In that time I became initiated into the fold.
The main object of Pokémon Go is to catch Pokémon — cute little monsters that exist as snippets of code on a massive server that randomly “show up” in various locations across the country, seen only through the user’s phone while the app is running. It’s basically like walking around in Google Maps. When a Pokémon gets close while the app is running, the on-screen display reverts to a target game: You pitch the pokéball with your thumb or finger and try to hit the little bugger with the ball, which traps the Pokémon, secures its stardust and candy, and registers it in the pokédeck.
Seriously: Have you not done this yet?
You can use the candy and stardust to power up the Pokémon, or hoard a bunch of the same type of candy and evolve the Pokémon into something else, another species more powerful than the last. The purpose of this process is to train up your guys to fight in gyms, which are strategically placed in public spaces. Also scattered everywhere — churches, libraries, public art installations, stores, memorial plaques, random street corners — are pokéstops, which spin out goodies like extra pokéballs, potions and crystals that restore power, incense that attracts the wild creatures, Pokémon eggs.
This facet of the game is what’s been bringing people out into the streets to discover hidden monuments and architectural features they had never noticed before in their own neighborhoods. It’s what’s been driving business at places like Bull’s Tavern in Winston-Salem and Eclectic by Nature in Greensboro. It’s done more to promote our center cities than any downtown organization in the Triad could have done so quickly and broadly.
Just a week in, and Pokémon hunting groups and bar crawls fill Facebook event pages. Parties converge around pokéstops, and people set off modules that attract wild Pokémon in the way people used to light joints. Bars and restaurants are running Pokémon-themed specials and there haven’t been this many people using our public parks all summer. A downtown Pokémon Center has opened in the Empire Room, offering refreshments for hunters as they traipse through the city streets. Downtown Winston-Salem, with even more pokéstops, has been crawling with hunters every night since the game came out.
This is a genuine phenomenon along the lines of the hula hoop — except it took the hula hoop four months to hit 25 million units back in the 1950s. More than 15 million iPhone users had downloaded the game in the first six days, and more than 10 million downloads on Android devices as of Sunday.
That’s more than the population of Australia.
On Thursday night at Geeksboro, the big room hums with Pokémon players, staring into phones at the tables, on the couches. They’re gathered out front, mingling with the customers waiting in line at Hops Burger Bar and walking down to the gym at Acme Comics, one of the toughest in town. Someone’s set off a lure module at the Geeksboro pokéstop, and the little buggers are everywhere.
My 13-year-old engages with the counterman, perhaps in his twenties, about the cards they’ve collected over the years, the monsters they hope to catch, how knowledge of the Pokémon universe translates to success in the Pokémon Go game.
My son, who regards me with something like pity due to my relative inexperience with the game, says, “You see, I speak the language.”
On Thursday morning, I begin my day around sunrise by starting the coffee pot and taking in the first cigarette of the day. Then, while everyone else is still sleeping, I drive my car slowly around my neighborhood, hitting every pokéstop in the vicinity to re-up my supply of pokéballs. I had run out the night before while chasing Pokémon in the yard, and had missed out on capturing a pikachu — sort of the poster boy for the franchise, a round, yellow rodent-looking thing. My son tells me that a pikachu is nothing special, no great powers or anything, but the blown opportunity haunts me.
You shouldn’t Pokémon while driving — it’s even more distracting than texting or Facebooking — but dammit, I need those balls. How the hell can I catch Pokémon without them?
By now, the news cycle is filled with warning stories about the dangers of the game: cell-phone robberies at pokéstops, hunters hit by moving cars while transfixed on their screens, nasty incidents of trespassing. In California, two men fell off a cliff while chasing Pokémon — the LA Times report neglected to mention what type of monster they were chasing. Thus far, four groups of Pokémon hunters have come across dead bodies. The internet is already full of articles from American Christians denouncing the game for its occultish tendencies. Even more pages detail the security risk the game poses by exposing your data — virtually all of which is already available to every other app on your phone.
I’ve noticed the app sucks data and eats power. But my biggest problem is that I keep running out of balls. So I get in the habit of running this early-morning recon that culminates with a drive through the entirety of the Revolution Mills campus, where a handful of pokéstops and a gym at the water tower await.
More nuances of the game reveal themselves over the days. I’ve been evolving and powering up a small crew of fighters: a pinsor that I caught on the first day and renamed Mr. Pinchy, a pidgeot that I raised from a small pidgey and equipped with a hurricane attack, a kick-ass vaporeon that I sold off a bunch of evees in order to evolve.
Thus far I’ve been unable to win a battle — I’ve been stopping at gyms here and there, sacrificing Mr. Pinchy and a powerful raticate I’ve trained up in efforts to learn how to fight. There are no practice screens, no real instructions on how it’s done. The only way to learn is to take a beating.
After ascending to Level 5, each Pokémoner must choose a faction — without getting into too much detail, they are red, blue and yellow. I went with blue. No real reason.
But the factions take an important role in the game: Teams can capture gyms and hold them by fending off challengers. And battling is the most lucrative endeavor in the game: Players can earn golden coins by holding down a gym, for buying more pokéballs, incense, modules and other useful items. The only other way to get gold coins is to buy them, about a penny apiece and 1,200 of them for about $10. In this way, though the game is absolutely free to play, Pokémon took in more than $14 million in its first week. In the first couple days, parent company Nintendo saw its stock rise 25 percent, an increase in market value of $7.5 billion. The real-world merchandise hasn’t even kicked in yet, but expect to see a rash of Pokémon T-shirts and snapbacks all over the place by the end of the summer.