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Pokémon Go Seizes Planet,
And The Phoenix Metro

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Khandice Benefield, who sponsored the event, sports her Pokémon Tattoos.
Image by Ryan Scott.
One Pokémon-less Writer Headed Over To A Mass Pokémon Go Gathering In Mesa To See What All The Fuss Is About And Found A Blossoming Community

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By Ryan Scott
Modern Times Magazine

July 18, 2016 — Unless you have been living in a cave without a smartphone, you are probably painfully aware that there is a new video game called Pokémon GO and that it is incredibly popular.

Hell, even if you live in a cave, it is likely some Pokémon GO players out hunting for Pokemon have stumbled upon your cave in their never ending quest to catch them all, as it were.

The point is, this is a full-blown cultural phenomenon at this point and that may have left those of us who aren’t playing the game feeling a bit confused. I am one of those people, and I decided to take it upon myself to try and understand this feverish obsession much of the world is having for Pokémon GO.

No matter what part of the Valley, or country, you live in, odds are you’ve seen groups of people wandering around with their phones in public places, looking for Pokemon and trying to catch them. In most cases, these are just small groups of friends who have decided to head out together and make this mobile game a group activity. However, there are many dedicated groups that are popping up in Arizona, and around the country that take the game very seriously. These groups have been holding meetups at various locations, and I attended one such event in an attempt to better understand this game.

Just so we’re all on the same page, here is how the game is officially described by the official Pokemon website:

“Get on your feet and step outside to find and catch wild Pokémon. Explore cities and towns around where you live and even around the globe to capture as many Pokémon as you can. As you move around, your smartphone will vibrate to let you know you're near a Pokémon. Once you've encountered a Pokémon, take aim on your smartphone's touch screen and throw a Poké Ball to catch it. Be careful when you try to catch it, or it might run away! Also look for PokéStops located at interesting places, such as public art installations, historical markers, and monuments, where you can collect more Poké Balls and other items.”

Simple, right? Not so much. Even after spending three hours at an event with something like 40 Pokémon GO players, I absolutely would not have been able to eloquently explain the game that well. And that is coming from someone who is at least somewhat familiar with the world of Pokémon. Like most people growing up in the 1990s, I got swept up in the initial wave of Pokémon cards, but it only lasted for several months.

Well, the world of Pokémon has grown considerably since then. This event proved to me just how much.

Shortly after the game was released, a few Pokémon enthusiasts decided to set up a public Facebook group called Pokémon GO AZ for lovers of the game to discuss it, share stories and have meetups. The group had its first official meetup last Saturday, and the turnout was better than expected. The group quickly exploded into one of the largest in the state, with nearly 800 members currently, and that was something the administrators of the group weren’t expecting, but they seemed to be rolling with it just fine.

The age range in the group varied wildly from adults in their 30s to kids who are just developing language skills. Kory Benfield, 23, who refers to himself as the “co-commander in charge” of the group, was on hand for the event, and has a long history with Pokémon, even if it is a bit outside of his main interests these days.

“As a kid I grew up getting Pokémon cards, having the different toys and all of that stuff. It was something I always collected. So this was something that was like a re-living of my childhood,” he said.

Benfield enjoys Pokémon Go because it is much more interactive than most games people obsess over these days.

“It’s not like a regular game to where you’re going to be on your phone, you move your thumbs around and that’s it,” he said. “You actually have to get out there and move around to play it. That’s awesome. It gives kind of that real world feel to it. This is something different. Everybody loves it. Everybody enjoys it. This is, to me, taking what used to be cards and imagination into a real world scenario.”

The organizers of Saturday’s meetup meticulously oversaw the event to ensure there was no cheating and had a signup sheet for the contest, a sponsor, prizes, rules and a friendly attitude. They also brought coolers of water, and a solid plan. They broke up the contest into three age brackets, and participants had the goal of catching the highest level Pokémon during the time of the event. Once everyone was there and signed up, they scattered all over Riverview Park in Mesa. It was fascinating to watch as someone who didn’t quite understand the Pokémon GO craze until now.

“I have huge anxiety, and it is really hard for me to get out of the house. And this is actually helping me overcome certain issues. Mental issues that I seem to have, and this has been a lot of fun. It’s been bringing the community together, and I know there are some people who think it’s stupid. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but I’ve never seen so many people come together that wouldn’t otherwise,” said Khandice Benefield, 28, who owns an Etsy shop and decided to sponsor the event. She made three different prizes for the three different age groups, and was enjoying the event with her 4-year-old son, who also loves Pokemon.

To that point, it was fascinating to see all of the parents at the event with their children. One wouldn't think of this as an activity parents would do with their kids, but it turned out to be exactly that. Perhaps the most telling bit of how this craze is spanning generations was seeing a dad sporting a Pokémon named Moltres on his vape pen standing next to his young son, who was sporting his Pikachu hat and Pokémon shirt.

The entire thing was eye opening, and even though I didn’t quite understand all of the intricacies of the game, the sense of community was very obvious and that seemed to be the main hook of the whole thing. These were people coming together who are otherwise used to very isolating experiences, like playing computer games at home. Instead, they were out in the real world hanging out with like-minded people, having a friendly competition and interacting with one another. I will admit, it was interesting to see everyone running around in a gorgeous park staring at their phones the entire time.

At one point while everyone was out hunting, I decided to take a break for nourishment and caffeine at the Taco Bell located across the street. Many of the Pokémon hunters followed and kindly discussed their adventures over cheap, delicious Mexican food. During that time, I overheard an exchange that went something like this.

“We have a problem.”

“Oh no, what?”

“That gym is yellow.”

I didn't quite understand why this was a problem. Yellow seems like a fine color to me. I still don't get it.

Shortly after the Taco Bell detour, everyone poured over to the admin table to report their best catches, in an attempt to win the prizes. But, in reality, it seemed more for pride purposes than it did about taking home one of the brown paper bags filled with hand crafted Pokémon goods.

The winners were announced, people cheered and everyone seemed happy. There was no “in your face” style gloating. It seemed more like the sportsmanship that one might find at a tennis match or something, but with an eclectic crowd that would likely be more at home in an arcade. The winners grabbed their prizes, posed for pictures, and then everyone just talked like they were friends.

Most of these people had never met one another in person before, but Pokémon GO brought them together. This silly little game managed to bring together people of all ages and from all walks of life, out into the real world for a real experience that they absolutely would not have had without it.

Sure, a lot of adults with grown up responsibilities can look at something like Pokémon GO and write it off as childish or maybe even downright pointless. I don’t know that I am going to start playing it myself, but I can say that after experiencing it first hand, I get it. But perhaps Benfield explained it best, when he simply said to a group of people he only knows because of a video game, “We’re all friends here.”
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