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Technology: Pokémon Go makes gamers take to the streets

Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

John Collins, 12, of Pawleys Island has gotten off his couch to go outside and play a video game that has swept the nation in the past week.

He and some friends gathered at the Waccamaw Library on Wednesday to capture monsters on their smartphones while playing Pokémon Go, a free game that has been downloaded 7.5 million times since its debut last Thursday, according to Google Play. The players were trying to capture exotic monsters from Pokémon, the Japanese cartoon franchise, using a combination of technologies built into smartphones, including location tracking and cameras.

The idea behind the technology is to overlay digital imagery on a person’s view of the real world, using a smartphone screen or a headset and to encourage people to visit public landmarks, seeking virtual loot and collectible characters.

Collins said he was into Pokémon Go right off the bat. “It’s so much fun,” he said. “There’s so much you can do, so many Pokémons you can catch. They come up everywhere. I played the game, had the cards. I love Pokémon.”

In the case of Pokémon Go, players traverse the physical world following a digital map, searching for cartoon creatures that surface at random. When an animated creature appears on their smartphone cameras, they toss Pokéballs at it until it is subdued. The new branch library at Willbrook, the former library on Commerce Drive and Library Lane and All Saints Church are places where these monsters can be captured. So are the Hammock Shops.

The smartphone game builds on the Pokemon phenomenon that began as a cartoon, advanced to card and board games and eventually a video game, according to Donald Dennis, director of teen technology and gaming for the Georgetown County Library System. The old video game was an “adventure in a world by yourself,” Dennis said. The new “augmented reality” game brings people together.

“You can’t sit at home,” Dennis said. “You have to go out in physical space. The big problems right now are trespassing and people not watching where they are going.”

That includes automobile drivers, according to AAA Carolinas. “Our sidewalks and roads are being transformed into virtual arenas, where motorists and pedestrians are racing to chase down the next Pokémon,” said Tiffany Wright, president of the AAA Carolinas Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Playing this game behind the wheel is a huge distraction and increases your risk of causing a crash and could have deadly consequences.”

Dennis said he was driving while a friend played Pokémon and discovered a safety feature built into the game. Once he passed a certain speed, the game stopped functioning, a feature he first noticed with Pokémon Go’s predecessor, Ingress, a science-fiction conspiracy thriller made possible by Google’s digital mapping service. Pokémon Go was built off the database created for Ingress locating fire departments, libraries, churches and civic buildings, according to Dennis. “It took a lot less development,” he said.

Pokémon, a hybrid of the words “pocket” and “monsters,” belongs to the Pokémon Company, which is partly owned by Nintendo, the Japanese game pioneer, which has struggled to adapt to the era of gaming on mobile devices. In the cartoon, Pokémon trainers use characters to battle each other for sport.

The uptake of Pokémon Go, which is so far available only in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, has been so furious that it sent Nintendo’s market capitalization soaring $9 billion this week.

Like the most successful mobile games, Pokémon Go is free to play but gives players opportunities to buy virtual items for a few dollars to speed up their progress. The game’s real-world nature also gives developer Niantic another moneymaking possibility, by charging fast-food restaurants, coffee shops and other retail establishments to become sponsored locations where people are motivated to go for virtual loot.

The Waccamaw branch library will host a Pokémon Go gathering July 23 at 11 a.m. for the public to learn about the game and play. “Technology doesn’t stop, and the kids don’t stop, so we can’t” Dennis said in the new branch library’s gaming space. “This room is always in flux. We’re either pulling something down or building it back up.”

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