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Pokemon Go craze spurs fans to search local sites for cartoon creatures

Credit Dan Almasi

If you haven't heard about Pokemon Go within the past week, it's time to move out of the cave with all the Zubats you’ve been living in.

The virtual scavenger hunt has spurred millions of people to wander around their communities, clutching smartphones in a quest to capture imaginary cartoon creatures.

Pokemon Go has seen one of the most successful video game launches in history after launching nationally on July 7. In just a week, the value of Nintendo’s shares skyrocketed from $12 billion to about $30 billion. The game is unique in that it is location-based, using a smartphone’s GPS to display a game world based on real-world landmarks and environments.

Pokemon Go has brought attention to many historical landmarks, some of which went mostly unnoticed before being re-invented as “PokeStops.”

It’s also gluing players’ faces to a phone screen while a vibrant real world exists all around the virtual one. The game has enticed homebody gamers to leave their houses, but it has also landed unsuspecting, distracted players in dangerous situations. Niantic, the company which created Pokemon Go, has successfully created a game with all the obstacles, dangers and issues the real world has to offer, whether they intended to or not.

The nature of the game has fans praising its benefits. Traditionally, gamers are pegged with a stigma of being unsocial-types who stay inside and game the day away. Pokemon Go flips that notion on its head; popular public Pokemon Go locations have become community meeting spots for players.  

The craze has been so strong that one local resident started the Twitter account @BuffaloPokemon so players can exchange strategies and  share stories about their experiences with the app. To remain anonymous, he goes by Ash Ketchum, one of the main characters in the original Pokemon game.

People on the account have been criticized for playing what some perceive to be a child’s game. "Ash" told WBFO that while the game appeals to younger kids, it also attracts an older population.

“It’s appealing to people in their mid-20s who grew up playing the original game. As long as people are enjoying it and doing what they want, I don’t think it’s a harm to anybody,” he said.

What factors have made Pokemon Go one of the most popular games ever launched? Ketchum believes one factor is that players don't need to use a game console, which he said carries a stigma.

“You see somebody on the train or walking around the park with a Nintendo or PlayStation in their hand and everybody thinks ‘Oh, this is weird. That person is socially inept.’” Ketchum said. “Everybody has a smartphone so it’s putting it in a more accessible and more acceptable platform to play on.”

Ben Plaza, 33,  of Buffalo was playing Pokemon Go at Canalside earlier this week, a popular location that offers numerous landmarks.

“Well, mainly, the reason is to, of course, catch Pokemon,” said Plaza of Canalside’s draw. “But after playing it for a day, the equally important reason is to meet new people, share our enjoyment in something simple, see past all of our differences because of one commonality that we have and just, you know, mingle.”

But police officials urge players to be cognizant of the dangers involved.

“There’s been some incidents around the country of people being lured to certain areas with the game and then being robbed,” said Buffalo Police Lieutenant Jeff Rinaldo. “One of the things we stress is make sure that if you are going to engage in this thing, that you’re doing it in public places, well-lit places, places that you’re familiar with, and avoid putting yourself in a dangerous situation.”

Rinaldo also reminded players that there is a time and place for the game and said that driving or even walking while playing the game is extremely dangerous. Police officers are ready and willing to stop motorists driving with their face in a screen.

“I know a couple people who have been pulled over while playing it, and they said the cops knew very well what they were doing,” said local college student Ian McNamara.

But Plaza insists Pokemon Go has not created any dangers that didn’t already exist.

“Welcome to real life, there are risks involved. Should you drive and play Pokemon? No. Should you drive and use your cellular device in any way? No. Should you drive and consume alcohol? No. Yet, people do these things that endanger their lives,” he said. “Every day, they do them recklessly and without thought. Is Pokemon any different? No, not really. It’s just getting plenty of attention because it’s suddenly popped up out of nowhere, this phenomenon.”

Plaza takes exception to the negative angles he’s seen in media coverage of Pokemon Go.

“The spin that the news puts on it with this confusion and this obfuscation, ‘We don’t understand this and there’s risks involved.’ You could put the spin that it’s changing people’s lives and bringing people out who are sheltered into the world to talk and to mingle with one another,” he said.

For Ronald Kazmierczak of Buffalo, Pokemon Go has done just that.

“Well, I’m actually legally blind, so I’ve always been afraid to leave the house on my own, honestly,” he said. “This one game has given me more incentive to kind of take that step forward.”

The developers of the game, Niantic, have been proactive about dealing with risks and issues involved with the nature of its gameplay. Still, players must remember that they hold more than just a phone in their hands – they hold their own fate as well.

“You need to be aware of your surroundings. When you open the game up, that’s the first warning message it gives you,” said Jackson Zimmerman of Buffalo. “I can absolutely see people that are careless, not caring, and hitting a motorcyclist or hitting a pedestrian, or even pedestrians walking out in front of cars. But, like I said, use discretion, common sense.”

For John Sebastiani of Buffalo, Pokemon Go has been more than a new game to play, it’s changed his daily habits. He’s adopted a more active lifestyle in a quest to be the very best, like no one ever was.

“I’ve actually been counting – I think something like 15 miles I’ve walked and 20 miles I’ve biked since the game came out,” he said. “It’s making me be a lot more active. I want to get outside, I want to get moving. I want to catch ‘em all.”