‘Pokemon Go’ invades SLO County

By now you’ve almost definitely heard of it: “Pokemon Go” — a smartphone app that encourages players to go outside and capture imaginary creatures called Pokemon and train them for battles against other Pokemon — has quickly swept the nation, with millions of players each day taking to the streets to try and “catch ’em all.”

In San Luis Obispo County, the culture is strong, with local players coming together for mass Poke-hunts and events in downtown San Luis Obispo or other parts of the county, and an active online community of trainers sharing their tips and tricks to becoming the very best.

“The community around here is fantastic,” Katelyn Sweigart of Arroyo Grande said. “I’ve had nothing but positive reactions and outreach from everyone in the local groups.”

Sweigart, 26, is the site administrator for two local “Pokemon Go” Facebook groups: SLO Bros — Pokemon Go Lugia Alliance and Central Coast Pokemon Go. In the week since the app was released, those two open groups have gained more than 220 members combined.

The app erupted into mass popularity seemingly overnight, with attention heaped on it by media outlets: A search of “Pokemon Go” on The Washington Post website reveals 93 articles on the topic over the past eight days, while The New York Times online had 72 hits and the Los Angeles Times 43. The Tribune had 53, before this article was published.)

Though the exact number of active players is unknown, the app has fueled a nearly 25 percent jump in Nintendo’s stock — adding about $7.5 billion to its total net worth — and tech experts say it is poised to overtake Snapchat and Twitter in its number of active daily users, if it hasn’t already.

On Thursday, it was the No. 1 grossing app in the Apple App Store and Google Play store.

A lot of its popularity stems from the fact that the target age group — millennials who grew up with the original Pokemon franchise of movies, video games, card games and a TV show in the 1990s and early 2000s — has ready access to smartphones and disposable income, plus a healthy dose of nostalgia, Sweigart said.

“So they’re off catching Pokemon, fulfilling that little dream they had when they were a kid,” she said. “And there’s been a lot of backlash saying, ‘You’re not an adult’ or ‘You’re not mature.’ But look at fantasy football. I could throw shade at that. It’s adults chasing their dreams from when they were kids. At least this is getting us off of our sofas and out into the community.”

Cal Poly marketing professor Joachim Scholz said another aspect of the app’s popularity could be its use of “augmented reality,” essentially layering a virtual world on top of our physical world. In Business Horizons earlier this year, Scholz cowrote an article on how marketing managers can use augmented reality in their marketing programs.

“Utilizing augmented reality to revive the Pokemon franchise was a stroke of genius,” Scholz said, noting that Snapchat’s popular filters are another example of augmented reality. “It took something familiar yet distant — because it was only played in people’s minds or watched on TV — and put it into people’s everyday familiar environments. That’s a completely new form of engagement that is much more integrated with the physical context around you, and thus your everyday life. AR helps people to become part of the Pokemon world, because it fuses the Pokemon world with our world.”

Scholz said the popularity of “Pokemon Go” could be groundbreaking for the augmented reality technology, though he cautioned that access to the technology is going to be a big factor in the future.

“For AR to become really part of our everyday life, people need to be able to access it with a lot less friction,” he said. “So instead of pulling out your phone, downloading an app, starting the app, and then holding your phone in front of your face, AR has to be simply in your view. To the extent that it really becomes just part of your life. ... “Pokemon Go,” as great as it is, is a proof of concept for marketers and first taste for consumers. It will be remembered as something that really accelerated development and adoption.”

How to play

The premise of “Pokemon Go” is simple: catch all the different types of imaginary Pokemon by walking around your neighborhood or other areas. Playing at home will only allow players to catch a few. When Pokemon randomly appear in your area, you press on the creature in the app and your phone camera opens, showing the virtual Pokemon sitting on top of your surroundings. From there you throw a variety of Pokeballs at the Pokemon to capture it.

The different types of Pokemon can be found near “associated” areas: water ones near creeks and the ocean (the Pismo Beach Pier is a hotspot for rare water Pokemon, Sweigart said), bird and field Pokemon are often found in grassy areas and ghostly Pokemon generally appear at night. The more people there are playing in an area, the more Pokemon tend to appear, Sweigart said.

There’s an additional element of battling the caught Pokemon at “gyms” and claiming those gyms for one of three teams, Teams Valor, Mystic or Instinct. (Sweigart is Team Valor, and her gym is the one located at the Los Berros Market in Arroyo Grande.)

One of Sweigart’s favorite places to hunt is in The Village of Arroyo Grande, where she can catch Pokemon at a grassy area near the creek — two birds with one stone.

“That’s my favorite spot to go,” she said. “That way I can buy a coffee from Cafe Andreini and hunt at the same time.”

One of Sweigart’s philosophies is that if you go into a business with a Pokestop, you should patronize the store in some way (i.e. buying coffee at her local coffee place with a stop).

“We want to be a part of the community,” she said. “That was one of the main goals of the app.”

Since “Pokemon Go” was released July 6, Sweigart said she has participated in a handful of meet-ups with other players to go hunt Pokemon, like a midnight jaunt through Arroyo Grande or a planned gathering at the Downtown SLO Farmers Market on Thursday night. And it’s that community-building aspect of the app that has left the biggest impression on her so far, she said.

