Pokemon Go launched less than two weeks ago, but the hit alternate reality game is already changing the way Seattleites move around the city. To participate in the game, players carry their smartphones around in the real world, finding items and monsters at real landmarks around the city. Players, called “trainers” in the game because they’re responsible for training up their digital pets to fight in battles, can find different types of Pokemon and more opportunities to participate in battles at different areas around the city.
The fact that players have to take their game out into the real world has been a boon to some local Seattle businesses. Real-life locations that are designated in-game as Pokestops have seen more visitors congregating near their locations. A nearby Pokestop can be a blessing for coffee shops, restaurants, and other local businesses that rely on foot traffic. With just a few dollars, a business near a Pokestop can buy lures that will attract more Pokemon, and more people, at their location. Some businesses are also located near gyms, where players can fight for virtual control over a neighborhood as members of three different factions.
But not ever business is delighted to see digital monster hunters invading the real world. The Center for Wooden Boats has reported that players are invading their docks in search of water type Pokemon, which spawn most frequently near lakes, rivers, and the sea. Players have been caught climbing into boats without life jackets, trespassing after hours, and even unplugging power tools to charge their phones. Unwanted Pokestops and gyms have popped up at private residences, cemeteries, hospitals, and religious sites, drawing sometimes disrespectful crowds to areas where they aren’t supposed to be. And while the game is supposed to encourage walking, the Washington State Department of Transit has had to remind players not to pick up the game while driving. And they’re not being alarmist–on Tuesday night, police in New York announced that they had responded to an accident caused by a player who got distracted by the game.
What it’s like to play Pokemon Go in Seattle
I downloaded the game on my own phone so I could check it out while walking to work. It’s easy to see what the fuss is all about, even though I’ve never played a Pokemon game before. Collecting dozens of cute monsters is fun, and the game’s integration with my smartphone’s camera really does make it look like the adorable creatures I’m battling are hanging out in the real world.
The game doesn’t just reward you for finding the monsters. Walking around can level up your trainer character, allowing you to catch more powerful beasts. You can also find eggs, which only hatch once you’ve walked a certain distance; the more ground you cover, the more experience points you earn.
On a weekend trip to Spanaway, I tried playing while I was in the car (on the passenger side, of course). Once my phone’s GPS system registered that I was going over 10 miles per hour, the game stopped giving me experience points for moving. When I tried to check in at Pokestops, the car whizzed by too fast for me to collect rewards. This game is definitely meant to be played at walking speed. Not that it’s stopping drivers from trying to get those in-game rewards; Jalopnik has one journalist’s story about how the game can be played while driving, along with a collection of tweets from drivers who want the world to know they’re catching Pokemon behind the wheel.
The most interesting thing about Pokemon Go is how different the game feels in different areas. In Spanaway, I only found one Pokestop within walking distance, and I saw no evidence of other players in the area. No one had put lures on the Pokestop; no one was walking around with their phone out. I caught a few cute monsters, but there was nothing much to do with them, and it wasn’t long before I was bored with the game.
In Seattle’s urban core, the experience is entirely different. When I’m walking home in the afternoon, nearly every Pokestop I pass has a lure already attached, and there might be two or three stops on the same street corner. There are gyms every few blocks. Every time I stop at a pedestrian crossing or step into my office building’s elevator, I see other players glancing at their screens. Walking around with a phone full of virtual monsters feels like belonging to a special club. Holding up my phone and seeing a Nidorino at Northgate Mall or an Eevee at Westlake makes living in the city feel a little bit more magical.
How to play safely and respectfully
I certainly won’t deny that the game can be distracting. When you spot a monster, you can’t walk too far away from it if you want to catch it–which might mean standing in some unusual places. To catch a Pokemon, you have to play a minigame in which you fling Pokeballs at it; that can take a minute or so, and once a large enough crowd gathers to try to catch monsters at the same location, there’s a very real risk that players could block the sidewalk or a business’s entrance.
- Think about your surroundings when you stop. If you’re in the middle of the sidewalk, take a few steps to the side so other pedestrians can get past you. Make sure you aren’t blocking a driveway or door.
- Don’t trespass on private property. Businesses didn’t choose to become Pokestops, and not everyone is welcoming the extra traffic. Use your good judgement: if you wouldn’t wander somewhere while walking, don’t go there to catch Pokemon.
- Don’t look at your phone while driving, and use common sense about looking at it while walking. This is something I’m totally guilty of: when you feel that buzz telling you that a Pokemon has spawned nearby, it’s easy to get distracted. Take a few extra seconds to make sure you’re in a safe place to stop before you look at your screen.
- Use the battery saver mode. This turns off the screen while your phone is facing down, which means it’s easier to keep your eyes off it while walking. Your phone will still vibrate to alert you if anything spawns nearby.
- Wear brightly colored or reflective clothing after dark. The gym battles don’t stop when the sun goes down, but drivers will have a hard time seeing you if you’re wearing dark clothing. Especially if you’re hanging out near an area where you might startle someone on their way home, make sure you’re visible from a distance.