Over the past few days, Harford County has become filled with invisible monsters, and if you haven't seen them, you've probably seen the people looking for them.
Kids, teenagers and older residents alike have been roaming Harford streets at all hours of the day and night, glued to their cell phones as they try to catch Pokemon characters that are "hiding" throughout the real world. Those hunting Pokemon characters have concerned at least one Harford County law enforcement agency whose chief is fearful the hunters will be so distracted they will injure themselves or someone else.
Pokemon Go, the new virtual-reality game, has turned into a national craze virtually overnight, becoming America's highest-ranked game since being released by Nintendo last Wednesday. The Japanese company had yet to release it in Japan or Europe.
"I've always played Pokemon, and just going around and catching somewhat, I guess not really 'real,' but catching Pokemon around is a lot more fun," Alex Smith said Monday in downtown Bel Air, just before he and fellow C. Milton Wright High School student Chase Webel crept around the back of the Hopkins House to look for a bluish-green Bulbasaur.
"Me and him went out last night, and all up and down Main Street, everyone was playing it," Smith said.
The boys were just two of many people in Bel Air Monday scouting for the monsters, and groups of dozens or more have been reported in Harford, as well as throughout the region.
Members of Facebook groups reported as many as 50 people by the Concord Point Lighthouse in Havre de Grace Monday night. Three separate Facebook groups for Pokemon Go in Harford had more than 300 members by Tuesday.
One person reported finding the coveted Pikachu at about 4 a.m. at American Legion Post 47 in Havre de Grace, while an Electabuzz was supposedly behind MacGregor's at about midnight.
While Pokemon catchers are having fun, some local officials are already concerned.
"We had one call where a car was stopped going the wrong way on Route 22 because the occupants were so engrossed in this game," Bel Air Police Chief Charles Moore said Tuesday morning, adding he wants to see more safety tips warning players to avoid driving while playing and even pay more attention while walking.
Bel Air Police have seen large groups throughout town playing the game, with ages ranging from teens to the elderly or in groups of up to 10, Moore said.
"Apparently, Main Street is a 'hot spot' for this game and, as noted, we are seeing that people are even trying to play while driving," Moore said via email. "I see this game potentially contributing to car crashes and potentially even pedestrian injuries, from walking into traffic or tripping/falling hazards, in the future, as people just aren't paying attention to their surroundings when playing."
At least one group of young people was playing the game at about midnight at the Festival at Bel Air shopping center, according to a call placed to the Harford County Sheriff's Office, spokesperson Cristie Kahler said.
The Sheriff's Office got four or five calls for suspicious activity or juveniles in the area overnight that may be the result of Pokemon Go, although "without speaking to the deputies that responded to the calls, I cannot confirm that was the case," Kahler said.
The game does warn players to "remember to be alert at all times" and "stay aware of your surroundings."
Smith, for one, noted with a smile that he walked into the middle of Main Street once "and I wasn't looking."
More recently, the game also sparked concerns of data mining and security problems, prompting the software development company Niantic to issue a statement about its discovery that opening a Pokemon Go account gives the game full access to the user's Google account.
"Once we became aware of this error, we began working on a client-side fix to request permission for only basic Google profile information, in line with the data that we actually access," Niantic wrote on its website. "Google has verified that no other information has been received or accessed by Pokémon GO or Niantic. Google will soon reduce Pokémon GO's permission to only the basic profile data that Pokémon GO needs, and users do not need to take any actions themselves."
The traffic issues, however, could become more real as Pokemon chasers drive far and wide. Smith and Webel said they went to Baltimore recently just to look for "a ton of them," and also traveled to northern Harford the other day.
Some local destinations, meanwhile, are trying to get in on the craze.
The Fallston Library was among those putting out a Lure, which draws more Pokemon characters to the site for a limited time, on midday Monday. Another Lure was announced on Facebook for noon at Tuesday at Bel Air Games at Routes 543 and 22.
What happens next with Pokemon Go, or with the future of virtual reality, is anyone's guess.
"Imagine how many other games are coming out like this," Jamil Ramos observed as he played the game next to a gazebo off Abindgon's Woodsdale Road Monday evening. Ramos, who is 36, was joined by his wife and young son.
He pointed out some people are calling it a stress reliever.
"It keeps your mind busy, you know? That's what I like about it," Ramos said, adding he was a fan of Pokemon years ago. Pokemon was originally released in 1995 and remained a gaming sensation through the late 1990s.
"I still have cards, and my cousin's got the whole collection series. It's crazy," Ramos said with a smile. "I got gold, little Pokemons collectibles; I still have them."
About Pokemon Go, "I just started it, and – ooh, I just caught another one! Yes!" Ramos interrupted himself for a brief moment of celebration after finding a Pokemon named Krabby. "Look at it, I'm all happy!"
Many players have unexpectedly found themselves spending more time outdoors, enjoying the summer weather.
Arman Singh of Bel Air and Ethan Martin of Forest Hill were in a group of five or six boys who have been biking around Bel Air in search of Pokemon, and noted the game got them out on the Ma & Pa Trail for the first time this summer.
"It gets us more active," Martin observed as he took a break with Singh at Main Street's Collectors Corner Tuesday, which happens to be across the street from a handful of PokeStops, where Pokemon characters "hide."
Jordan Griffey, 13, of Pylesville, was among those playing at the Mason-Dixon Fair in Delta, Pa.
"You feel like you're getting absorbed into the game," he said of the experience. "You feel like an actual character."
Jordan said he and his friends have searched for and found Pokemon Go characters in their neighborhood and at a local convenience store.
He wants to visit New York City, where there are "a whole bunch of Poke Stops."
"Actually getting to go out and explore the world while trying to catch Pokemon, it just seems like an amazing experience because I've always wanted to be an adventurer, a traveler," Jordan said.
Allie Evans, 20, of York County, Pa., said she found five characters when she arrived at the fair Monday.
"It gives me something to do," she said. "It gets me off the couch."
Evans said she usually searches for Pokemon during the day, although she has done some searches at night.
She often takes her 7-month-old son, Adam, along on the daytime searches.
"He just knows I put him in a stroller and we go find Pokemon together," she said. "It gets him out of the house and gives me something to do."
Staff writer David Anderson contributed to this report.