App gets people out to catch some monsters

Soldotna Creek Park’s playground looks safe enough in the sunshine with kids clambering over monkey bars, but to the right eyes, it’s full of monsters. These monsters are tamable, though — they’re Pokemon, and there are hundreds of trainers, or players, on the Kenai Peninsula ready to catch them.

Keenan Orth and his sister Ginni Orth maneuvered near to a railing near the edge of the playground known as the Fish Railing, lined with a number of brightly painted wood salmon silhouettes.

He turned to face the playground and flicked a finger across the screen of his smartphone, shooting for a little blue bat among the slides.

“My camera’s not working, so you can just do it in the game,” Keenan Orth said.

He demonstrated the green field and the bat, called a Zubat, fluttering there. Usually, players would aim the smartphone’s camera at the bat, which would be superimposed on a live stream of the real world, but this is another alternative in case of camera failure, he said.

He, his sister and a friend walked around the park Friday, checking in at waypoints called Pokestops to pick up more Pokeballs and items. They’ve done a lot of walking since downloading the game a few days ago, Keenan Orth said — way more than they usually do. They’ve seen a lot of people out, some in cars and some on foot, he said.

“What we do is drive to a place where there are a lot of Pokestops, get out and walk,” Keenan Orth said. “There are a lot of people out walking. They’re talking to each other.”

Down the street, two men wander in and out among buildings along the Kenai Spur Highway in Soldotna, their eyes flickering back and forth from their phones as they chat and walk.

Behind Cad-Re Feed, a bicyclist stops on his ride home to take part in a battle at an app-designated spot for them, called a gym, stationed at the store. As he’s battling, two young adults walk by, both with their phones out, and he calls, “Pokemon?” to them.

Since its release July 6, the app Pokemon Go has swept the world, surpassing the number of users on popular apps like Tinder or Twitter, according to data from website traffic analysis company SimilarWeb. Millions of people are signing up for the smartphone edition of the popular 1990s franchise allowing players to catch Pokemon in the real world.

Pokemon Go is similar to a category of video games called augmented reality games, in which the users are present in the real world but participating in a video game.

When players switch on the game, it places their avatars via GPS onto a map of the surrounding area.

Geotags place Pokestops onto real-life landmarks — in Kenai, the Elks Lodge has a Pokestop out front — or gyms, where players can battle their Pokemon for dominance.

The Kenai Community Library has the honor of being both a gym and a Pokestop, which librarians said they don’t mind.

The game has gotten people out and walking by necessity. The GPS is a real-distance map, so if the Pokestops are a block apart in the game, players had better get moving.

In Old Town Kenai, the Pokestops are dense. Shannon Darling, owner of Veronica’s Cafe, started noticing the Pokemon trainers last week when they came down the road beside her restaurant in droves.

“I’d say the first day we had 100, 150 that came through,” Darling said. “When I was here on a Sunday (when the store was closed), I probably saw 50 in five hours.”

Darling said she has no problem with the game itself, or even with tourists or trainers coming onto the property. However, they would go behind the store, where it is private property, and they would come after hours.

To keep privacy for the cabin behind the store and the restaurant’s equipment safe, she started putting up a “Private Property – No Pokemon” sign in the driveway after hours.

“It hasn’t been disruptive during business hours — it’s after hours,” Darling said. “They’re welcome to come onto (the front lawn), but the back is just private property.”

It’s mostly young adults she sees playing the game, Darling said.

The player demographic tends to be later teens and young adults — pre-teens are a little too young to have the technology, said Tony Travers, who works with 11–13-year-olds at the Kenai Teen Center.

“I’d expect it would be 16, 17-year-olds playing — the younger ones don’t have smartphones,” Travers said. “A lot of adults, too.”

Players can band together in teams, battling for control of the gyms around the area. Facebook groups have cropped up, sharing information about where the gyms and waypoints are and boasting about the latest Pokemon members have caught.

The game tags businesses as the waypoints, and Pokemon can appear anywhere from dairy aisles to backyards to middle school basketball courts. Trainers will occasionally wander into businesses on the hunt for items or Pokemon, or at least into the parking lot.

In general, Kenai and Soldotna business owners are taking the game’s popularity with a light heart.

Although there could be issues with unaware players getting in the way of traffic, employees of Cad-Re said they don’t mind the trainers hanging around, as long as the trainers don’t get in the way of trucks or customers’ cars.

Darling said she doesn’t mind the app or even people catching Pokemon in the shop, as long as they aren’t disruptive and don’t trespass after hours.

At Walmart, the company doesn’t mind people dropping in, and it could be a chance to draw in some extra business, said Walmart spokesman Charles Crowson.

“Clearly, we’re excited about the game,” he said. “We’re excited about the latest app and all the attention it’s getting. If it brings Pokemon gamers into our stores, we hope they stick around to shop with us. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.