An Australian police department got a strange call Sunday. Two “suspicious males” were walking in circles and staring at their phones near a local park.
But when officers arrived at the scene, they found that the two men were just playing Pokemon Go.
Pokemon Go, for those who haven’t already downloaded the app, is an updated version of the 1996 Nintendo game in which players catch, train and battle creatures called Pokemon. By using smartphones’ built-in cameras and GPS, this new game allows players to battle Pokemon characters just as they used to, except in their real-life surroundings by physically walking to different locations.
This hybrid of real life and digital game is called augmented reality and comes with a warning: “Remember to be alert at all times,” the app tells users. “Stay aware of your surroundings.”
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Over the weekend, stories rolled in of scraped knees, bruised shins and busted hands courtesy of Pokemon Go players. A few more sinister stories grabbed headlines. Police officers in O’Fallon, Missouri, believe a group of teenagers used the app to lure players to remote locations and robbed them.
Gamers aren’t deterred. According to SimilarWeb, which estimates web traffic, Pokemon Go is about to surpass Twitter in the number of daily active users. The app has only been available since July 6.
I witnessed the phenomenon firsthand this weekend, as my friends, all 20-somethings, repeatedly reached for chargers to replenish their depleted phone batteries. The game was a constant topic of conversation. Watching them, face-in-phone, it didn’t seem much different from any other app.
The real phenomenon? It got them outside.
One friend said he covered 4 miles on a Saturday afternoon and explored a cemetery on Chicago’s North Side in pursuit of Pokemon. A co-worker reported she managed to walk 13,000 steps in a day – and spotted other young people doing the same.
We’re a sedentary society. While the younger generations are more active than their parents on average, it’s still a struggle to get them moving. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than 3 in 10 high schoolers get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.
For years, technology has promised to get us moving. But even with Fitbits and Wii Fits, we still can’t seem to manage it. It seems like Pokemon Go has cracked the code – at least for this summer. Apparently, all it takes to motivate us is a phone, a little nostalgia and a bit of novelty.
Whether the uptick in physical activity sticks around long enough to have a lasting impact is another question. Fads fade. Novelty wears off. Weather turns cold. We should enjoy it while it lasts, even if Pokemon Go players come home with a few bumps and bruises. As every older generation knows: Scraped knees heal.
Elizabeth Greiwe edits the Chicago Tribune’s Voice of the People section.