Four young men are hanging out under a tree in Salish Park on a sunny summer day.
They’re holding their cell phones up, looking at a GPS-enabled, bird’s-eye-view map of Chilliwack on the screens. They laugh and chat like old friends, but they’ve only just met.
As they move their phones around, they are scanning their surroundings. They’re looking for elusive, mythical creatures called Pokemon. And when you’re looking for these digital creatures, the hard and fast rule is that you ‘gotta catch them all.’ So they don’t want to miss a thing.
Matthew Guay-Milligan has been playing the card-based version Pokemon since he was a young boy. Now that he’s 19, his excitement and intrigue in this Japanese phenomenon hasn’t waned. But these days, he’s all about the Pokemon Go. So are a lot of people; some tech-based websites are estimating daily user numbers at about 9.5 million, and the game was only launched a few weeks ago. Pokemon Go isn’t even available in Canada yet, and it’s become a full-on craze, with players easily downloading apps that allow them to get in on the action.
The difference with this launch and a conventional video game is that gamers aren’t glueing themselves to computer screens for hours on end. They’re walking, talking to people, and even engaging complete strangers they run into on the streets who also seem to be playing the game. That’s because exercise is an integral part of the game. Don’t walk? Don’t progress.
Many are seeing it as a major turning point in gaming, Guay-Milligan says. He and fellow gamer Jeff Bueger predict that more “terrain-based” games are on the horizon. Maybe Digimon is next, one says. Maybe others. But they agree this is the new way to play.
As if on cue, two men walk by the group, also looking at their phones.
“You guys playing Pokemon?” Guay-Milligan yells out.
“Who isn’t?” one of the men yells back, laughing and carrying on through the park.
They ask a pair of young women who are meandering around bushes and posts, as if they’ve lost something.
“Are you playing the game?” Guay-Milligan asks. They giggle and turn the other way, but their cell phone screens give them away.
There are already 130 players connected on a private Facebook group for the Fraser Valley, and more joining every day. They share tech tips, ask each other questions, and broadcast good spots to catch Pokemon. They post screenshots of their progress, from eggs caught and kilometres walked, to images of beloved characters they’ve caught, like the infamously adorable Pikachu.
Many of the group members turned up to Salish Park on Wednesday afternoon, when a lure was thrown that would attract more digital Pokemon to the area. One woman jogged to the area, called a “Pokestop” to see what she could catch.
A dozen of them gathered together for a group picture, and that picture illustrates that players don’t have a typical background, age, race or gender.
If this all sounds a little strange, a little too complex, let’s go back to 1996 — when phones were used mostly for making calls, and kids spent time trading cards with their friends.
Pokemon was a fast hit in Japan where it was created. The basics of Pokemon Go are the same. The player, known as a trainer, tries to catch various types of Pokemon. They take their Pokemon to a gym, where they ‘battle’ other Pokemon. Pokemon can evolve, and each evolution makes the Pokemon more powerful, bigger, impressive and capable of more. Although just how they do that in the new app-based game differs from the card game. And there is no trading component to the game online, which remains a major part of the card game.
The characters haven’t changed. There are common Pokemon to collect, like Weedle, and uncommon Pokemon like Kadabra. Then there are the rare Pokemon like Arcanine, the very rare like Alakazam, and epic like Charizard.
Finally, there are the legendary Pokemon, with Mewtwo being arguably the most highly sought after character. He resembles a bird on fire, similar to the another mythical creature, the phoenix.
But so far, nobody has laid claim to finding him. Nobody in the world.
“He has not been seen anywhere in the game,” Guay-Milligan says.
But there are hundreds of others to be found. Most of them are found in the daytime, but the poison varieties are more likely to come out at night, and some of the players are heading out in groups at night to catch these types.
Dylan Pettigrew, 17, has caught more than 80 Pokemon already, and has walked 30 km in three days. He prefers to catch the poison types, and has run into others doing the same late at night.
Players are rewarded for walking, or running. They’re given eggs throughout the game, and the more they walk, the closer those eggs get to hatching. And you never know just what will hatch. There are three levels of progression: walking two, five and 10 kilometres. Leaving the app running in your pocket while carrying on with your day makes the game work like any step counter. But traveling over 20 miles an hour disables the tracker, making it impossible to gain rewards by driving around. The game also constantly reminds players to watch for traffic, to stay safe and remain cautious. Police in Vancouver and Richmond have already released tips for Pokemon Go players, as rumours of people walking into busy traffic or off dangerous heights are traveling around.
This is not unlike geo-caching. But it’s certainly more addictive for those keen on gaming.
Cody Arnason, 23, was also at the park on Wednesday. He’s caught 30 since Saturday, but admits he doesn’t play that often.
“I’ve always liked Pokemon,” he said. “And this has been so effective in getting people outside.”
“It’s more of a social thing,” says Guay-Milligan.
As the group shares their knowledge of the game, and their thoughts on it, more and more people walk by playing the same game.
The two guys who passed by a few minutes ago have even run back.
“There’s a Ghastly here,” they say. Everyone is starting to see it. Now, they just have to catch it.