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Going Pokémon

Hooked on virtual treasure hunt

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Ron and Ben Gentry

Father and son Ron, left, and Ben Gentry team up to catch Pokémon on evening walks. (Photo: lawellphoto.com

As most of us have figured out by now, those people walking with their phones held at an odd angle, stopping every once in a while to sweep their finger across the screen, are playing Pokémon Go, a phone-app game based on Nintendo’s popular Pokémon characters that was released in the U.S. on July 6. Less than a week later, according to USA Today, the game was being used by more people, for more time per day, than any other app.

“I think it definitely attracted a much wider audience than expected,” said Ben Gentry, an eighth grader at Spring Branch Middle School. “People of all ages are getting together.”

That audience includes Ben’s dad, Ron Gentry, a doctor. Even when Ben and his sisters were away during the summer, Ron would “still go out on walks with his phone,” said his wife Catherine. “I know he’s catching Pokémon.”

“I definitely am,” said Ron, who, when we talked, was a level 18 Pokémon trainer to Ben’s level 12. The game makes a walk more fun, he said. “And if Catherine and I are going to go on a walk,” said Ron, “Ben tells us now, ‘I’ll go.’” In the first week of the game’s release, Ben says he walked at least 10 kilometers because of it. (In addition to catching virtual Pokémon, players can also hatch eggs by walking 2, 5 or 10 kilometers.)

When the game first launched, some media reports fretted that it was yet another digital distraction that would keep people isolated. When Chase May, a teacher and mother of three, ages 12, 16 and 18, looked into it, she was delighted to find that it was something she and her teens could play together. Also, she found herself chatting with strangers while playing. Catching the characters is not competitive: When a Pokémon appears, everyone can catch it. “Given where we are as a nation right now, that connection with strangers is nice,” Chase said.

When Maddy Payne’s friends were first talking about Pokémon Go, “It sounded so lame,” admitted the University of Oklahoma sophomore from Bellaire, “but then I was out till 12 in the morning at CityCentre with friends playing it. Everyone around you is playing, asking each other ‘Did you catch it? Did you see it?’ People aren’t isolated; they’re just really focused.”

There have been news reports from around the world of Pokémon Go players being the victims of accidents and crimes. A teenager in Flower Mound was bitten by a copperhead while playing (he’s OK); two men in California fell off a bluff while playing (they’re OK too). Some people, distracted by the game, have been robbed and assaulted, particularly when playing at night. Local police have yet to see any incidents.

The PokéStops, where players can pick up goodies like Pokeballs, and Gyms, which players can claim by having their Pokémon battle other Pokémon, often are interesting public places in the real world. For instance, in Rice Village, a stenciled piece of street art, of Pepe Le Pew, is a Gym, while the “Wild Boar of Florence” statue is a PokéStop. Players say Memorial City Mall is a treasure trove of PokéStops and Gyms, as are Memorial and Hermann parks and Discovery Green. The Nature Discovery Center in Bellaire’s Russ Pitman Park is near two Gyms and three PokéStops; the center even challenged players to post photographs of real plants and animals found in the park for prizes.

The Houston Arboretum & Nature Center, with two Gyms and over 20 PokéStops on its 155 acres, held its first Pokémon Go event, featuring real-life scavenger hunts, in July, and would like to remind people that its five miles of trails, which are dog-friendly, are an excellent place to hatch eggs seven days a week. “We’ve seen a lot more folks, including many who didn’t even know we existed,” said the arboretum’s Christine Mansfield.

Catch ‘em all safely

  • Don’t play while driving.
  • Be careful of traffic while on foot.
  • Don’t trespass.
  • Police are concerned that people could be lured to deserted spots – literally, someone could put a lure, part of the game, at an isolated PokéStop  – and be robbed of their phones, or worse.
  • Memorial Villages Police Chief J.D. Sanders suggests parents remind their kids to try not to alarm their neighbors by, for example, hanging near their front yards at night.
  • Some Pokémon characters only come out at night. “Use the buddy system – play with friends – particularly at night and tell people where you’re going,” said Angela Douglas of the Houston Police Department.
  • To non-players, police say, still, if you see suspicious activity in your neighborhood, call it in. As Chief Sanders wrote in a message to his community, “We would much rather visit with hundreds of Pokémon enthusiasts than miss one bad guy.”
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