Letter To The Editor: Pokémon Go Phenomenon In Los Alamos

Los Alamos

There’s a new phenomenon that’s really big in Los Alamos now — it’s a mobile game called “Pokémon Go”. It has already surpassed Tinder and is soon to overtake Twitter as the most actively-used Android & iOS app. It’s an “augmented reality game” wherein players’ physical locations are tracked via GPS as they travel around the town looking for imaginary creatures called Pokémon, which “spawn” for all players simultaneously at different areas. Players meet each other while searching for Pokémon and work together to track them down as part of a “Hot & Cold” game.

The developer behind the game, Niantic, has marked many points of interest in the town as “Pokéspots” — locations like art installations, memorial benches, plaques, installations like the Library, Post Office, & Museum, and big locations like Ashley Pond. These locations were crowdsourced and submitted by players of their previous game, Ingress. Thanks to the nerdy community in our little town, there are many Pokéspots to find! Players are drawn to these landmarks to gather resources that help them capture more creatures. The landmarks even give players special “eggs”, which only hatch after players walk a certain distance with them, incentivizing people to be more active and explore more of the area.

The game has drawn players from many walks of life, from families & and their children to teenagers and the tech-savvy men & women who work at LANL. The game has an emergent social  aspect in that players are drawn to similar locations and rewarded for collaboration, so lots of people in the town are meeting each other for the first time through this game.

If you head downtown, you’ll see just how popular this game has become. You can often see groups of 5-20 people congregating around Pokéspots, especially at Ashley Pond, where several of them are in very close proximity to one another. Beside that, you can also see individual people, couples, and families wandering the streets at all hours of the day and night with their phones out, exploring the game together. It’s inspired people to give away Pokémon-themed cupcakes or water bottles to thirsty travelers. Even if Pokémon Go itself is a passing fad, it is likely its success will provoke other GPS-based augmented reality games, and so people will continually be drawn to these points of interest.

For local businesses, there are some great ways to capitalize on the game. For example, it’s possible to purchase “Lure Modules” to attach to Pokéspots like the several at Ashley Pond. By activating such a module, the rate of Pokémon spawns increases significantly at that spot. The effect is visible for anyone within a few miles, so it has the wonderful social effect of drawing a flash mob of people very quickly. Businesses in other towns are already using this effect to try to set up a “permanent lure” at a location, to draw people to their storefront. I’ve been communicating with the Los Alamos County Council and others, and they are already looking forward to setting up lures to get people out to ScienceFest at the Pond.

Pokémon Go is a very positive social phenomenon, and it looks like it’s really bringing people together. That said, it’s useful to understand some of the risks and to separate fact from fiction. I wouldn’t be surprised if the local police department is fielding additional “suspicious individual” or “suspicious group” reports, especially at late hours of the night, when the gathered folks are likely just playing a video game. Although the game warns players to be aware of their surroundings, it is easy to become distracted while playing, especially when doing things like crossing roads. The game doesn’t function above a certain speed limit to discourage people from trying to play the game while driving (it is intended to encourage physical activity, not road tripping) but it is still a good idea to watch for distracted drivers. And Lure modules naturally lure people to areas, so it is wise to be cautious about when and where you’re going.

But at the end of the day, incidents related to Pokémon Go have been exceedingly rare compared to its massive install base. At the end of the day it is a net positive experience, in that it’s encouraging people to go outside, explore the world around them, and meet other like-minded individuals. Go Pokémon Go!