“I’m normally a shy person,” she said. “But this has gotten me chatting with people I never would have chatted with before. There’s just so many people of all sorts of ages — I’ve heard stories of a mother who takes her autistic son, and normally he won’t talk to people, but now people are coming up to him, talking to him. It’s just amazing that this is happening.”

Sweigart has also noticed that the app is helping some of her friends with depression by giving them something to do and accomplish each day.

“It may not be the best thing to get them out of bed, but it is something, and it’s working,” she said.

Safety concerns

A lot of focus has been heaped on the potential safety concerns with the app, Sweigart said, though for the most part, she thinks those are isolated incidents.

“This is an extremely positive game,” she said. “I don’t like how it is being portrayed as a thing that lures people to places where sex offenders could be. Really all the negative things about it are stuff you shouldn’t be doing anyway: Do not trespass, do not walk into traffic, do not use your phone while driving, do not walk around alone at night.”

One of the recent local concerns is that the app is leading people to places like Sunny Acres, a recovery center off Los Osos Valley Road in San Luis Obispo. A Pokestop — a landmark for players, where they can collect virtual gear — is located on a metallic sculpture at the gate for the 72-acre farm.

The farm is home to recovering drug addicts, parolees, people with mentall illnesses and other people in need of a clean and sober living environment. Residents work on the farm or at the property’s thrift shop as they go through the recovery program.

Sunny Acres owner Dan DeVaul said on Thursday that having a Pokestop in front of the property initially worried him because it could bring people wandering onto the site, and could potentially violate the terms of probation for some of the property residents who have sex offenses.

But so far, De Vaul said, the Pokemon players haven’t disrupted the farm in any way: they just stop at the parking lot in their cars, swipe on the stop for virtual supplies and then leave.

“It doesn’t hurt a darn thing for people to come to the property and take a picture,” he said. “The only problem would be if people go out and wandered through the buildings, but that hasn’t happened.”

De Vaul said he hasn’t attempted to have the stop removed.

“I don’t intend to unless it becomes a problem,” he said.

Sunny Acres board member Mila Vujovich-La Barre said Thursday that she is attempting to contact the app’s parent company, Niantic, to remove the stop from the game.

People can request to remove dangerous or inaccessible Pokestops through a request form on the “Pokemon Go” website. They can request new stops be added in their areas through the same form.

So far local police say they haven’t encountered any issues with players using the app, despite reports from across the country of traffic accidents, trespassing and even run-ins with wildlife. The majority of local authorities said the biggest effect they are seeing is large numbers of people congregating around popular sites.

Pismo Beach Police Chief Jake Miller said patrols have spotted between 100 and 150 people in the pier parking lot each night this past week, trying to collect some of the rare Pokemon that pop up on the pier at night.

“We responded two nights ago to remind folks the pier lot closes at 11 p.m., but mostly to find out what the heck all the fuss was about,” Miller wrote in an email to The Tribune on Thursday. “Last night’s patrol just cruised by and monitored. Obviously, ped(estrian) traffic in the downtown picks up this time of year and resources are moved to that area.”

Atascadero police Chief Jerel Haley said the Police Department hasn’t seen any incidents from people using the app, though he did note that there have been a large number of people near City Hall, where a Pokestop is located.

“It’s actually been a fun diversion,” he said. “A lot of people are walking around, enjoying the warm summer nights. Certainly we have some safety concerns when people are congregating in large groups or walking around with their heads in the phones or at night, but it just takes reminding them to not walk into the street with their phone and that sort of thing. Just being cautious.”

Grover Beach police Chief John Peters and Arroyo Grande police Chief Steven Annibali also said they have not seen any problems with “Pokemon Go” players in their jurisdictions.

Business benefits

Safety aside, “Pokemon Go” could spur increases in sales at local businesses that feature Pokestops.

Mathew Duhon, IT manager at the Madonna Inn, said the hotel and its restaurant have seen an uptick in people during the day who are playing the game. Most of the activity seems to be in the restaurant where he said more people are stopping in and buying slices of cake or pie, and playing the game on their phones while they eat. He did not know the exact percentage increase in sales for the past week.

Duhon said the property has also seen more people stopping in in the past few days just to play the game, or wandering around at night catching Pokemon, the latter of which he doesn’t encourage.

He attributes the inn’s sudden popularity with players to the 10 Pokestops and two gyms on the property. Visitors have also continuously dropped “lure modules” — a virtual item that draws more Pokemon to a specific area for a short amount of time — at the Pokestops for the past week, which could be attracting more people.

“That’s quite a lot of stops,” he said. “We’ve been getting quite a lot of intrigue from guests and people stopping by to play the app.”

There is also a potential for businesses in the future to create “sponsored Pokestops” in front of their businesses, and then pay a certain amount to drop a lure on them, and attract players to their businesses.

Marketing technology group Matchfire is looking into how local businesses could use the popular app to their benefit. To do this, the company has started setting lures at Pokestops at the San Luis Obispo train station — where their company is headquartered — and is offering free doughnuts and water to anyone who stops by and is willing to talk about why and how they use the app.

“It’s kind of fun for us to see what ‘Pokemon Go’ is, and how it is being used by people in the area,” said Becky Singh, director of communications at Matchfire. “We’re excited to see how motivated the people are who use it to then engage in the businesses around them.”

The group plans to offer doughnuts and water at the Pokestop 3 to 5 p.m. Friday, before they move on to other areas for similar outreach.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie

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