Jimmy Janzen holds a cell phone showing Pokémon GO’s augmented reality feature, which makes Pokémon creatures appear on the screen as if they are part of the scene in front of the player. In the background, Staci Janzen, holding daughter, Quin, 2, assists 5-year-old Koehn with directions. The Janzens are new to Pokémon and said playing the game has become a daily occurrence. The mobile game Pokémon GO was released on July 6, sparking widespread enthusiasm. The game has more than 30 million downloads according to USA Today, and the craze has spread even to Marion County.

A new twist on a 20-year-old entertainment entity, Pokémon GO pairs real-life adventure with augmented reality.

According to the Pokémon website, Pokémon GO uses “real locations to encourage players to search far and wide in the real world to discover Pokémon.” By exploring their surroundings, Pokémon GO players can find and capture more than 100 species of creatures, known as Pokémon, using their phones.

For Pokémon enthusiasts who grew up with the game, Pokémon GO not only evokes fond memories of childhood, but in a sense brings the game to life.

“As a fan of the franchise, it’s just something, personally, I’ve been wanting for forever,” said Marion High School senior Ethan Thornbro. “I used to pretend that Pokémon were real in the parks and stuff with my brothers and have my toy Poké Balls and throw them in the air. Now I can just go out with my friends with my phone and it’s, like, real.”

How it works

Pokémon was first introduced in Japan in 1996, and its sphere of entertainment has since grown to include video games, an animated television series, a trading card game, movies and more. In the video games, players catch and train Pokémon and battle other players’ Pokémon in an attempt to be recognized as the Pokémon League Champion.

With Pokémon GO, the app’s augmented reality feature uses the phone’s camera to superimpose images of Pokémon on a live view of whatever is in front of those playing the game.

John Lind, a 2016 graduate of MHS, described Pokémon GO’s appeal.

“With this app, most phones that are able to play it can make it seem like these Pokémon are here in real life,” Lind said. “It’s just really cool for us.”

Pokémon GO’s on-screen map represents the streets of a player’s real-life location as he or she explores the area. Players are alerted of nearby Pokémon via smartphone vibration and can capture Pokémon by taking aim on their phone’s screen and throwing a Poké Ball at the creature. 

Poké Balls, among other things, can be collected at PokéStops found at places like historical markers, monuments and public art installations.

Players gain levels by capturing Pokémon and can eventually join a team and use their Pokémon to battle other players’ Pokémon to claim or defend locations known as Gyms. Pokémon GO enthusiasts (from left) Ethan Thornbro, Mason Pedersen, Matt Baker, John Lind and Josh Blackman gather in Marion’s Central Park to play the augmented reality mobile game.

For Lind, Thornbro and their friends, gathering to play Pokémon GO has become a nightly routine. Most admitted to playing the game for hours each night—averaging 2 to 5 hours or more—and sometimes not returning home until 2 or 3 a.m.

“I think the game in general’s done a really good job at not just reintroducing Pokémon as a franchise, but just getting people out and giving people a common ground to make friends with,” Thornbro said.

MHS senior Mason Pedersen agreed:

“It helps with socializing a lot and just being active,” he said. “We’ve definitely walked more in the past week or two than we have in a very long time, if ever.”

Lind said there are multiple PokéStops around Marion, with at least four in Central Park. Pedersen said rare Pokémon can be found at the Marion cemetery.

The appeal

Matt Baker, a 2016 MHS graduate, said playing the game is nostalgic, adding that his first introduction to Pokémon was watching the television show.

Meanwhile, Thornbro began playing the game at age 3 or 4, while Pedersen started playing Pokémon with his cousin when he was 4 or 5. Josh Blackman, visiting Marion from North Dakota, said he, too, discovered Pokémon around that age at the influence of his cousins. Lind got Pokémon Pearl game on his 10th birthday.

“We were all young when we started,” Pedersen said. “We’ve been playing forever.”

But the appeal for Pokémon GO extends beyond lifelong Pokémon fans.

Jimmy and Staci Janzen and their family of rural Hillsboro had never encountered Pokémon until now.

“I don’t think either one of us have ever had any relationship with Pokémon ever before in any capacity,” Staci said. “I know Pikachu, but that’s it. I never got into it, but our friends played (Pokémon GO) with their kids and we watched their kids just be obsessed and love it, so we got it that day and we’ve been having a lot of fun.”

The Janzens’ 5-year-old son Koehn enjoys playing Pokémon GO, something that has become an every-day occurrence.

“It’s really fun just watching him,” Staci said. “I think it’s fun because all of the PokéStops have pictures, and it helps them learn to navigate.”

Staci said she’s learned things about Hillsboro she did not know before.

“One of the PokéStops is the original foundation of the first building (at Tabor College), and that’s been pretty cool,” she said. “I didn’t know it, and it has like a little snippet, like when it was built and then when it burned down.”

Pokémon GO, a collaboration between the Pokémon Co. and Niantic Labs, is a free download on the App Store and Google Play and costs nothing to play. Players can enhance their experience with in-app purchases. 

Initially, Nintendo’s market value increased by $17 billion, according to NBC News.

But Newsweek reported Monday that the company’s shares dropped 18 percent, as it holds just a 32 percent stake in the Pokémon Co.

Safety concerns

Two concerns related to playing Pokémon GO involve personal safety and trespassing.

The Pokémon GO website cautions users to “never play Pokémon GO when you’re on your bike, driving a car, riding a hoverboard, or anything else where you should be paying attention, and of course never wander away from your parents or your group to catch a Pokémon.”

The site also warns against playing the game on private property or construction sites. 

Locally, neither the Hillsboro nor Marion police departments have received reports of game-related trespassing or injuries, although Hillsboro Chief of Police Dan Kinning reported one incident of a person in a vehicle stopped in the middle of the road potentially playing the game. He cautioned Pokémon GO players to use the same precautions that apply to texting.

“They just need to be alert, aware of their surroundings,” he said. “It’s as bad as texting. You don’t want to cross the street while you’re texting. You don’t want to drive while you’re texting or do anything that might put you in a dangerous situation.”

Kinning said his officers have reported a possible Pokémon GO-related increase in activity on Tabor’s campus.

“Tabor seems to be kind of a hot spot—the CRC, the gym, and the historical church,” he said. “They’ve seen a lot of people wandering around in those areas with cell phones.”

Marion Assistant Chief of Police Clinton Jeffrey also urged Pokémon GO players to take care when crossing streets and to avoid wandering onto private property.

Pedersen cautioned players to be aware of their surroundings and on the lookout for suspicious activity.

“There’s been criminals that set up a lure which attracts Pokémon to a stop or something,” he said. “So it attracts more people to go find those Pokémon, and criminals have been attracting people. It’s bad.”Matt Baker, a 2016 Marion High School graduate, shows off his Poké Ball cell phone case. Baker said on average he plays Pokémon GO between four or five hours each night. Because the game drains battery, he carries a portable charger.

Pedersen also expressed a different type of concern for Pokémon GO players.

“I think the thing that we’re all worried about the most is our battery life every night,” he said. “It drains the battery fast. We all bring portable chargers.”

Added Baker: “I brought a giant portable charger. We’re starting to bring speakers with us, too.”

For those like Staci Janzen, the game has grown her appreciation for Pokémon.

“It has made it cooler to me,” she said. “I would’ve totally made fun of it, and now I feel like, ‘Oh that is kind of cute for kids.’

“I would be lying if I wasn’t into it a little bit.”

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