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Health, Science & Tech

Beer, Art And Environmental Advocacy: How Pittsburghers Are Capitalizing On Pokémon Go

Perched in the shadow of the Homestead Grays Bridge, Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher Tom Higgs flicked his index finger up and down a cracked Android screen.

"I don't really need this one," he said, pointing to a plump, wide-eyed blue and yellow Squirtle. "But I can cash him in, let him evolve, see? He turns into this, a Wartortle. But you need A LOT of candy."

Credit Matt Nemeth / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Released for iPhone and Android devices on July 6, 2016, Pokémon Go has become the top grossing app on both stores. The game is free to download and features the franchise's original 151 Pokémon.

  Higgs, 33, of Brighton Heights estimated he's spent 75 to 100 hours reacquainting himself with that childhood lingo since Pokemon Go launched late last week. At level 20 and rising, he's already considered something of a local expert, and helps corral his friends into hours-long walks through hot spots around town.

Want to play? Check out where to catch Pokemon in Pittsburgh here and here.

"It's changing the choices I make, too," said Brittny Kephart, 26, of Baldwin, who joined Higgs at the Waterfront on Wednesday. "I was recently laid off, so I'm really watching how and what I buy, but I'm also out walking way more and spending money on food while I do it. Would I be eating out tonight if it weren't for this game? Definitely not."

The app -- released so far in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand -- boosted Nintendo's market value more than $7 billion in less than a week, becoming the most downloaded and top grossing free app in the U.S. iPhone app store and soaring past the dating app Tinder in popularity among Android users.

Credit Tom Higgs / For 90.5 WESA
For 90.5 WESA
Released for iPhone and Android devices on July 6, 2016, Pokémon Go has become the top grossing app on both stores. The game is free to download and features the franchise's original 151 Pokémon.

  So what is it?

Pokemon Go populates an augmented reality full of adorably fierce creatures introduced in its '90s cartoon. The app taps into users' GPS and phone cameras to detect their physical location and populates characters that users can catch, train and battle against other users in the real world.

"It's generating a fantasy world based on the real world, so it can be a little surprising when it suggests that, 'Hey, you need to go down to the local Dairy Queen because there are monsters there, and there are," said Jesse Schell, CEO of South Side-based Schell Games. "It does certainly betray some of your privacy to the company but no more than any other app."

Pokemon and Niantic, a former internal startup at Google, were the perfect pairing for the ubiquitous tracking technology behind modern smart phones, Schell said.

"I think a lot of people thought it would be popular," he said. "I don't think anyone thought it be this sudden, pop culture phenomenon of the summer that it's become."

Local museums, organizations and businesses are embracing the craze.

"I don’t think I’d be a very good marketer if I did not do sort of all this stuff," said Brad Stephenson, Carnegie Museum of Art spokesman. "I do not play it myself.”

CMOA is tailoring its monthly adults-only Third Thursday event next week toward Pokemon lovers, incorporating gaming experts like Higgs, a deejay, two-minute film screenings and New Dimension Comics. The idea was spawned after Stephenson posted a screenshot to Facebook asking locals to rid the galleries of unwanted Pokemon. It resonated, he said.

“We hope that a percentage of the people who come find some meaningful connections to the (art) in our spaces,” he said. “And maybe people who never have been here decide, ‘Hey, you know what? This is a great space and I should’ve been here before now.’”

For NextGen Climate Pennsylvania, a political action committee focused on environmental progress, Pokemon Go was the perfect lure for potential voters, literally. They dropped Pokemon lures -- like bait for digital monsters -- in Schenley Plaza in Oakland late Thursday as part of an existing campaign to register Millennial voters before the 2016 election.

“The social meeting that we’re seeing around Pokemon is really what we’ve seen around political campaigns and political organizing for decades and decades, just being empowered through an app, as opposed to people congregating at club meetings,” spokeswoman Lindsay Patross said. 

The Brew Gentlemen, a craft brewery in Braddock, took to Reddit on Wednesday to let trainers know they have a gym on-site and a stop across the street.

Credit Tom Higgs / For 90.5 WESA
For 90.5 WESA
Dedicated Pokemon Go players can spend hours walking many miles to hit hot spots between historic and cultural points of interest where Pokestops and gyms are most likely to be located.

  Co-owner and Creative Director Asa Foster said he downloaded the game that morning, several days after a patron showed him the in-game maps.

“Even though we’re not open Monday or Tuesday, we were seeing people … just sort of standing outside of the brewery,” he said. “It's cool. Whatever gets people out there looking at more art, you know walking around town seeing some historic sites. I’m happy to see that.” 

Pokestops, where trainers pick up useful items and creatures often congregate, tend to be historical markers, public art, libraries, parks and other open meeting spaces. To get there, players have to do a lot of walking to qualify for in-game incentives.

Higgs said he's hoping to pick up a few volunteer dog-walking shifts at the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society on the North Side to give back to real critters while he chases their digital likenesses.

Hala Nuemah, the society's managing director, hosted a lure party Thursday inviting attendees inside to view more than 300 adoptable cats, dogs and rabbits. 

"We always do whatever it takes to find animals in need forever homes," Nuemah said. "Our hopes are to use some fun as a way to get people into our shelter in hopes our animals will ‘catch’ the forever homes."

Credit Pennsylvania State Police
A map of registered Megan's Law offenders in Pittsburgh and outside of the city.

But as players, especially children, wander through unfamiliar areas with their eyes stuck to their screens, the Pokemon craze introduces hazards.

According to Pennsylvania State Police, there are more than 19,000 Megan's Law offenders in the state. About 1,560 reside in Allegheny County.

Dawn Smitley, a licensed clinical social worker at King and Associates in Clinton, works with  sex offenders. Of her 90 clients, she said one has mentioned the game, and only in reference to having to hold the phone of a staff member who was playing.

It’s a good opportunity to remind parents to pay close attention to child players, she said.

“Kids being unsupervised anywhere can put them at risk for anything,” she said.

One Tarentum mother blamed the game when her 15-year-old daughter was struck by a car this week.

Autumn Diesroth walked into rush hour traffic at the intersection of Ross Street and East Ninth Avenue on Tuesday. She suffered several cuts and bruises and injuries to her collarbone and foot, according to WPXI.

Credit Twitter
One Twitter user in Memphis warned other parents of how the game could be used to lure children.

Highways signs reading #dontcatchanddrive have cropped up in Ohio, California, Washington, Wisconsin, Texas, Michigan, Florida and parts of Canada.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Cowan hadn’t heard of any official roadside warnings in the works as of Wednesday afternoon, but "wouldn't rule it out," he said.

State police issued a warning Wednesday urging players to be aware of their surroundings.

Stephenson said it has been difficult planning CMOA's event around the rules of the game. Users don't need to physically chase Pokemon to catch them, but wonders if everyone knows that. They can't expose priceless works to careless partygoers, he said.

“It's always interesting to want to be sort of at the forefront of some of these type things but then also having to make the rules as you go," he said. "I’ve definitely said the word Pokemon more in the past two days than I have ever in my entire lifetime.”

90.5 WESA digital editor Sarah Kovash and producer Katie Blackley contributed to this report.