At lunchtime Monday, the citizens of downtown Raleigh came staggering down the sidewalks like armies of the undead, oblivious to traffic, heat and hunger, stricken with a single-minded mania to capture the creatures popping up on their phones – an Electabuzz in Nash Square, a Zubat on Fayetteville Street, a Caterpie outside Moore Square Station.
As I watched people shuffle past in goggle-eyed hordes, clutching iPhones with sweaty fingers and shrieking at the imaginary turtle-crab hybrids that suddenly jumped out in front of The Big Easy, I marveled that only hours before, I’d never heard of the smartphone game Pokemon Go.
Now I could hardly find anybody outdoors engaged in anything else.
In just four days’ time, the game had grown so all-consuming as a fad that it drew a crowd of 72 in Nash Square at rush hour. The son I dropped at soccer camp Monday morning exited the car unaware of Pokemon Go. The son I collected at 4 p.m. immediately pleaded for a download. Short of The Beatles, I can’t think of a craze that caught so many so quickly.
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“What a time to be alive!” one fan raved on Twitter.
And by Monday afternoon, nearly as many people had installed Pokemon Go on their Android phones as Twitter.
The Durham Bulls will open their ballpark to Pokemon hunters Tuesday from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. – a $5 charity event to benefit pet adoptions.
Because of this game, people of all races are coming out and getting together, and you can’t tell there’s any problems.
David Thrasher, playing Pokemon Go in downtown Raleigh
Not to be left out, I downloaded the app, christened myself “Scribbler215” and lurched across McDowell Street, where David Thrasher explained that this game of augmented reality might actually save the world.
“I know right now in the country we’ve got a lot of racial issues and it’s really stressful,” said Thrasher, 29. “But because of this game, people of all races are coming out and getting together, and you can’t tell there’s any problems.”
I have a 9-year-old child, so I’m mildly familiar with the Pokemon characters and their peculiar battle talents, such as the bloated pink fairy named Jigglypuff who can sing enemies into drowsiness.
Thrasher explained that the object of this game is to encounter all 150 of these animated beasts and capture them by lobbing balls at their heads. What makes Pokemon Go so striking is that its characters are virtually scattered across maps of real cities, superimposed on pictures of real streets, and finding them involves actually walking outdoors – a quirk that would normally violate video gaming code.
So devotees of Pokemon Go are forced not only to exercise and experience the real world, they must also interact with one another. In Nash Square on Monday, clusters of players filed in a dozen at a time, seeking to collect a Rattata near the statue of Josephus Daniels or to refuel their ball supply at way stations called Pokestops. Park benches normally occupied by the homeless instead offered chatting space for former recluses all gabbing about where to find an Eevee.
“I am an introvert,” said Andrew Hatch, a student at Campbell University’s law school. “But when you have a medium, you can get to know people. It’s easy.”
Puzzled passers-by untouched by the Pokemon virus raised eyebrows and shook their heads Monday as Marlena Brown, 29, shouted to a trio of friends on Fayetteville Street, “I got him! He’s right by your crotch, and he’s mine now!”
“I’m a graduate student,” replied Hannah Hiles, joking, “What am I doing with my life right now? This is absurd.”
The mobs flowing through downtown quickly traded intelligence on other Pokemon-rich zones: Lake Lynn, Crabtree Valley Mall, Triangle Town Center. “Don’t Pokemon and drive, though,” warned Teresa Chen, a rising senior at Athens Drive High School.
I grew up on Donkey Kong and Xevious, games that cost a quarter each and lasted for a few minutes, but I’m intrigued by a plot that is so all-consuming, and also in a game that lays fantasy over reality. I’ve hardly noticed anyone reading the plaques on downtown buildings before Monday.
“Whenever we’re driving, one of us is driving and the other is trying to find Pokestops, but unlike other people who stop in the middle of the road, we actually stop and find a spot,” Thrasher said.
One other merit of Pokemon Go is its power to bewitch such a variety of players. I stood in Nash Square for 30 minutes, collecting Pidgeys. In that time, I saw a pack of tech-types wander into the square from Citrix a few blocks away, joining a mother and her 13-year-old son from Fuquay-Varina, who were playing alongside Kelly Meehan, a 26-year-old Walgreens cashier in a canary-yellow Pikachu hat.
“Look at all these people!” Hatch shouted. “This is beautiful.”
After the news of last week, I will take unity in whatever form it arrives – even virtual.
How does it work?
Pokemon Go is available as a smartphone app. It is free, though certain enhancements cost money. Players must move through their cities to find and capture Pokemon characters, who tend to cluster around crowded areas such as malls and parks. It is best played on foot, though driving will be necessary between Pokemon-rich areas. Play is highly addictive.
▪ Do not play Pokemon while driving. Crashes for distracted drivers are highly likely. Also, most of the features on Pokemon Go require getting closer than a car will allow. Bikes and skateboards are also bad ideas.
▪ Stop and look around while playing. Do not cross streets or walk on uneven surfaces with your nose glued to your phone. It might cause you some pain.
▪ Stay out of areas that are not public. Going into police stations is another no-no. But report anything suspicious you find, such as a dead body.
▪ For children playing Pokemon, the rules for stranger danger still apply. Know where you’re playing and who you’re with.
▪ Finally, remember criminals might also be using the app to lure distracted users.