January 23, 2022

Pokemon Go lives on

Reality game reveals a Cortland most people miss

Travis Dunn/staff reporter

Kelley Thomsen of Cortland displays his dedication to Pokemon Go as he plays after work Thursday night, stopping here to fight a Sneazel outside the United Presbyterian Church.

When it started three years ago, reality-based humans didn’t quite know what to make of it.

Why were groups of people of no discernible demographic pattern gathering at strange times, in strange places, with their faces stuck in their smartphones?

The answer, as the uninitiated discovered, was Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game, in which players play a video game with their smartphones that uses the real world as its gameboard.

That was 2016. But people are still playing it. The rest of us have gotten so used to the sight of people walking around with their faces glued to their phones that nobody notices the Pokemon players.

Until something like this happens: A Washington state trooper finds a man pulled to the side of a highway playing Pokemon Go in his car on eight phones simultaneously. That was Tuesday.


Pokemon Go: A primer

Pokemon started as a video game for the Nintendo Gameboy in 1996. The fictional premise: Human trainers catch mythical animals called Pokemon to train them for fighting.

The original game quickly spawned a range of other media — cards, comic books, toys, more video games, a TV show and movies. It is now the world’s largest-grossing media franchise, worth more than $90 billion.

In 2016, the franchise expanded into new territory: the augmented- reality of Pokemon Go. The game has been downloaded more than a billion times.

The app uses the GPS and clock of a player’s smartphone to overlay game elements over actual places. The player moves around in actual space to find Pokemon to fight and catch, as well as other virtual objects and locations.

Pokemon can be found “in the wild,” just wandering around, or in gyms, which are stationary locations.

Players can also visit PokeStops, where they can collect Poke- Balls, devices used to contain Pokemon, and Pokemon eggs, which players can hatch by walking a specified distance.

The game encourages players to travel and play at different times of the day, because some Pokemon are specific to different areas, and some are more frequently encountered at certain times.

The game also hosts “community days,” which encourages players to meet and play the game. Cortland has one of these days every month.

The local Cortland group also hosts more frequent “dinner raids,” which sometimes take place from 6 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday nights, sometimes meeting under the clock of the former First National Bank building at 35 Main St.

— Travis Dunn


For three years now, Pokémon Go players have inhabited an alternate reality. The rest of the world catches only glimpses, such as a crowd of more than 20 people that might gather in the early evening under the clock of the former First National Bank at 35 Main St.

What people see is a bunch of people staring at their phones. They’ll stand there for a while, chatting, joking, some smoking cigarettes, then they move on, down Central Avenue to Church Street, stopping at first this church, then that one, as they drift toward Courthouse Park.

The Pokemon players interact every day with the city in ways nobody else does.

Pokémon and the pedestrian

Exercise is one of the first things Pokemon players mention when they explain what they get out of the game.

“It’s good to have a reason to exercise,” said Bridget Freeman of Cortland.

In order to “hatch” the eggs they collect, players must travel — two, five, or seven kilometers — depending on the egg. The 10-kilometer eggs are harder to find.

There’s a payoff for hatching the eggs, beyond the benefits players gain in the game: It satisfies the players’ curiosity, because the type of Pokemon is initially hidden.

“You never known until it hatches,” Freeman said. “So you have the element of surprise as well.”

Players have to walk to hatch the eggs, because the app monitors speed. Running can hinder and even stop the hatching process.

The distribution of special game locations also encourages walking. There are two main types: gyms, where players fight Pokemon, and PokeStops, where player pick up eggs and other items.

In Cortland, some of the best gyms and PokeStops are strewn about downtown, on Main and Church streets.

The churchs, the post office, the old First National Bank at 35 Main St., Courthouse Park — these all have either gyms or PokeStops.

It’s not just Cortland. Gyms and PokeStops are everywhere. A popular stop is the Glenwood Cemetery in Homer, which has a gym and PokeStops.

At least one ambitious player, Andrew Gillespie of Cortland, has walked all the way to Homer and back to play Pokemon.

“If you want to play the game, you have to be committed,” said Iva Grant of Cortland.

Pokemon and destressification

Kelley Thomsen is one of five employees at the Cortland County Department of Social Services who play Pokemon Go. Five players out of 25 people — 20% of the department.

Thomsen works in child services. It’s a stressful job in a field with high turnover. Pokemon Go is how Thomsen lets go of the stress.

