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Pokemon Go propels gamers off the couch, into the hunt

New mobile phone game Pokemon Go has entranced both young and old, turning everyday buildings and monuments into competitive hotspots crawling with otherworldly creatures waiting to be caught. (Brittany Britto, Baltimore Sun video)

Smartphone in hand, LaVonta Allen walked slowly past the National Aquarium. The 21-year-old Druid Hill resident had some time before having to return to work from his lunch break. He was trying to "catch them all."

"I'm out Pokemon hunting," said Allen. He was using the new mobile game, Pokemon Go, that is almost instantaneously sweeping the region and the nation.

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Launched last Wednesday by mobile game company Niantic Inc., the GPS-aided game has entranced Baltimoreans — young and old — transforming everyday buildings and monuments into competitive destinations crawling with otherworldly creatures visible only through phone screens. The Inner Harbor is a prime spot to go hunting, but sites including Federal Hill, the Washington Monument and Patterson Park serve as "Pokestops," places where the Pokemon characters roam and players can stock up on tools to help them compete.

"It's not what everybody thought it was going to be," Allen said of the long-awaited augmented-reality take on the popular mobile game. "It's what everybody has been waiting for … to actually go outside and catch a Pokemon."

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Millions are catching Pokemon across the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, the markets where the game has been released. It has prompted gamers to leave their couches and venture out into the sunshine in droves. Users' focus on their phones and their quests to discover and train the Pokemon characters has resulted in bruised shins, some easy marks for robberies and even the discovery of a dead body.

As of late Monday, a Pokemon Go Baltimore Facebook group — one of several — had already racked up 747 members. At the end of last week, the game's growth was on track to surpass Twitter in the number of daily active U.S. users, according to SimilarWeb, a tech and market intelligence company. Those users are averaging 43 minutes, 23 seconds a day on the game — higher than Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat and Messenger.

The popularity has sent Nintendo's stock price in Japan spiking — 8.9 percent Friday and an additional 24.52 percent Monday, according to CNBC.

The whole phenomenon is trading on a craze that got its start in 1996.

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Niccolo Short has a scar to memorialize the time he pursued Pikachu in Security Square Mall as a toddler, splitting his chin open.

"He's been chasing Pokemons for a while," said his mother, Dani Crittenden.

But that didn't deter him. Now, 17, the Patterson Park resident is chasing Pokemon on his phone.

On Monday afternoon, he and his sister Becca Short, 13, both took to the park, catching such creatures as a Bulbasaur, a Squirtle and Krabby.

Niccolo had been waiting for the game for years, and dedicated the whole weekend to hunting Pokemon.

"I'm not someone who likes to exercise or go outside, especially in the heat, but I guess for Pokemon, I will do it," said Niccolo, who had found himself walking around Baltimore in the hot sun over the weekend, traveling through Patterson Park and the Avenue at White Marsh.

From his window at home, he counted more than 70 Pokestops on his phone and at least four "gyms," where players can train their Pokemon and battle against other teams.

"Patterson Park is a goldmine. … It's the greatest place," Niccolo said.

Husband and wife Daniel, 30, and Allie May, 24, who were visiting from Lynchburg, Va., for this past weekend's BronyCon, said they were surprised by the diversity of the Pokemon throughout the city. Daniel caught a Gyarados on a Seadog Cruise in the harbor, and a Tentacruel, a Pokemon that resembles a jellyfish, in the jellyfish tank in the National Aquarium — Pokemon they hadn't seen back home.

"It's a layer on top of our real world," said Allie, who spotted a Psyduck on her husband while eating dinner at Fogo de Chao in the Inner Harbor. "It's insane. It adds another dimension."

Dylan Liu, 23, a community coordinator at gaming developer Sparkypants Studios in Station North, sees Pokemon Go as a big change for the gaming industry.

"I've heard from a lot of people. I've interacted more with my neighbors than I have in six months living here," Liu said.

"I was with a bunch of people for 11 hours walking all around Baltimore yesterday. Some people in the last couple of days have walked 34 miles. It's also a huge change in the gaming industry," he said. "Usually, you sit at your computer and gain weight and stuff. This has made a ton of people really active" — and competitive.

"We just want to beat the other members," said the Mount Vernon resident, who also manages a Baltimore Pokemon Go Facebook group and a group for Team Valor.

Players can pick among Team Valor, Team Instinct and Team Mystic, and compete in groups to catch Pokemon and train and battle them at "gyms" around the area. One of the most popular — overtaken by Team Mystic as of Monday afternoon — is at the National Aquarium.

Kate Rowe, the National Aquarium's spokeswoman, said she first heard about the game when "everyone else heard about it," and that it has brought more traffic and excitement to the attraction.

"It looked like we had a pretty good Friday and Saturday. We looked to be about 6 percent up to date for our projections," she said. "It's another cool thing to bring people to the harbor and to the aquarium."

As for whether the Pokemon Go app will be beneficial to the harbor and aquarium in the future, Rowe said it's a positive thing — "for now."

"It's still really new. Everybody's kind of waiting to see what's happening with it. I think if people use it as an educational tool, it's cool, and it's a fun bonding tool," she said, noting that many employees had spotted parents playing with their children.

In other places in the country, the game has proven to be dangerous with people crossing into unfamiliar neighborhoods and territories. Police in O'Fallon, Missouri, reported that four people had used the app to target victims in armed robberies in the St. Louis area in recent days. A woman found a dead body in the Wind River near the city of Riverton in Wyoming while searching for Pokemon.

But no incidents involving the game in Baltimore have been reported, according to Lt. Jarron Jackson of Baltimore City Police. He said users should focus on their surroundings and make sure they're not distracted while driving or walking.

Notes Niccolo Short, "You have to pay attention. ... You have to be smart about it. The only thing I've heard and experienced are really good things. I've met friendly people of different ages, younger than me and sometimes three times my age," he said. " And that's really important because it's bringing people together."

Niantic did not immediately respond to interview requests via email and phone from The Baltimore Sun.

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twitter.com/brittanybritto

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The Associated Press contributed to this article

About Pokemon

While the handheld video game — first launched in 1996 for Nintendo's Gameboy — allows players to stay in one place, Pokemon Go is played on an Android or iPhone requiring "Pokemon trainers" (users) to travel around and "catch them all" in the real world. Using GPS, the game detects where and how far along players are in the game and then depicts Pokemon on the user's phone screen to capture with the original red and white "Pokeball." A variety of Pokemon are available in the game depending on time and location. Players can also gather more Pokeballs and tools at "Pokespots" around the area and can train their Pokemon and battle it out with members of opposing teams at local gyms.

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