Belfast Telegraph

Pokemon Go's wacky creatures not just for kids, they got their claws into me too

Mairia Cahill joins the bizarre world of gaming’s latest craze and discovers a strangely satisfying and addictive pastime

Mairia Cahill found playing Pokemon highly addictive, but a bit of a distraction from the realities of life
Mairia Cahill found playing Pokemon highly addictive, but a bit of a distraction from the realities of life
Maria Cahill out hunting for Pokemon

Gone for a Squirtle recently? Is there a Rattata in your kitchen cupboard? For anyone who hasn't played the recent worldwide craze Pokemon Go, these virtual reality creatures will be alien to you, but the rest of us will know the terminology.

Yes, I said 'us', meaning me also. For this week, I have found myself trekking around the Northern Irish landscape, looking at my phone, throwing virtual balls at pretend bugs, bats and rats. And I'm still sane.

The game uses GPS tracking technology to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality, and its aim is for the user to explore their environment through their phone, hunting and collecting Pokemon creatures by hitting them with balls.

What makes it more alluring is that when a Pokemon appears, it is seen through the camera on the device, which is initially a surreal experience, but one that soon becomes all too easy to get used to.

It's free to play, although items can be purchased, meaning that the owners, Niantic, will turn over a nice profit from sales and data collection.

A few days ago, a poke stop meant going for an ice cream. Now, it involves standing outside a real landmark, such as the Belfast Telegraph offices, garnering more poke balls, or eggs, to play the game.

I found myself outside a Jehovah's Witnesses centre, a Presbyterian church, an Orange hall, a pizzeria, a library and more unlikely locations, walking back and forth with my phone in the air, trying to enter until the little blue circle on my screen turned pink and I gained more ammunition to keep me going.

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I got a few funny looks and an invitation to go inside one place of worship, before politely declining, and walking red-faced to the next poke stop.

It's addictive, which is great for New Zealander Tom Currie, who gave up his job to become a full-time Pokemon hunter (you read that right, reader), but it's not conducive to doing a full day's work. For that reason, I limited myself to a few hours in the evening, and used the time to get my daughter outside before putting her to bed.

It's great fun, if a little embarrassing, to be standing in full public view, waving your phone about like a bit of an eejit and shouting at an elusive creature that you're trying to catch. Maybe not for the passers-by, who would be forgiven for wondering if you're suffering from some form of psychosis, but for other Pokemon Go hunters, who you will invariably bump into while out on the trail, it's reassuring to know you're not the only one.

There are lots of creatures to keep you occupied - 158 in all - and once caught they go into your Pokedex, which you can review to see how many you have left to catch.

It's important to look where you going when playing. That may sound like simplistic advice - the game itself comes with a notice advising people to be aware of their surroundings - but it's easy to get caught up in things and view the world through the lens of your phone, as I found to my own cost when I walked in a pile of dog mess while hunting for a Zubat.

But I was lucky. Since the launch of the game, there have been reports of a young woman in Wyoming finding a body while out looking for water Pokemon, others being lured by other gamers and robbed, and a string of driving incidents. One motorist, Steven Cary (28), who says he never normally uses his phone while driving, crashed his brother's car in Auburn, New York, while momentarily glancing at his screen to see if a Lapras has appeared. He told me while recovering from surgery for a broken ankle that people should "treat Pokemon Go like a night on the town and have a designated driver".

The PSNI has also issued its own warning to users, stating: "Don't Poke and Drive". Unlike the fantasy realm, real cars cause real injuries.

News agencies carried reports yesterday that a County Down man walked into heavy traffic while trying to 'catch 'em all', prompting a PSNI spokesman to issue yet another warning, stating: "I don't care how rare the Pokemon is, it's not worth your life."

Has the world gone mad? In short, yes, a little. With 21 million active users in the US alone, the game has overtaken heavyweights such as Facebook and Whatsapp, and enthused users worldwide. Except in Saudi Arabia, where a fatwa was issued by officials who reportedly ruled that it was inconsistent with Islamic law.

Game players will also have been disappointed in Indonesia, where they have been banned from playing at the Presidential palace.

Sightings of strange creatures in the Stormont vicinity are at the time of writing unconfirmed, and to date, the game has not been banned here. So if you see First Minister Arlene Foster waving her phone around, you know what she's doing.

There are downsides. The game drains battery power quickly, which is a pain if you're just getting into it in the middle of the park, as I was when my Android died. I am ashamed to admit that I actually groaned aloud.

However, you'll also burn off a few calories while out on the hunt. The app tells me I've walked 4.50km, just under three miles, in three days. Had I gone to the gym, I'd still be complaining about sore legs.

There are gyms in Pokemon, and since I last visited one in the real world six years ago, I wasn't too excited about the prospect. These gyms, however, are virtual stations you visit as a bonus after completing certain levels, at which you can pick a team, train your Pokemon or duel. The idea is to swipe left or right on your screen. Again, you're going to look a little silly playing this game to non-users, but the beauty of both poke stops and gyms is that more often than not others will congregate, which makes it more entertaining.

My five-year-old has caught more than me, proving that it's a game for all ages (supervised, of course). There is a frisson of excitement when your phone buzzes and you stare at the screen as you prepare to battle a Pidgey, or a Crabby, and it's easy to see why the game is so popular. Sometimes, they turn up in the most unlikely places, and everyone seems to be talking about it. I caught a Weedle by my mother's bin yesterday as my neighbour's visitor looked at me, phone in hand, and shouted, "not you too". She'd just caught one in the garden. At least I had an excuse - Pokemon correspondent, at your service.

No doubt there will be commentators theorising on the dangers of fantasy versus reality, and no shortage of psychologists who will fill pages asking us to heed the dangers of escapism in the months to come.

As always, there are people who will allow themselves to become immersed completely in it, like the idiot in England who dialled 999 complaining that someone "stole their Pokemon". If you're at that level, turn off your phone and go get a life.

There is also a concern from the NSPCC, who complained that "basic safety standards appear to have been overlooked", due to the lure module on the game and fears that it could be used by predators to attract young people.

For those using it responsibly, it's a bit of crack, and a good way of passing the time while also exploring places you may not have had the opportunity to visit before.

I've enjoyed playing the game, but for now it's time to pack up my Pokemon and get back to reality. Those dishes, will not wash themselves, unfortunately. Now there's an app we could all do with.

Belfast Telegraph