July 27 2016 01:20 PM

Pokémon GO takes over Lansing area, businesses join in the hunt

A Pidgey (a bird creature from the Pokémon GO game) appears in front of the South Lansing Farmers Market.
Eve Kucharski/City Pulse

People swarmed across the park in Meridian Township’s Historical Village, rushing to a central gazebo like ants converging on a lump of sugar. “Mom, look!” yelled a child’s voice. Then I saw it, too. There, in the middle of the park, was a Dratini. I began to sweat.

Of course, it wasn’t actually standing there. It was on my phone — all of our phones. For those who don’t know what a Dratini is, it’s actually rather cute, and pretty rare. That’s why I’m patting myself on the back for nabbing two of them. But more important, it is one of hundreds of catchable Pokémon (the plural is the same as the singular) in Niantic and the Pokémon Company’s new app, Pokémon GO.

“I came out here the other day and expected to be the only person at eight in the morning out of work, and said ‘Wow, there’s 20 other people here!’” Ingham County Sheriff Department employee Dave Drury said. When Drury came back later that night, the number had swelled to 60.

It’s only been out for a few weeks, but according to IGN, Pokémon GO was the top-grossing app in the U.S. App Store just one day after its release.

The object of the game is to collect as many Pokémon as possible. The app uses a phone’s GPS and camera to show the user’s location by means of a custom avatar on the world map. The player is also equipped with a map that shows how far away potential catches are. This means that in order to catch anything, one must walk, and possibly walk far.

After the player walks some distance in the direction shown on the map, Pokémon will appear without warning. One must use tools, aptly named Pokéballs, to catch the creatures. Players use the touch screen to lob the balls at them. It’s as simple as can be, and people are crazy about it.

MSU graduate student Connor Glosser said he doesn’t need to download the app. He enjoys kicking back and watching others succumb to the hype.

“It was the ‘it’ thing when I was in second or third grade, but now it’s super fun to watch,” Glosser said. “I love walking around campus, seeing these groups of people, and they all have their phones out and they’re pointing around in some direction. And then, all of a sudden, someone will say ‘Oh, there it is!’ and they’ll all run off in a direction.”

The obsession is fueled by an element of competition. Pokémon Gyms are realworld locations where players can battle for rank among three teams: Mystic, Valor and Instinct, outfitted in blue, red and yellow, respectively.

PokéStops also are real locations, but these merely provide resources. They can, however, be rigged to attract Pokémon, using a “lure module” that draws any little guys in the area to a specific location for 30-minute increments.

This is where business savvy ties into Pokémon GO. As the phenomenon explodes across social media, businesses offer a variety of Pokémon-related benefits to players. They might offer discounts based on in-game team membership or generally turn themselves into Pokémon-centric venues. To name only two such tie-ins, the Claddagh Irish Pub in Eastwood Towne Center has a Facebook advertisement, while Zoobie’s Old Town Tavern posted on Twitter about the app.

“All these 25-and-unders here in the office are playing the game,” said Lansing City Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar, who runs the South Lansing Farmer’s Market and the South Lansing Community Development Association.

An intern told Dunbar that the market’s location, the parking lot of St. Casimir Parish, happened to have two PokéStops and a PokéGym. The market is held every Thursday from 3 to 7 p.m.

“We had just been discussing different, inventive, creative ways that we could promote the farmers market outside the box,” Dunbar said. She plans to take advantage of her fortuitous hunting grounds to use Pokémon GO as a marketing tool through social media posts.

The hype has been working, at least in Dunbar’s case. Last Thursday, the market advertised the game for the first time. Dunbar reported an 82 percent spike in attendance — 32 percent higher than her highest attendance day in 2016 yet. Considering the popularity of the app, the jump is unsurprising.

Alex Bryant, the intern who turned Dunbar onto the app, said that the three main spots in Lansing to catch Pokémon are at the corner of Michigan and Grand avenues, by the Radisson Hotel; the corner of Washington Square and Allegan Street; and on the Allegan Street side of the Capitol lawn.

Cassie Leigh, Alex Bryant, Louis Mick and Devin Cook (left to right) gather to catch Pokémon at the South Lansing Farmers Market.
Eve Kucharski/City Pulse

Some area municipalities have issued official guidelines for the invading swarms of players. Meridian Township issued a two-page list of 20 “safety tips” discouraging people from playing the game while driving, in parks after dusk, or on private property. “Players have been observed staring at their phones while skateboarding, rollerblading, cycling and walking,” the release scolds. “Watch where you are going.”

Though Bryant feels the initial hype will die down, he thinks Pokémon GO has just begun its cultural takeover.

“A lot of the hardcore Pokémon fans, people who still play the (original) Gameboy games, they’ve stayed with the games for 15 years,” Bryant said. “A lot of the people who own businesses in the area are playing it themselves. To not capitalize on this craze that’s happening right now would be a missed opportunity.”