet, ask a 10-year-old to give you a tutorial.