ROCKINGHAM — Pokémon Go hit iOS and Android screens July 6, bringing groups of trainers out of their homes and into the augmented-reality versions of neighborhoods across Richmond County. Since then, downtown Rockingham and Hamlet have become popular places for catching wild Pokémon and collecting items from Pokéstops.
Groups of Pokémon trainers are easy to spot. They typically travel on foot and number between two and six, using the cameras on their smartphone screens to find virtual “pocket monsters” that are superimposed onto their immediate, real-life surroundings. The game uses data from Google Maps and GPS technology to make the world around them their game space. Groups are fluid, mixing and meeting, sharing tips and information for part of their journey before moving in different directions.
When Pokémon appear, trainers swipe a finger upward across the screen to send virtual Pokéballs flying at them until the creatures are contained.Two pairs of Pokémon trainers near First United Methodist Church became one group of four as they explained how the game has changed the way they interact with the popular franchise and with each other.
“I mean, this has pretty much been my dream since I was three,” Melody Terry, 21, said. “To be able to go out and catch Pokémon, and be able to really catch them.”
Aidan Kegebein, originally from Germany, said, “My sister started playing around Diamond and Pearl. So then I started playing the Game Boy ones and I’ve been playing ever since. I’ve actually left my house now, just to do this.”
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Angela Chen, 18. “I’ve been hearing stories of how it’s helped people with depression to get out more. I think that’s pretty cool. And literally, today, she just called me and said, ‘You want to go downtown?’”
“I was running out of Pokéballs and I needed to get some poké-stuff,” said Miranda Haltom, 18, of that call. “This whole block has them. My friends, they go out at two in the morning to catch things.”
That’s because the game is sensitive, according to reports by trainers, not only to space and topography but also to the time of day — and if you want to catch ghost-type Pokémon, they tend to come out at night.
“Yeah,” Kegebein said. “I found Ghastly beside the Food King parking lot.”
Shiela Lamourt, 34, said Pokémon Go was pitched to her at work.
“I work for DSS, and this craze has taken over,” she said. “I used to play with my little brother, the card game and the video games. He had nobody else to play with and I kind of got stuck with it. And when they told me about this — it was my boss who actually told me — and at first I was just making fun of him. I was just cracking up on him, but then I heard all the other things that are going to come with it.
“But mainly why I like it is because I get to work out. It motivates me to want to walk to the next little surprise,” she continued. “It’s kind of like surprises, and especially, you get so bored here you have really nothing to do, but it’s really fun for the town. It’s a good thing. It’s more like a social thing, and we need things like that to unite us, with everything that’s going on. We need something a little bit lighter. It’s really entertaining, and I’m really excited with it.”
Downtown businesses are reporting something of a Pokémon bump.
“Oh yeah, we’re playing too,” said Diane Masterson of Hudson Brothers Deli. “I just had two girls leave, I believe they were from South Carolina. The only reason I asked is I hadn’t seen them around before. They said uptown here seems to be the hot spot, Richmond County.”
Erin Jernigan from Pattan’s Downtown Grille said that restaurant has also noted increased business from Pokémon trainers.
“Yes, there has been (an uptick),” she said. “We see them all the time walking. We see a few of them come in, a lot more than normal. They’ll come in and get a drink to go, but mostly we see them at night. It’s a good thing. It’s getting people outside.”
Anthony Kubiak, 18, said Pokémon Go has changed the way people interact in public for the better.
“I went Pokémon hunting with a few friends of mine on Tuesday night and it was truly a memorable night,” he said. “It’s amazing to see this game bringing so many people together. Not just children but even people who are 18, 20 and so on, because we were raised with the game and now we can interact in alternate reality talking about Pokémon and strategies.”
Rockingham Police Department Chief Billy Kelly said the Pokémon trainers around town have been both cautious and courteous so far.
“What we’ve experienced is a large number of kids out late at night, not causing any problems, not doing anything wrong,” he said after Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “But when we stop to find out what they’re doing, they were playing Pokémon. Our only concern is their safety. We want to make sure they are cautious as to what they’re doing.”
Kelly said it can be dangerous after dark for kids who wander away from well-known places without paying attention.
“If it’s late at night and you’ve got a child walking into an area they’re not familiar with, they could get in trouble,” he added. “I would obviously recommend walking in pairs and even doing it more in daytime hours. John Massey just said there was half a dozen here around the city hall area today. Ten o’clock this morning I was walking out looking at a vehicle in our parking lot, and there was a kid sitting under the water tower playing the game. Just sitting there, and after he was done he got up and walked off. Very polite.
“So, we’ve experienced no problems,” Kelly continued. “My only concern would be for their safety. You know, two o’clock in the morning, kids walking into the downtown area and neighborhoods they’re unfamiliar with there’s so many things that could go wrong. I’d just recommend they do it during the daylight hours. And even then, I always see them walking and looking down at their phone. They need to pay attention and be aware of their surroundings.”
Kubiak, speaking of the game’s feature which allows trainers to drop lures that attract the virtual creatures to Pokéstops, said Pokémon Go brings people together in a positive way.
“There were groups of friends walking downtown, setting up stops to catch more Pokemon, and all just talking and having a good time — all over one common interest,” Kubiak said. “It’s getting people outside to walk and exercise in order to catch Pokémon and have fun. Pokémon Go is a big step for Pokémon and I love it. My username is Wyntxr and I hope to spot everybody at a gym and out catching some Pokémon.”
William R. Toler contributed to this story. Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin (username MelonieM, Team Mystic!) at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.