Pokemon Goes Downtown

Jul 21, 2016

The global craze over the new augmented reality game Pokémon GO, which was released in the U.S. early this month, has also caught on in the Valley. On a recent hot afternoon, players were out and about in Harrisonburg, smartphones in hand, willingly sharing their personal information in exchange for fun. WMRA's Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

I don't know much about gaming, and even less about Pokémon, so earlier this week I joined the Pokémon Go Trainers of Harrisonburg Facebook group, which is where I learned that Court Square is one of the good places in town to find "gyms" and "Pokéstops" and, therefore, players or "trainers," as they're called, since they are "training" their Pokémon to well, do stuff, I guess.

CLYMER KURTZ: I've already seen a number of people walking along staring at their phones. I don't know if that's normal or if they're playing Pokémon GO, I'm not sure.... May I interview you?

RAY ORAM: Sure, if we can stand in the shade.

Ariel Hallam and Ray Oram are JMU students studying, respectively, computer science, and network security and telecommunications. Ariel says she's been playing two hours a day; Ray, three to four.

ARIEL HALLAM: The spring over there is a Pokéstop, the courthouse is a Pokéstop, the chalk wall over there is a Pokéstop. There's one by the ice cream place down there. I've had ice cream a lot this week.

[Sounds of Pokémon GO]

ORAM: And see, this stop gave me something, and it has the module, so I've collected those items, and you can see this, with the hearts around it, is luring Pokémon as opposed to the other ones which aren't activated around here, and then there's these big gyms where people go to fight the Pokémon.

A bit later, Gabe Chapman and his mom and brothers are just coming out of the Public Safety Building when I spot them.

GABE CHAPMAN: I spend about an hour a day. I try to get out once or twice a day and walk around. Came out here about two nights ago, ten, twelve o'clock, and there was just a whole bunch of people downtown hitting the Pokéstops. Found over 60 Pokémon. It was a good night.

His mom, Rita Chapman, likes the game, too, as only a mother can.

RITA CHAPMAN: It gets them out of the house. It gets me out of the house to walk with them.

"Out of the house" indeed. In the shade of the courthouse lawn, meet Heaven Ford.

HEAVEN FORD: I play video games more than I live my life. So it's like a video game on the go. I can see what's happening in the real life while I play video games. Squirrel!

Not far away is a nostalgic David Snyder.

DAVID SNYDER: It's a piece of my childhood. I remember when it first came out when I was a kid, the cards, the cartoon. I wished Pokémon were real. And now in a sense they are.

CLYMER KURTZ: So what am I seeing right there?

SNYDER: I actually just caught a Pokémon.

CLYMER KURTZ: You just caught one? While we were talking?

SNYDER: Yeah.

But there's a sober caution to consider. Benjamin Heatwole has been a computer programmer for three decades. He works with a number of software products that store people's data.

BENJAMIN HEATWOLE: When you sign up for a new application like this or anything else, and it says, "Do you trust this developer?" you should actually take a moment to reflect as to whether or not you do. What kind of information is going to be collected? How long is it going to be kept? And, How are they going to use it?

When Pokémon GO was first released on July 6, iOS users who logged in with their Google accounts had to agree to terms of service allowing the app full access to their Google accounts. That has been described by Pokémon GO's parent company Niantic Labs as a mistake that is being fixed. But that didn't deter the nearly 21 million daily users in the US who were active in the game's first week.

HEATWOLE:  It should have raised more red flags than it did. They just clicked the button because it was a "Play" or "Don't play" button. 

The Pokémon GO users I ask seem unfazed by this -- and aren't that worried about Niantic knowing their every movement. Player Joshua Lindsay:

LINDSAY: I don't see much difference between what everyone is already using and the app is actually using. It's just open and more blunt about it.

As Ariel Hallam says, Pokémon GO itself uses user-generated content from an earlier game from Niantic.

HALLAM: In Ingress, the goal of the game was to take a picture of a place and protect that place from the opposite team. They just pulled the data from that and changed them to gyms and Pokéstops in this game.

As her friend Ray adds, Niantic...

RAY ORAM: Made a game to do the work for them, which is really awesome.

For WMRA News, I'm Christopher Clymer Kurtz.