The country has been overrun by digital monsters. The U.S. release of the smartphone game Pokemon Go on July 6 drew a wave of people out of their homes and onto the streets of Bellingham.
Local businesses have been rushing to take part in the fervor.
To put it mildly, the game is popular. Within three days of its release, more U.S. Android users were on Pokemon Go than on Twitter, according numbers from data company SimilarWeb. By mid-July, it had more daily active users than Google Maps, according to SurveyMonkey, and with tens of millions of users, it’s the most popular mobile game in U.S. history.
Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game, which combine a user’s phone GPS and camera to help them catch digital creatures called Pokemon in real space. Other elements of the game are also tied to real-world locations, and include Pokestops — where users can pick up items to help them on their adventure, and gyms — where teams battle and also where gamers can up their Pokemons’ skills by having them fight each other.
This collision of the virtual world and the real one has made for some interesting news stories. Police stations around the country have issued warnings to the public about being aware and not trespassing while playing the game. Boeing has banned the app from its factories and offices after the game almost caused an accident, The Herald in Everett reported.
In Bellingham, some late-night Pokemon players helped police nab two suspected car thieves, according to the Bellingham Herald.
Downtown businesses have noticed the Pokefever.
“It’s kind of like a party atmosphere downtown, all day long,” said Django Bohren, owner of The Comic Place. From his store on the corner of Holly and Bay streets, he’s noticed an influx of people downtown, playing the game.
“The number of people hanging out and walking around downtown is probably double what it was,” he said.
Although his shop isn’t any kind of special location in the game, people still gather there just to play it together.
“We had a lot of people in the store, asking about it, hanging out and having a good time,” he said. In the game, users pick one of three teams to join. Bohren had buttons made for each of the teams, around 70 total. He gave them out to paying customers. They were gone by the end of the day. He said the blue Team Mystic was the most popular.
The broad appeal of the game has probably contributed to its popularity, Bohren said.
“It doesn’t seem to have a specific market other than people who have a phone,” he said. And that appeal could bring people into his shop who otherwise wouldn’t have stepped in.
“It’s making that kind of nerd thing a little more acceptable and fun for people,” he said.
After discovering that the Horseshoe Cafe is a Pokestop, co-owner Kate Groen and her employees have embraced the craze.
“All of our employees are huge nerds,” she said, adding, “in the best way possible.” Many are really into the game, she said, and some have dropped lures on the Pokestop while they’re at work. In the game a lure can be attached to a Pokestop to “attract” rarer types of Pokemon to the area for 30 minutes. Players have been known to flock to dropped lures to try to catch more Pokemon. Lures can be found over the course of gameplay, or they can be purchased using real money.
“It’s been kinda fun because it brings kind of excitement to the day,” Groen said.
One bartender came up with themed drinks for each Pokemon team, and advertised them on the restaurant’s Facebook page. The red Team Valor is strawberry basil lemonade, the blue team is blueberry mint lemonade and the yellow Team Instinct is orange mango lemonade.
“People with that specific team will come in and try that specific drink,” Groen said. “It’s been really fun.”
Many come in and grab a drink while they charge their phone — the game is notoriously draining on batteries. She said more people have been coming into the restaurant since the game came out.
“Everyone’s been really good about buying something,” she said. “We’ve definitely seen people come in and recharge for a bit.”
She and her staff intend to keep the promotions coming as long as this trend lasts.
“I’m sure as long as the app is as popular as it is we’ll keep coming up with things,” she said.
On sunny days, you can usually find many people lounging on the lawn at the downtown branch of the Bellingham Public Library. These days, many of them have their eyes glued to their phones. The block of the library is home to a gym and three separate Pokestops.
“We welcome anyone who wants to come to the library for any reason, including looking for Pokemon,” said Janice Keller, communications manager at the library.. She doesn’t know if the the game has caused an increase in the library’s traffic, but she has noticed that lots of people coming in the library are playing the game.
“We’ve seen groups of parents and kids learning how to use it out back on the library lawn,” she said. “They do a bit of Pokemon Go and they play with our outdoor lawn checkers, or they come in the library and look at books.”
Two of the Pokestops at the library are the sculptures on the lawn. When gamers click on the stop to collect items, they also see a photo of the sculpture, the name of the work and the artist.
“There are more people talking about the sculptures on the library lawn,” Keller said. “If [the game] is inspiring people to notice and talk about public art, then that is a positive thing for connecting with the community.”
The game’s impact on Bellingham is no more evident than outside Northwest Handspun Yarns at 1401 Commercial St.
That’s where the tree — which usually has some kind of fiber arts decoration — is now sporting a knitted Poke ball design.
Store manager Heather Seevers made the decoration after a friend told her that the store is a Pokestop.
She’s started playing the game herself (she joined the blue team), and said she gets what the buzz is about.
“It’s kinda fun to see what’s around in the neighborhood,” she said. Pokestops can be businesses, but they can also be public spaces,including outdoor works of art.
“I’ve seen so many people take selfies with it,” she said. Even if the Pokestop doesn’t draw people into the store — she couldn’t say for certain whether it was or not — the attention around the tree is providing the shop with plenty of free advertising.
“If nothing else,” she said, “people will know we’re a fun, nerdy yarn shop.”
Seevers has also collaborated with neighboring business owner Paul Tohill, who owns Laughing Buddha piercing shop, to draw even more attention to the stop.
On a recent Saturday, Tohill paid around $10 to drop lures at the Pokestop for an entire day.
“It worked,” he said.
Beforehand, he went online and advertised that he’d be upgrading the stop in the most popular Facebook group for Bellingham Pokemon players, which has more than 800 members. The plan worked; he said at least half a dozen customers came into his shop who had walked by specifically to play Pokemon.
Seevers and Tohill plan to keep dropping lures at the spot every Saturday, Tohill said, as long as the craze lasts.
He said, that he,too, understands why the game has caught on.
“I just downloaded it to see what the hype was about and it’s pretty addicting,” he said. He’s on the red team.
As soon as he heard of the game he started thinking of the marketing possibilities.
“As a small business owner I was like ‘this is a good thing,’” he said.
Initially, he looked into turning his piercing shop into a Pokestop. At the time, users could request new stop locations, but there was no guarantee if or when it will happen, Tohill said.
That system appears to be changing.
John Hanke, CEO of the game’s developer Niantic, told the Financial Times that part of the company’s business model for its augmented reality games includes revenue from “sponsored locations.” Businesses can pay to become special locations in the game, and pay the company per gamer who visits.
The game launched in Japan on July 22 with McDonald’s as the first sponsored locations. In Japan, all McDonald’s restaurants are Pokemon gyms in the game.
Tohill said he was looking forward to new developments in the game, including opening it up to in-game advertising.
“I don’t think it’s just going to be a fad,” he said. “I feel like a lot of people have been looking for something else to do on their phone besides looking at bad news on their Facebook feed all day.”