Artwork inside the Madera library offers an air-conditioned “Pokestop” to resupply local Pokemon Go game players. (John Rieping)
A surprisingly viral smartphone app has led Maderans from ages 4 to 40s out of their homes this month to meet Madera and their neighbors for a high-tech virtual monster hunt.
“It’s really positive for me,” said Pokemon Go user Chloe Prichard, 16. “I don’t really get out of the house a lot. I have a heart condition. I really felt like I was home bound and my boyfriend thought it would be good for me. It’s been really great to get out.”
Developed by San Francisco software company Niantic, the game relies on a smartphone’s GPS to detect where a player is in real life. It then shows a map of the player’s actual location and adds to it imaginary “pocket monsters” (better known as pokemon) that can be caught, as well as virtual places to visit. Local players have to walk or jog around Madera to move around the game map.
“It’s really fun,” Prichard said. “It got me pretty active. Usually I would stay at home because I didn’t really have anywhere to go. But now I have a reason to get out of the house”
It wasn’t that Prichard was lazy. She had surgery at 10 months old to treat the collapse of two large veins that carry blood from throughout the body to the heart. It was successful but she still has a heart murmur and is sensitive to the sun.
“It made me really restricted in how far I could walk,” she said. “When I was in school, I had a lot of restrictions in how much I could walk.”
She attended Madera South High School for her freshman year and most of her sophomore year, but “my heart started to get worse and my doctor took me out of school.” She is now home schooled, but her most recent geography lessons have been through Pokemon Go, which has guided her to Madera landmarks she had never known of before.
“It surprised me how many monuments there are,” she said. “I discovered there’s actually a brick path in the Courthouse (Park) area with different names, and I thought that was interesting.”
On the map of Pokemon Go, real world sites of art, culture, history or religion are often marked as virtual stops that can be visited to restore supplies (Pokestops) or compete with other players (Gyms). There are about 30 such sites in central Madera and others scattered loosely elsewhere.
“I feel a benefit,” Prichard said. “Its really easy with the stops and (when) bringing water it’s really great.”
The game’s ability to draw strangers with similar interests to the same places isn’t just good for exercise. It is also social.
“Its definitely the kind of game where you can meet people and enjoy walking around and talking to people,” said 16-year-old Walker Guthrie, who downloaded the game July 7 — the day after it came out. He has caught about 65 breeds of pokemon so far and seen more of Madera then he had in the past.
“There’s always a little bit of fear because you’re walking around and there’s a bunch of people you don’t know, especially if you’re walking around at night time,” Guthrie said. “But that fear goes away if you’re walking around with friends and talking ... Its going to slowly get the community healthy. Overall I just think it was a really great idea to make it a game.”
Many Maderans seem to play the game in duos or groups, which is no coincidence. “I’ve only found friendly people, (but) I just try to be a safe person,” Guthrie said. “I’d rather wait 15 minutes so my friend can go too than take a risk of something happening to me. And its more fun when a friend goes.”
This is prudent, according to Madera Police Sgt. Felix Gonzalez. “If you choose to be out late, take somebody with you to make sure you’re safe,” he said. “But the most important thing that we advise people is to be aware of your surroundings at all time. If you’re uncomfortable in a situation, get yourself to a place of safety and give us a call, whether its someone following you or something of that nature.”
Thus far no criminal incidents involving Pokemon Go have been reported in Madera, but one of the game’s strengths — highlighting Madera sights — can pose a risk. “That’s pretty cool if they’re setting it up at places of interest such as murals and other works of art. The problem is that leaves people to be predictable,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes criminals might look at it as a criminal opportunity. If I know that at this location there are people who aren’t going to be paying attention, maybe late at night, they could be putting themselves in a position to be victimized.”
For those who want to play solo, Madera’s library at 121 North G St. offers a safe option with two Pokestops as well as air conditioning, free WiFi and books about pokemon. The library also welcomes photo submissions of pokemon “seen” (via smartphone) in the building.
“If it gets kids interested, it gets kids reading. It’s pretty darn neat,” said technician Monika Lain of the Madera County Library. “So yeah, we have WiFi for anything. Kids can play Pokemon (Go). We don’t mind.”
A few library staff members even have Pokemon Go installed on their own phones.
“I didn’t know about it,” said library administrative assistant Adela Herrera. “My 3-year-old son had actually downloaded it to my phone and I saw it and was like: what is this? Delete this. I don’t want all this on my phone.”
Then she saw her friends on Facebook saying they needed a designated driver so they could play the game on the road. When she expressed her confusion, her friends explained the game to her. “After that, everybody was talking about it,” she said.
In the U.S., Pokemon Go has — for now — eclipsed usage of social Internet giants such as Facebook, Tinder, and Twitter, according to Tech Crunch (www.techcrunch.com), with the game’s more than 21 million active users.