Latest gaming craze gets local outdoors, meeting new people
The Bear Paw Festival is long over, but there still is plenty of action in the downtown Eagle River parking lots and on the sidewalks if you are a gamer — more specifically if you are one of the millions playing Pokemon Go.
The free mobile app taking over the outdoor leisure habits of Americans is insanely popular in Alaska where the longer summer daylight hours and the current warm weather patterns create the perfect environment for playing the game.
Then again, it really helps when some of the game’s most attractive features are located close to each as is the case in downtown Eagle River.
“Oh, yeah, this spot is hot for Pokemon Go,” Chris Hinton said.
The Chugiak resident came to Eagle River’s Town Square Park on purpose to seek out Pokemon characters and to battle in what is known as a PokeGym where players unleash their characters on other player’s characters in an effort to improve their ranking and take control of the gym.
“This is a great spot to do Pokemon Go because there is the gym here by the gazebo and just down the street there are two PokeStops right next to each other, which is somewhat unusual,” he said.
Well, so, okay, for those of you completely confused by this: No, the Parks and Recreation Department has not set up a gym in the Town Square Park between the large circular flower bed and the gazebo. No, the credit union down the street has not set up a gate that tosses balls at you. It is all on a virtual map. You can only see them if you have downloaded the app on your smart phone and are playing the game.
It is creating quite the hubbub in the otherwise relatively quiet downtown area.
Drivers at the wheel of quite often full vehicles pull up in to parking spaces all around the downtown sector at all hours of the night as the vehicle’s occupants bail out staring at the screens of their cell phones and tablets.
Some bring their lawn chairs staking a claim in the grassy area between the parking lot where the Bear Paw food court vendor set up and the MatValley Federal Credit Union across the street on Business Boulevard.
Numerous groups of two or more folks walking along guided more by the electronic devices in their hands being held level with their eyes than sensibility to watch their step below swarm around the downtown area like salmon seeking a spot to spawn in a stream.
It would appear they are just waiting for something to happen.
Indeed, they are.
“This area is rich with Pokemon,” Kristina Dick explained. She and daughter, Ivie, spent several nights the past week hanging out in their vehicle and walking the area. “It is because there are two Pokestops here and people are putting lures on them to attract the Pokemon.”
Unless you have downloaded the Pokemon Go App to your phone or tablet, don’t be concerned if you haven’t a clue what Dick was just explaining. We are going to help you out a bit – just as the numerous folks playing the game in downtown Eagle River gave The Star a schooling on how to play Pokemon Go.
A PokeStop is where a virtual gate is located. Once a player gets close enough to lock on to the gate and spin it, the gate releases three or four PokeBalls and perhaps an egg containing an immature Pokemon character that you as the player can incubate by walking. The PokeBalls are stored in your account so when you encounter “live” virtual Pokemon characters, you can use your fingers to toss them across your cell phone’s screen in a virtual effort to capture the Pokemon critter that is jumping around trying to avoid your attempt.
The capture of Pokemon is just what all the folks hanging around downtown Eagle River seek.
They are waiting for one or more of the 151 Pokemon characters to suddenly appear on their screen. Once captured, Pokemon are added to the PokeDex where they are held in reserve for future development and training to battle in PokeGymns.
Pokemon Go was released July 6 in Australia and the United States. It was released in the European Union on July 13.
As of July 14, more than 15 million users have downloaded in the United States.
Its release came just in time for local users to download and give it a whirl during the Bear Paw Festival. In casual observance during Sunday afternoon’s Bear Paw, The Star witnessed several users walk in to other people or trip over obstacles on the ground.
The developers of Pokemon Go – Niantic, Inc., have issued cautionary statements to users to pay attention to others and the area around them while playing. One of the App’s first screens provides a warning to users to “remain alert of one’s surroundings” as the App loads.
The technology is called “augmented reality.” The game uses the camera and orientation on your smart phone to enhance the environment by placing virtual creatures in the real world.
The issue of watching out for each other played out on the sidewalks on both sides of Business Boulevard several nights last week as groups of Pokemon Goers yielded to each other or inadvertently bumped into each other issuing a smile and a quick apology.
Niantic, Inc., officials along with folks from The Pokemon Gropu, which published the Pokemon Go App, say the game encourages exercise.
Kayla Mortensen of Eagle River agrees with that idea.
“Finally, video games are getting people outside and exercising,” she said with a laugh.
Mortensen was hanging out in the parking lot across from the MatValley Credit Union. The App had crashed again and she was waiting for a reboot so she could take advantage of the “lures” other players had put on the PokeStops last Wednesday night.
“It will take them to work out the bugs,” she said in reference to the App’s shaky performance the past week or so. “I never know for sure when it will work or won’t. I guess their servers get overloaded.”
As she waited, Mortensen chatted about news reports of the game being played in sensitive areas such as the children’s ward at Providence Hospital and in cemeteries.
