MIAMI COUNTY — You’ve probably seen them — crowds of people, phones in hand with looks of deep concentration on their faces, hanging around local libraries and parks.
By now, most people have heard of Pokemon Go, a location-based augmented reality game that encourages players to go outside and catch the “pocket monsters.”
Since its U.S. launch on July 6, the app has gained more active daily users than other popular apps like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, according to app analytics company SensorTower.
This global cultural phenomenon has millions of users worldwide exploring their cities on a virtual scavenger hunt.
Things are no different in Miami County.
When the game was released, churches, post offices, police stations, and other local landmarks were transformed overnight into PokeStops — where players can pick up free in-game items — and Pokemon gyms— where players go to train their Pokemon.
From Tipp City to Piqua, Pokemon Trainers — as players are called — of all ages are flocking to places like the Miami County Courthouse and the Piqua Public Library to catch new Pokemon and pick up items.
The game is even getting whole families out spending time together, a claim not many other video games can make.
On Tuesday, 11-year-old Hunter Shamblin of Troy was bouncing back and forth between Pokemon Gyms — one located at the Safety Building and another at the Troy-Hayner Cultural Center — challenging other trainers, with his mother and his older sister.
He had played other Pokemon games before, he said, but never one that allowed him to feel like he was really catching the creatures in real life. Since he downloaded the game, he’d walked several miles all over the city.
“This kid walked 3 miles yesterday and the more he walks, the better it is,” his mother Monique Shamblin said. “I think this is one of the best apps ever made for kids.”
While she’d never paid much attention to Pokemon before, Shamblin said she’s happy the game is getting her children out of the house this summer.
“Hopefully this keeps kids from getting childhood diabetes, which their older sister has,” she added.
But it’s not just kids who are playing. For many 20- or 30-somethings — who were kids when the original handheld games were released — there is an element of nostalgia at work.
The Pokemon craze first swept across the globe in 1996. In addition to a popular animated series and many other spin-off games, game publisher Nintendo has been releasing a series of handheld games every year since then.
For trainers who grew up with the games, Pokemon Go is something of a childhood dream come true.
“I have loved Pokemon since I was a kid, and now that it feels real, I couldn’t be more excited,” Sarah Rousseau of West Milton said.
By requiring players to walk or ride a bike certain distances to hatch Pokemon eggs, the game has figured out how to incentivize exercise.
“This game has brought a group of people who normally don’t go outside much out, and making them walk, a lot,” West Milton Pokemon trainer Dustin Moss said. “The eggs are a great reward for walking a good distance. I’ve hatched 15 eggs, and have walked over 20 kilometers in the few days its been out.”
In addition to getting people up and moving, the game is also bringing people together, many trainers said.
”This game has introverts coming out of our caves willingly, and has random strangers happily being nice to each other for no reason other than the fact that we’re trainers doing our thing,” Vali McDougal-Palacios said. “This game is exactly what the world has been needing more of lately.”
He said the game — and the friends he’s made in the short time he’s been playing — has been helping him get active in spite of struggles with anxiety and chronic pain.
Like many other players, Rousseau and her boyfriend have been spending more time with friends and even going on double dates with other couples to go “hunting” for Pokemon.
“We have talked to all kinds of people, and I think that’s one of the best parts of this. It’s bringing a whole community of people together,” she said.
Facebook pages for local Pokemon Go players have popped up in the last few days, with members organizing meetups in area parks.
Miami Valley Pokemon Go, where Moss and Rousseau are administrators, is hosting a meet-up at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 16, in Troy City Park.
According to Moss, they plan to have more events as the page grows, including trips to other cities.
“Always in groups to keep it safer,” he said. “I find the game more fun to play as a group also.”
Law enforcement reinforces general safety guidelines
With many people out walking around and not necessarily paying close attention to where they are going, law enforcement agencies are reminding people to continue to follow general safety guidelines.
“There’s been a lot of traffic out there,” Piqua Chief of Police Bruce Jamison said about game players walking around outside of the Piqua Municipal Building and police station. Jamison said that he sent out a bulletin to his officers explaining the game to them so they would not be surprised if they see any odd behavior, such as people walking around “like zombies” looking at their phones.
The officers are also seeing people venture into areas that people usually tend to avoid, including right up to the police station’s office windows, their back door, and in their parking lot.
“In this day and age, we’re very vigilant to ambush attacks on police,” Jamison said. “None of these Pokemon players are a threat, we know that, but they definitely need to pay attention.”
Overall, Pokemon Go game players need to stay aware of their surroundings.
“People need to be paying attention … making sure they’re not out all night doing this, that they’re not trespassing on other people’s property,” Jamison said. “I would suggest people doing it in groups for safety.”
He said that there have been some reports in other states of people luring others into being crime victims, but none in Piqua.
Parents also are encouraged to talk to their kids about what kind of behavior is expected of them when they are out playing this game, or any other game, in public.
While the game has made national headlines — with reports of players being robbed or hit by cars, even finding dead bodies — most Miami County police departments report that there have been no issues with the game to date.
Tipp City Police Chief Eric Burris said there has been one suspicious persons call that turned out to be a young man playing the game at 2 a.m.
“We have yet to experience any significant problems,” he said.
Chief Deputy Dave Duchak said the Miami County Sheriff’s Office has yet to receive any complaints about the game.
“It is good anytime a game can get us out moving and exercising,” Duchak added.
Reporter Sam Wildow contributed to this report.