Pokemon Go captures University and Ann Arbor communities

Wednesday, July 27, 2016 - 6:43pm

University of Michigan students and Ann Arbor residents, like the rest of the world, are working hard to catch ’em all.

Pokemon Go, a game app developed by software development company Niantic, has captivated millions of players. The game has already broken several records, including the number of downloads on the Apple App Store during the first week of release — 7.2 million downloads, towering 2.2 million downloads for Angry Birds 2. The game has been downloaded more than 40 million times on the App Store and Google Play, bringing in more than $45 million in net revenue.

During the game, players walk around the real world to catch Pokemon — the game uses a smartphone camera to detect the Pokemon and the phone screen to prompt the player to throw a Pokeball to catch it. In addition, players can walk to designated locations called “PokeStops” to collect items like Pokeballs, which are required to catch Pokemon.

Recent LSA alum Roxanne Ilagan said that she was first attracted to the game because she has been a fan of the franchise, but she has grown to like the game because it encourages her to be more physically active.

“I was a huge Pokemon fan growing up, so I naturally downloaded the app,” Ilagan said. “I really love the concept of walking to new places for Pokestops and Pokemon. The other day, I walked all the way to Gallup Park from Central Campus … I walked 30 more miles last week than what I usually do.”

Ilagan is one of the moderators for a Facebook group called Pokemon Go: Ann Arbor — a group for Pokemon Go players in Ann Arbor to share tips with other players about where to find a certain Pokemon, organize group-playing events and establish a “sense of community” among the players. As of Wednesday, the group had 463 members.

Not all students are Pokemon Go fans, however. LSA sophomore Davon Smith said there are too many risks associated with the game, so she did not download the app.

“Playing Pokemon Go, you are wandering into unknown places; given that people know where PokeStops are when they find them themselves, anyone can have access to your location and you can become a target,” Smith said.

While Smith said the social aspect of the game exposes players to potential threats, Ilagan said it actually encouraged her to play. According to a Wall Street Journal article, the game requires that players show up in person at PokeStops, so it catalyzes social interaction among players.

“Without the game, I wouldn’t have had any reason to talk to (the other players) … I think it has definitely influenced my decision to play since I do think it’s significantly more fun to meet people or walk to new places with friends,” Ilagan said.

While Pokemon Go has garnered attention for its social and health benefits, the therapeutic uses of the game may not be as well known. The University Health System's C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is utilizing the game as a part of a therapy that enables children with serious illnesses to cope with treatment. USA Today featured a video of patients at Mott, many of whom have not left their beds for weeks, laughing while playing Pokemon Go with nurses, doctors and other children.

J.J. Bouchard, digital media manager and certified child life specialist at Mott, brought Pokemon Go to the hospital. A large part of his job is seeking out new technologies that have therapeutic and recreational benefits and integrating those technologies into treatment. Bouchard said that the hospital staff was very receptive of bringing Pokemon Go to Mott.

“When I came into work, I thought I would have to convince everyone that this is a cool app,” Bouchard said. “I’m very lucky that the administrators are very open minded in applying technology into what we do in the hospital,” Bouchard said.

The goal of having Pokemon Go is to provide a positive relief from treatment and an improved patient experience, according to Jamie Mayo, a rehabilitation engineer at Mott.

“Gaming is a good way to distract the kids from uncomfortable or painful exercises or tasks, motivating them to participate in their therapies when they’d rather not,” Mayo said.

Mott has a teen advisory council of former patients that is dedicated to giving back to the facility, such as playing Pokemon Go with patients. Last week, after the hospital's PokeMott tour — a Pokemon hunting event at Mott — one of the teen councilmembers shared a piece of feedback from patient David Hicks.

“I loved the game because I (got) to meet a lot of cool people while getting exercise in the hospital,” Hicks said. “It’s cool to see doctors and nurses getting excited about a game I love.”

Mayo said Mott has utilized gaming for therapy for several years and that Pokemon Go has been the most popular of the therapeutic games.

“Frequently, it is the kids (who) are telling me what games are popular, and then I figure out how to manipulate them for the benefit of their therapeutic goals,” Mayo said. “We have used Minecraft, 2048 and many games for the Wii, augmented reality and many others. Pokemon Go is probably the most popular and quickest to take off of all the games.”

Smith, who plans to volunteer at Mott this fall, said the efforts of the hospital normalize the patient experience by giving children a way to play despite their physical limitations.

“There are children who don’t get to do the same things as their peers because they spend so much time in the hospital,” Smith said. “Being able to play Pokemon Go not only gives them something to take their minds off their surroundings, but a way for them to also feel as though they are still capable of doing things that other kids their age are doing.”

The appeal of the game is not constrained to the younger population, which is why many — including Bouchard and Mayo — believe Pokemon Go has proved capable of producing a strong community both inside the hospital and out.

It taps into the nostalgia factor for people who are probably in their early 20s to early 30s,” Bouchard said. “When that generation was 10 or 11, Pokemon was super popular. Now that it is back out again, those people are all nurses, doctors and occupational therapists.”

In addition to individuals, organizations are reaping the benefits of Pokemon Go for profit or for human and animal welfare.