She didn’t think hospital officials were out of line asking Pokemon Goers to stay away from the pediatric unit where children with serious diseases are being treated. Apparently, a rare Pokemon is lurking behind doors that keep the general public out of an area of the hospital where germ control is essential to patient safety. Hospital officials have contacted Niantic asking them to move the Pokemon character.
“I heard people complaining about it being played in cemeteries too,” Mortensen said. “You know, I think it is a time and place kind of thing. Perhaps it just isn’t appropriate to play Pokemon Go in a cemetery.”
Mortensen at age 18 represents the age bracket that fits most players.
Yet, the App and its on-the-go game format are attracting older players as well.
Dave and Linda Anderton of Palmer were having dinner at Garcia’s on July 13 with friends from their motorcycle club when the dinner conversation turned to talk of Pokemon Go.
Dave had downloaded the App the day before. His 21-year-old son introduced him to it.
“I opened it up and I loved it,” he said, noting that since downloading it, he’s heard folks talking about it nearly everywhere he goes. “It certainly is something different to do and with the nice weather, why not get out?”
Perhaps Pokemon Go also has some social benefits.
From the interaction witnessed in downtown Eagle River, gaining understanding of how the App works creates opportunities for multi-generational interaction.
Dave who is in his mid to late 50s was soon getting help from Ivie, a seven-year-old who just three days in to the game was already on level seven and had obtained 90 Pokemon.
Dave didn’t have to ask twice to get Ivie’s help learning how to access PokeStops and how to accurately toss a PokeBall to catch Pokemon. With her own iPad tucked under her arm, Ivie’s slender fingers quickly raced across the screen of Dave’s phone as she taught him the ins and outs of playing Pokemon Go.
“It certainly is getting people together,” Kristina said as she watched her young daughter expertly instruct in an impromptu sidewalk-based lesson.
John Teamer, also of Eagle River, would agree with that assessment of the game – although his introduction to it cost him the opportunity to enjoy ice cream on a warm Alaska evening.
His 22-year-old daughter, Zenobia Teamer, told John and his wife, Dora Teamer, that she wants to show them something on the way to get ice cream.
“She gets us in the car and she is like, ‘come on, I want to show you guys something,’” John said as he waited in the back seat of their vehicle parked across the street from the twin PokeStops in downtown Eagle River. His demeanor is akin to him putting on a stand-up comedy routine. He is laughing, but also questioning the validity of this new thing called Pokemon Go that he is being introduced to. “I’m like waiting, saying you do what with these things? And you keep them on your phone? You know, I thought we were going to get ice cream, but apparently, we are hunting these Pokemon things instead. Whatever it is that they are.”
John and Dora got a quick schooling on the virtual reality of capturing Pokemon. One of the game’s more common characters, a Drowzee – a round critter with short legs, a yellow top half and brown bottom half known for putting people to sleep – appeared on Zenobia’s cell phone screen.
“Okay, Dad,” Zenobia said as she turned around in the driver’s seat to face her father. “You have to put your finger on this PokeBall and toss it at it.”
John gave his daughter’s instruction a whirl, but missed. After several tries, Zenobia teases him that he is wasting her PokeBalls and shows him how she uses her index finger to toss the ball at an effective speed and distance to capture the Drowzee.
When the next Pokemon appeared on Zenobia’s screen, John was ready to tackle its capture. Within short order, he had the critter captured in a PokeBall.
“I just never have heard of such a thing,” John said.
Zenobia started laughing.
“Dad, you used to watch this with us all the time when we were kids,” she said.
As it turns out, the nostalgia of the game is what draws many of its players. The first release of Pokemon Go uses the 151 characters from the original show first broadcast in the U.S. on Sept. 8, 1998.
“I grew up playing Pokemon and had all the trading cards back in fourth grade,” Hinton said. “This game reminds me of my childhood.”
Be careful and use common sense
Local authorities ask the public to use common sense and be respectful of property boundaries and rights when playing Pokemon Go.
Many of the PokeStops in the Chugiak-Eagle River area are located – in a virtual sense – at schools. A PokeGym is tagged on to the sculpture outside of Eagle River High School.
For the duration of the summer break, the public is welcome to play Pokemon Go on Anchorage School District property that is readily accessible such as the parking lots and playgrounds of schools, according to Heidi Embley, ASD communications director.
Of course, once school begins, district officials request and will enforce that Pokemon Go players do not access school facilities to play the game during school hours.
“Our schools belong to our community and we encourage the public to use school grounds. If there are PokeStops on school grounds, the public will be discouraged for accessing them while school is in session. But since it is summer, it’s not a concern at this time,” Embley said in an email to The Star.
PokeStops are also common in front of banks, churches, credit unions, daycares and restaurants which are generally considered private property.
The Anchorage Police Department also encourages caution in these locations.
“Our stance is for people to not break any laws (so do no trespass on private property, etc.) and don’t compromise your safety,” Jennifer Castor, APD communications director, said also in an email response to The Star.
Author’s note: While writing this article, a Spearow appeared near my desk and yes, I was able to capture it and add it to my Pokedex.