Thomsen starts his day with the game. First thing in the morning, he takes an hour-long walk, playing Pokemon along the way, then stops home and gets ready for work. Sometimes he’ll play during lunch, sometimes with co-worker. Then he’ll play a little more to blow off steam when he finishes for the day.

Thursday night, despite moderate rain and flashes of lightning, Thomsen was out on Main Street, cutting down Central Avenue to the gyms and PokeStops on Church Street.

His friend, the enigma

Sometimes when Thomsen is playing Pokemon, his friend shows up. Thomsen doesn’t know anything about him. He barely knows what he looks like, and he definitely doesn’t know his name. All he knows is the man drives a convertible and plays Pokemon in his car. Thomsen calls him “an enigma.”

He’s not the only friendly enigma in Thomsen’s Pokemon life. Other people also show up in their cars while he’s playing the game.

Thomsen said these mysterious friends park nearby a gym or PokeStop and join in. Thomsen’s “enigma” friend, for instance, has helped him many times in raids, or fights, at gyms around the city.

This is one of the ways Pokemon Go has created new relationships. Now close but emotionally disconnected relationships can take place in real life, not just on the internet.

POKEMAN AND HISTORY

One of the features of the game is that many of the gyms and PokeStops are pegged to places of local historical significance. If you see a historical marker anywhere, chances are there are invisible Pokemon there also.

Learning about local history becomes one of the side effects of Pokemon playing.

“You walk by places every day but you don’t realize that they have historical significance,” said Thomsen, who, thanks to playing the game and walking by Guthrie Cortland Medical Center, knows that “Lydia Strowbridge, 1803-1904, graduated from the Hygeio-Therapeutic College and specialized in diseases of women and children,” as the historical marker on Homer Avenue informs passers-by.

Iva Grant said she has also learned about the existence and location of the Cortland County Historical Society at 25 Homer Ave. because it’s a gym in the game.

“It’s kind of weird, but the gym is right there, so now everybody goes there,” she said.

Pokemon on the road

Pokemon also gets players to travel. Four Cortland players, Bridget Freeman, William Smith, Fran McMahon and Brandon Klemm, traveled by night train to Chicago June 14 so they could participate in the Chicago Pokemon Go fest on June 15.

The four won a lottery for tickets to the event. This is a not a trip that the four would have made on their own: While Freeman and Smith have been friends since high school, Freeman only got to know the other two through the game. But she got to spend a whole weekend with two people she may otherwise never have met. The game helped her make new friends.

Pokemon also adds a new dimension to roadtrips, as Iva Grant has discovered. On Friday, she made her final trip to Floresville, Texas, where she now lives, after a couple of trips back and forth.

It’s a long drive to Floresville — about 27 hours non-stop. It can get dull. Pokemon was all along the way.

“We play all over,” she said, who frequently plays the game with her husband, Edward.

Welcome centers, she said, are guaranteed to have something. “I haven’t hit a welcome center that doesn’t,” she said.

Sometimes she’ll even go out of her way for hit a PokeStop. Once in Arkansas, at noticed a few PokeStops down the road from a rest stop. She detoured.

She was looking forward to making a few more detours when she left for Texas.

Pokemon and the police

Many small American cities can feel like “Twin Peaks” if you wander around after midnight. Cortland, maybe a little more so.

Ask Bobby Tucker. He spend a lot of time walking around Cortland at night. He works as a night janitor for several downtown businesses, and he gets off work about 3:30 a.m.

His prime time for playing is right after he gets off work, when the streets are eerily empty, with just Pokemon and a few police.

“Usually it’s just me and the cops,” Tucker said.

The interaction of Pokemon players and police goes back to the beginning of the game. Grant said that was one of the first things she noticed when she started playing in 2017. She remembers police in the early days coming up and questioning her and other players.

“At first they were asking, ‘What are you doing?’” she said.

Cortland police Lt. David Guerrera said police got a lot of calls about Pokemon players when the game first came out. Most were about people congregating in “unusual places and unusual times of the night,” but some were reports of trespassing.

The reports dropped off, and he himself largely lost track of the phenomenon, until he was on vacation a few weeks ago in Toronto and noticed a group of kids behaving strangely in his hotel. They were riding the elevators up and down and paying way too much attention to their smartphones. That’s when he realized they were playing Pokemon Go.

Then about 7 p.m. Sunday, he got further confirmation that Pokemon Go lives on. He saw a group of kids walking between the old Parker School and Suggett Park. They were all staring at their phones.

“You see a group of kids walking down the street with their faces in their phones, you can generally guess what they’re doing,” he said.