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UNM crawling with virtual creatures, gamers

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Nights on the University of New Mexico’s campus have been a little brighter lately, thanks to scores of people wandering campus with their glowing smartphones.

Their intent isn’t malicious. Rather, they’re playing Pokémon Go, a game released last week that has since climbed to the top of app store charts.

UNM, particularly at night, has proved an attractive spot for the game, which to be fully enjoyed requires users to explore their world by walking.

Brothers Ryan, 18, left, and Kyle Mayer, 26, search for virtual Pokémon at the duck pond at the University of New Mexico on Monday

Brothers Ryan, 18, left, and Kyle Mayer, 26, search for virtual Pokémon at the duck pond at the University of New Mexico on Monday. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

James Walker, a marketing assistant with UNM residence life, said the nights offer a reprieve from the summer heat, and UNM’s campus has relatively little traffic, which is appealing to pedestrians.

“The community is exploding here,” Walker, 23, said of the players.

Pokémon Go is a collaboration between Niantic, a company that played roles in creating Google Earth and Maps, and the Pokémon Co., which handles the popular video games of the same name. The Pokémon games traditionally have been tied to video game consoles in which players collect and battle Pokémon, creatures that often resemble animals. The new game asks users to move with their screens rather than sit in front of them, and it bears some semblance to geocaching, a digital treasure hunt that also relies on GPS.

The free app rocketed to popularity, snagging the top spots in the Google Play store and the Apple app store on Monday afternoon. It has been downloaded more times than the dating app Tinder and is rapidly catching up to Twitter. The stock of Nintendo, a partner in Pokémon, rose nearly 25 percent Monday in Japan trading.

It’s also generating plenty of headlines, such as the young woman who found a body while playing the game in Wyoming. Others have reported breaking bones while wandering and watching the screen. And a Missouri police department said robbers have been able to game the app’s features to lure would-be victims to a specific area where the criminals awaited them.

When players install the app, they see a virtual map of their surroundings on their smartphone screens.

As players wander, they encounter Pokémon rolling, flapping or roaring in a virtual re-creation of the environment through their smartphone camera. So you might see a Rattata, a purple rat Pokémon, on Central Avenue or the duck Pokémon Psyduck at UNM’s duck pond.

Users then engage in a minigame that involves flicking pokeballs, tools of the trade to capture Pokémon, to catch the virtual varmints. One of the game’s goals is to capture all the Pokémon species.

The app seems to be popular among the younger generation, many of whom grew up with the console games, and has been especially popular on UNM’s campus. That’s partly thanks to the game’s mechanics. The game rewards players for interacting with interesting landmarks with virtual tools necessary to play the game. UNM has plenty of sites, such as the duck pond, Zimmerman Library or Smith Plaza.

Pokémon in the app are location-specific, which means aquatic Pokémon can be found only near water and grass Pokémon in parks. It’s also time-sensitive, so, for example, ghost Pokémon only emerge at night.

Another reason for the campus’ appeal to game players seems to be good reviews on social media, with many Twitter users praising UNM as a packed hunting ground for the digital creatures.

Local businesses have also tried to take advantage of the app’s popularity. The Satellite Coffee across the street from campus is offering a 10 percent discount to customers who show their Pokémon Go app.

On Monday, current and future students meandered around school grounds, phones clutched just inches from their faces. Periodically, someone might stop and gasp and start flicking their phone’s screen, tell-tale signs of someone playing Pokémon Go.

The app has also attracted people who used to be interested in Pokémon, but had since moved on.

Consider Kimmie Meza, 20. She said her boyfriend had been playing Pokémon Go and persuaded her to give it a try. Now she has a portable battery pack so she can play the game longer without stopping to recharge. She said she isn’t alone.

“I have seen a lot of people playing who aren’t into Pokémon,” Meza said.

Joshua Springs spent Sunday running back home to charge his phone, so he also bought a portable charger.

For Springs, a 24-year-old set to start school in the fall, catching Pokémon in the real world is something he has been waiting for since he first started playing the game on the Game Boy in the late 1990s. And an unexpected boon, he said, has been meeting new people.

“You’re not playing it alone anymore,” Springs said.

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