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Carroll catches 'Pokémon Go' craze

Peering into phones throughout Carroll are myriad hunters searching for the virtual creatures of the new "Pokemon Go" app.

All throughout Carroll County there now exists a virtual ecosystem of imaginary monsters, separated from the realm of the real by only the thin glass veil of a smartphone screen.

Peering into those phones are myriad hunters searching after those digital beasts, intent on building their own personal virtual menageries through the new "Pokémon Go" app. Hunters like Westminster's Adam McDonald and his son and daughter, A.J., 9, and Abigail, 11, who had braved the chance of rain Wednesday afternoon to come to the Westminster Community Pond, ready to capture a creature or two.

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"We're just going around hunting Pokémon as a family today," he said. "We've put a Pokémon lure on this PokéStop here so we can go ahead and attract Pokémon to the lure."

That lure, essentially digital pheromones for Pokémon, draws the digital creatures to real-world landmarks — in this case, a patch of grass marking the duck pond — that have been tagged as PokéStops, where players can obtain virtual equipment, such as Poké Balls to aid them in their quest to catch all the Pokémon they can. It can all get pretty confusing without a little background.

Pokémon, or "pocket monsters," are a Japanese cultural import that first rose to prominence in the 1990s with video games and a television series wherein characters wandered a world populated with the often-cute Pokémon creatures. The characters would capture the creatures — with names such as Weedle, Charmander and the iconic, yellow, mouse-like Pikachu — train them and pit them in cartoonish battle with one another.

The Nintendo franchise has seen a sudden and massive reinvigoration with the July 6 release of the mobile app for Android and iOS devices that has, in some sense, brought the animated and fictional world of the Pokémon into our own. A so-called "augmented reality" game, the app populates a map of the real world with Pokémon creatures, and players must navigate the real world to track them down, using their phones as a way to see this virtual ecology overlaid on the actual landscape. Players can capture the creatures, collect them and, if sufficiently advanced in the game, do battle with one another using their Pokémon at locations designated as gyms.

Game players have taken to the hunt with such gusto that some public safety agencies, including the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, have asked that people be careful not to get hurt by walking into things and to be wary of trespassing on private property.

"We don't want them to walk into a bad situation," Sheriff Jim DeWees said. "They should be very cautious of going out at 1 a.m. and walking into an area they have not been before."

DeWees' advice isn't without merit: According to University of Maryland police, four "Pokemon Go" players were robbed at gunpoint in separate incidents Tuesday night on the school's campus. None of the victims were injured, police said, but a suspect has not been found as of Wednesday evening.

In Carroll, such incidents haven't been reported, though DeWees' office received a call from Union Bridge on Saturday, DeWees said, after someone saw Pokémon hunters wandering around at 2 a.m. not long after a recent robbery.

"Someone called about some 'prowlers' and I think people were a little on edge out in Union Bridge because it was just after the robbery there," he said. "Once my deputy made contact with them they explained what they were doing and gave him a bit of an education on this Pokémon stuff."

There's no judgment coming from DeWees: As long as people stay safe and are respectful of where they travel — the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is one of several locations that have recently asked people to stop playing "Pokémon Go" on the grounds there — it can be a positive thing to get people out and about, he said.

"It sounds a little strange, but whatever," DeWees said. "People would think I was a little strange for chasing around a little golf ball on the golf course."

Adam McDonald said he has been keeping his kids safe by playing the game with them, keeping an eye on cars and where they are walking, as well as sticking to public areas.

"Taking them to parks is the best place to do it," he said.

The McDonalds were joined at Westminster Community Pond by 9-year-old Nick Kern and his father, Scott Kern, both of Westminster. Nick was able to piggyback on the lure McDonald had cast to capture a Pokemon on his own — a Spearow, a small bird-like creature — but was still figuring out the game after only having the app for a couple of days. He said he's run into many other players around Westminster, and that's what he likes best about the whole experience.

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"I like the idea that you have to walk around and your character walks around with you. It's kind of an exercise in a game," Nick said. "I don't sit around and play video games — I like to go outside a lot — so this does both."

Scott Kern has been taking Nick around to hunt for Pokémon and noticing the large numbers of people congregating in parks and around churches, many of which seem to be serving as PokéStops, he said. He doesn't play the game himself, but he might actually be an outlier in that regard.

"There's been a lot of adults out too, not just kids, I was surprised," Scott Kern said. "It became a thing so fast."

Enough of a thing that some real-world enterprises have already found a way to catch the "Pokémon Go" craze wave. The Sweetfrog frozen yogurt shop in Westminster has been offering discounts to customers based on their progress within the game.

"I have two teenage boys that are obsessed with the game and started coming to me with it, 'Hey Dad, you gotta' look at this," said Todd Martin, co-owner of the SweetFrog. "We talked to some of the other SweetFrog guys, and we kind of came up with the idea."

The crowd that the app caters to is exactly the crowd SweetFrog caters to, Martin said — and besides, he likes playing it, too.

"I am a 44-year-old guy that has been playing 'Pokémon Go' with my sons," he said. "I think it's neat. I think it's something that's getting people out and exercising."

Not long after Nick caught his Spearow at the pond, a burst of rain sent many hunters — and the handful of people there to visit with the actual waterfowl of the pond rather than any virtual monsters — running for cover. Undeterred by the rain and armed with an umbrella, Casey Welch, of Eldersburg, and Brandon Westley Sr., of Westminster, kept on the hunt.

"That's not going to stop us," Welch said.

Westley had been out until 3 a.m. the night before, though not without incident.

"I walked into a mailbox last night," he said sheepishly. On Wednesday, the two walked together in order to avoid obstacles, and just because there is safety in numbers.

"I don't usually walk around at night because I have heard stories of people getting mugged, and I personally don't want that happening to me," Welch said. "If I do walk around, I tend to walk around in a more public place or with him. I'd rather not be alone."

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Welch was never a big fan of the Pokémon franchise in the '90s. Westley was. Together, they simply enjoy getting out into the world and finding cool creatures, and they said that despite some of the negative stories or concerns, they believe "Pokémon Go" is a really positive development. Westley, in particular, believes in the power of Pikachu as a force for good.

"Pokémon is where it's at, it always has been," he said. "DC Comics, they're having their reboot and Marvel is having theirs. It's about time they get younger people more into the good stuff instead of drugs, alcohol, gangs, porn and fighting."

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