Gotta catch ‘em all

  • The G.A.R. Hall in Peterborough is home to a hotly contested Pokemon gym. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Pokemon Go is the hottest craze in America right now, and plenty of locals of all ages are playing the game. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Eli Machen and Jenna Topping are glued to their phones as they walk around downtown Peterborough playing the cellphone game Pokemon Go. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Pokemon Go is the hottest craze in America right now, and plenty of locals of all ages are playing the game. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Pokemon Go is the hottest craze in America right now, and plenty of locals of all ages are playing the game. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Pokemon Go is already well on its way to catching ’em all, as the free smartphone game has amassed over 75 million downloads in the two weeks since its launch. Chances are, you’ve seen someone – or lots of people – playing the game, eyes glued to their phone screens as they search the streets and alleys for that elusive Pikachu. And if you’re not one of those 75 million playing the game, you probably have a few questions – namely, what is the appeal, what are the consequences, and perhaps most importantly: what the heck is it?

How do you play?

The point of the game is to collect monsters, evolve them into stronger creatures and then use them to take control of various locations on the map – they’re called gyms, avid player Eli Machen of Sharon explained.

“The goal is to control as many gyms as you can,” Machen said, fervently tapping his phone screen outside the G.A.R. Hall in Peterborough – a hotly contested gym. “It’s a lot more competitive than I think most people realize.”

On the surface, this may sound like your average video game. Earning points and fighting virtual bad guys? You’ve seen this before. But the thing that makes Pokemon Go such a singular sensation is that it’s one of the first games to take advantage of “augmented reality” technology. When you’re on the hunt for a new character, you can’t just do so from the comfort of your couch. When you’ve got the app open, you’re looking at a Google Maps-powered version of reality – when you walk around, your character walks around, too. Want to find a powerful Charizard? There might be one down near the post office, and the only way to find out is to physically go to that location and walk around.

The game blurs fantasy and reality even further when you actually encounter a creature and try to catch it. An icon depicting the nearby Pokemon appears on your map; once you engage it, your phone camera turns on, displaying your real-life surroundings on the screen – with a furry little Pokemon hopping about, as if it was really there. It’s kind of mind-blowing.

Physical exercise

The augmented reality angle gives the game an unexpected side effect: physical exercise. You simply have to walk around – a lot – to play the game. Antrim resident Jenna Topping said she’d walked about 12 miles in the first week since the game came out.

“That’s probably the most exercise I’ve ever gotten, ever,” Topping said, half-joking. Beyond just walking around to find Pokemon, the game rewards you for exercise in other ways. Players accumulate eggs, which only hatch into new creatures after they walk a certain distance. You can’t catch a Pokemon without an ample supply of Pokeballs – available by checking in at virtual Pokestops, usually located at landmarks a few blocks apart (that’s why you see groups of teens doing laps around your downtown every evening).

“It’s good to be able to get outside,” Machen said. “We even talked about hiking a mountain the other day, and Jenna doesn’t like hiking” – “I’m lazy,” she interjected, “so lazy.” But there are Pokemon gyms at the top of mountains, she pointed out – “so I have a reason to go up there.”

By rewarding players for their physical activity as they strive for a game-related goal, Pokemon Go has succeeded where most purely exercise-based games, like Wii Fit, have failed. If you play a video game solely to help you get in shape, you will only exercise when you want to. But if you play a video game to catch Pokemon, and the only way to catch them is to walk around, you’re probably going to exercise whether you like it or not.

Making headlines

That aspect of the game is also why it’s made headlines and made its way onto the radar of police departments nationwide. Players walking around in search of Pokemon have stumbled upon dead bodies (twice, in fact, once in Nashua), been robbed (too many times to count), fallen off cliffs (they lived) and likely most often, trespassed on other people’s property at night. These issues led the Keene Police Department to issue a PSA warning people of the dangers of the game. The Manchester Police Department took a different route, urging those with active warrants to come down and catch the Charizard that lives in their booking area.

In the Monadnock region, there have been a slew of complaints, none more serious than trespassing.

“Be careful where you play this game and how you play it,” urged Peterborough Police Chief Scott Guinard, who said the department has received a few calls regarding players wandering onto private property, often at dusk. “That in and of itself is extremely dangerous for those playing,” Guinard said. “I would caution people not to trespass onto peoples’ public property, especially in the evening hours. People may wind up being charged with trespassing if that continues.”

Count Guinard as one of those who hasn’t been swept up by Pokemon fever, besides the headache, anyway; he said he’s hoping “like many other things, that this, too, will pass.”

“I don’t play the game and I don’t intend to,” he said.

Avid players like Topping and Machen might do just about anything to snag a rare character, but they too urged caution.

“I think you just need to use common sense,” Topping said. “Just because a new game came out on your phone doesn’t mean you can walk into traffic and be invincible and that cars will stop for you. Pay attention to what you’re doing, have common sense and you’ll be okay. Don’t walk around at night by yourself going into sketchy people’s backyards trying to grab Pokemon. It’s not worth it.”

Machen agreed, though, he admitted, if it was something as rare as a Dragonite, he would be tempted to bend the rules.

“You might even be able to fight that in court,” Machen joked. ” ‘Your Honor, it was a Dragonite.’ ”

The community aspect

The final piece of the Pokemon puzzle is how it’s brought together a community of gamers that might otherwise be isolated in their homes. Machen and Topping created a Facebook page – Team Instinct 603 – which they use to coordinate attacks on different gyms.

“It’s a good way to make friends and meet new people,” Topping said.

“I’ve never seen so many people involved in one thing,” Machen added. “You’re walking around and you see people on their phones and you’re like ‘Pokemon Go!’ and they’re like ‘Yeah!’ It’s crazy. It’s a phenomenon. It’s bigger than Bernie Sanders.”