Muncie Animal Shelter in Indiana uses Pokemon Go to receive much needed assistance in the shelter. According to an article published by Huffington Post, director Phil Peckinpaugh had the idea of soliciting volunteers to walk dogs while catching Pokemon after watching his niece and nephew playing.

Engineering sophomore Matt Myers said Muncie’s work is inspiring and demonstrates the positive influence that Pokemon Go can have on the community.

“What’s most amazing about (the game) is the way in which it has fostered a general sense of friendliness in many communities,” Myers said. “An animal shelter in Indiana encouraged (Pokemon Go) players to walk dogs while playing the game, and so many players apparently bonded well with the dogs they walked that the shelter was cleared of dogs through adoption.”

Local businesses are also benefiting from the game. Recently, Yelp has added a filtering option called “Pokéstop Nearby,” allowing players to locate businesses near Pokéstops to stock up on the necessary supplies to catch Pokemon in the area.

One of those local businesses is Babo: A Market by Sava. Taylor Higgins, Director of Marketing for Savco Hospitality — a hospitality group that encompasses Savas’s, Aventura, and Babo markets — stated that there has been an increase in sales and more foot traffic due to the nearby Pokestops and Pokemon-luring items located each of the store’s three downtown locations. The Savco and Babo’s team decided to improve marketing techniques to attract more Pokemon Go playing customers to the store by adding a unique item to their menu.

“We’re the first business to come up with a menu item related to Pokemon Go,” Higgins said. “The baristas at Babo created the 'Pikabrew,' a Hibiscus iced tea and lemonade fusion that looks like a Pokeball.”

Pokemon Go also might help players find their significant others. One Pokemon Go-associated dating app, called PokeMatch, works like Tinder. The users are shown potential dates, and they can “catch” their dates by swiping right on their phone screen. When two users swipe right for each other, they can have a conversation and arrange a meetup at a nearby PokeStop. The app can only be used by Pokemon Go players.

According to its developers, the app has already created more than 10,000 matches in 15 different countries, and users are sending thousands of messages a day.

“The goal is that people create meaningful dates, not just hook-ups,” app co-creator Rene Roosen said in a press release. “We think that a Pokemon Go date is the perfect opportunity for that.”

In spite of the many benefits of Pokemon Go, the game has raised some safety concerns. Players’ engrossment with the game has led to several incidents, incuding a car accident, falling from a cliff, as well as armed robberies.

The University's Division of Public Safety and Security has released several tips to stay safe while playing the game, though there have not been any reported incidences associated with Pokemon Go on campus.

Diane Brown, a DPSS public information officer, emphasized that students should be aware of their surroundings, which is not different from previous safety tips regarding smartphones.

“I think all of us should exercise due diligence and try to be aware of our surroundings,” Brown said. “Watching our phone so intensely, whether it’s Pokemon Go, texting or doing anything else on the Internet … is never a wise choice.”

Brown said drivers and bicyclists — in addition to refraining from playing the game while traveling — should be aware that the pedestrians might be inattentive and should be cautious.

Brown also mentioned playing the game can drain the phone’s battery, which leaves the player vulnerable during emergency situations.

“If people are playing (the game) so long, they are depleting the cell phone batteries,” Brown said. “And if they get into some kind of an emergency, then they don’t have their cell phones to try to call for help.”

LSA junior Leslie Jacobs also commented on how players need to use common sense and proper judgment to stay safe while playing the game.

“Walking at night is always a risk, no matter where you’re going or what you’re doing,” Jacobs said. “The way I think about it is if you heard about a party at a house somewhere … the first thing to do is check is where the party is and determine if you’re comfortable going to that area.”

Ilagan said she has played the game at night on campus and in downtown Ann Arbor, but she has never been concerned for her safety because she usually sees other Pokemon Go players or the areas are well-lit.

Ilagan added that she usually avoids deserted areas while alone at night, but she has played alone at night to catch a rare Pokemon.

“I’ve never been down alleys at night, though I did walk alone to Elbel at 12:30 a.m. for a Magmar,” Ilagan said.

In addition, Pokemon Go has raised issues related to players’ privacy, especially because the app tracks the players’ whereabouts while it's open, and the players could log into the game using their Google accounts. Critics have called the game a “huge security risk” that invades players’ privacy.

Law School Lecturer Brian Willen commented on what types of data Niantic could access.

“Apps like Pokémon Go collect detailed information about where users are and what they are doing,” Willen said. “That lets you catch Pikachu and Vaporeon, but it also lets Niantic track your location and activities in real-time … in addition to location information, Pokemon Go could access your Gmail account, Google photos, Google Drive documents and so on.”

Though letting companies have this type of information could provide more interactive gaming experiences and offers that are actually useful for the users, there is potential for abuse, Willen said.

“Game companies could compile detailed, personalized dossiers on their users, including information about their habits, sexual preferences, friends and daily routines,” Willen said. “And even if the game company isn’t using personal information, collecting it can be a problem because it may be stored in ways that are vulnerable to malicious hackers or thieves.”

Willen added that players should pay close attention to the privacy policies and the permissions the game asks players.

“More responsible companies tend to offer more fine-grained options to users about what data is being collected, so you should try to take advantage of those,” Willen said. “If you don’t understand or don’t like what the game company is doing with your information, find another game.”


Editor's note: a previous version of this article did not include the information about Savco and Babo.