It's only been a week since the release of Niantic's free Pokemon Go app, but the revival of the popular '90s franchise, which allows players to catch cute little cartoon monsters in real life using their smartphones, has already taken over Dallas. Pokemon Go: DFW Community, one of several local Facebook groups where users trade tips, strategize with team members and share images of Pokemon they've captured, has 5,500 members.
The GPS-based app, which requires lots of walking in order to build your deck and hatch Pokemon, has been credited with getting introverted video game players out into the open air and encouraging them to socialize and engage the city in new ways since parks, landmarks, monuments and local businesses are all reliable places to capture Pokemon.
"It's definitely a workout app," says Kate Siamro. "It gets people out of their house 'cause you have to go to locations to obtain the things you want. I went to the Frisco Nature Preserve and there were hundreds of other people there who would never go to a nature preserve at 5 p.m. There was this whole nerd-herd of people."
Facebook groups are also filled with suggestions for how to pay it forward while out and about playing Pokemon Go, such as bringing a trash bag along to pick up litter, packing a backpack with water and snacks to pass out to the city's homeless, or signing up for a companion app that donates to charity according to how much you walk.
Siamro describes Pokemon Go as capture-the-flag-esque. Once users, aka "trainers," reach level five they are invited to join one of three teams: Valor, Mystic or Instinct. Some people have theories about why certain teams are better; others just want to be on the same one as their friends. Siamro chose Valor simply because red is her favorite color.
Once on a team, you can go to locations marked as "gyms" and virtually duke it out with members of other teams to claim their Pokemon for your own. "Pokestops" are locations where trainers can pick up supplies, such as pokeballs used to capture monsters or eggs that will hatch into them once the trainer has walked a specified distance.
Like many but not all Pokemon Go enthusiasts, Siamro played Pokemon after the trading cards and TV show originally came out nearly two decades ago, and she's enjoying the blast from the past. "It’s the game you wish you had in the '90s," she says. "I feel so dorky getting back into it 'cause I’m 23, but it’s kind of refreshing 'cause it’s brought out an inner child."
Despite the game's popularity, it has not been without criticism. It suffers from so many glitches that users report having to reload the app over and over throughout the day. "Sometimes whenever you’re catching something you’ll lose it," Siamro says. "It can be very frustrating." More worrisome, Niantic has been called out for a coding error that gives the company full access to users' Google accounts, which the company has said it is working rapidly to correct.
Still, these concerns don't seem to be stopping many people from playing, including Siamro. The account she's using doesn't contain a lot of information she's worried about keeping private, she says. "I’m such a Facebook nut already, so I feel like as we keep going in time we’re just going to integrate more and more with technology until it’s a part of us."
What about the argument that visiting a monument or park only to stare at your phone the whole time isn't the same as experiencing it? "The people who are getting really into it are already always on their phone or playing videogames, so I think in exchange for being home and looking at a screen it’s better to look at a screen outside," Siamro says.
And there's always the possibility you'll make friends by running into other players searching for Pokemon in the same spots. The game can be a great icebreaker. That was true for Eric Aranda, 26, and his brother on Monday, although what happened to them next is one of the best arguments for not getting too wrapped up in the game. Aranda, his brother and a new friend were playing Pokemon Go shortly after midnight, about four blocks from where they live in Garland, when they became victims of a robbery.
"My brother and I were sitting on the sidewalk with a guy we just met playing Pokemon when three guys walked toward us and said, 'Do you have any green?' and we said 'No,'" Aranda says. "Then he noticed we had our phones and said, 'Give me your stuff.' He punched my little brother in the face ... [and when I turned to him] he punched me in the face. I go down and they started just wailing on me, punching me in the back and in the head. They threw my own bike at me."
Aranda, who has also been a Pokemon fan since the '90s, acknowledges that they wouldn't have been outside staring at their phones on an unfamiliar block if it weren't for the game. But despite his experience he's not deterred from playing. "I probably just won’t go into shady areas that late at night," he says. "I will go to shady areas in the daytime. I’ll start pairing up with other people. If we'd had two more people [we could have taken them]."
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Aranda isn't the only one who's been taken advantage of while playing Pokemon Go. Reports of the game's usefulness to predators wanting to lure people to remote locations in order to rob them, or worse, have already cropped up. Even short of these planned attacks, inattentiveness to surroundings could easily cause users to get lost or mistakenly step in front of traffic.
Perhaps it's for the best, then, that Pokemon Go is unlikely to sustain this high level of interest for very long. "It's a game with only so many things to catch," Siamro says. "Unless they can somehow upgrade it, I think it's definitely going to be a fad."
For the time being, many Dallasites will enjoy slimmer waistlines and local businesses will benefit from exposure to new customers, who come in hunting for Pokemon. Siamro is a curator at Spinster Records on Davis Street in Oak Cliff, and she said that with numerous Pokemon and Pokestops nearby, they've seen a significant uptick in foot traffic.
"All these people come in. They don’t have a turntable, they’re not looking for records, but they come in for air conditioning," she says. "They might not buy anything but at least they're there and the thought's in their head. It has helped Good Records, which is completely surrounded by construction right now but has a stop. I think the game is great for business."