The blue sedan slows to a halt alongside us and the driver’s side window slides down. We see a male 20-something, I’m guessing, head drooped over a phone in his lap. Pretending to notice us for the first time, he looks across the street. 

“What faction do you belong to?”

My roommates — let’s call them Jay and Bob — halt, halfway up Cook Street in Auburn. The man is looking pointedly at our outstretched phones, which my roommates have been using for the past hour to track our quarry. 

We’re an hour into playing “Pokemon Go,” the wildly popular smartphone adaptation of the classic Nintendo game. Jay hedges his response, giving a noncommittal answer: We don’t know enough about the conflict to pick a side, he says hopefully. 

“Mystic,” the driver answers without being asked. Mr. Mystic is looking down again at his phone and, without another word, drives off. 

For those who need a Pokemon reboot, we’re talking about collectible creatures that game players capture, raise and train to fight against their peers. Each has a unique appearance and a certain attack skill.

Unlike its Game Boy predecessor, which Nintendo debuted in Japan two decades ago, “Pokemon Go” is an augmented-reality app of the original. Players take to the real world in this version, where, on their smartphones, a game map tethered to their actual GPS location keeps track of the nearest virtual Pokemon. 

When one appears, the phone’s camera shows a digital Pokemon creature filtered over the view of a player’s actual physical location. While the trading cards and early versions of the game were a smash hit among preteens in the early 2000s, that generation has evolved into smartphone-carrying, credit-card-capable adults (the game is free, though in-game extras, not). 

Earlier in the day, Bob walked into the kitchen, where I — oblivious to the “Pokemon Go” craze — was making dinner.

“I caught a Squirtel in the bathroom this morning,” Bob said. 

I paused, peering into the bathroom, which seemed squirt-turtle free. 

“Excuse me?”

Everybody was smartphone fighting 

It is later in the day and Bob and Jay walk a few blocks to a church in Auburn. I follow along. The game has designated the spot a “gym,” which in the “Pokemon Go” world is a specific place where users can train Pokemon creatures they’ve “captured.”

Gyms are controlled by one of three teams: Team Valor (red), Team Instinct (yellow) or Team Mystic (blue). Once players reach a certain level, they can pick a faction and join a gym or fight to usurp an enemy-held territory. 

Now within range, Jay and Bob click on a twirling icon on their screen. While I — using just my eyes — see a white church, my roommates — looking at life through their smartphone camera — see something else: a Vaporeon (a Pokemon that is apparently a cross between seal and blue fox wearing a frilly Victorian collar) standing sentry in front of the church.

It pops up for a fight. “Oh, I didn’t mean to do this,” Jay says. Jay’s untrained Pokemon that he captured on the walk over is conscripted into the fight. 

He’s turned off a game feature that allows him to spy the Vaporeon on his smartphone’s camera. Rather than the Vaporeon appearing alongside the church’s green grass, there’s an animated forest in the background. 

There are few Liston-Ali results in Pokemon fights: Vaporeon, more experienced, is simply stronger. Jay and Bob, fighting separate battles, frantically tap their screens, but Vaporeon fires a single volley of water at their Pokemon. It’s over quickly.

My roommates are slightly concerned about their lack of experience. Although their competition is limited to the United Sates, Australia, New Zealand and, as I’m writing, the United Kingdom, “Pokemon Go” already ranks among the most-downloaded and top-grossing smartphone apps. Since it was released last week, more than 7.5 million people had downloaded it, exceeding the number of active users on Twitter and Tinder.

Jay and Bob, 4 A.P. starters (4 days after Pokemon was released), are miles behind.

In a fit of intrigue, I volunteer to drive, which is how we end up spending the next two hours cruising Lewiston and Auburn. Everyone we go by seems to be playing:

A few kids in pajamas are agape, torn from their phones when a car with three men, each over 25, slows down to ask excitedly, “Pokemon Go?”

A couple from Turner are playing as they get their car repaired.

The Community Little Theatre location in Auburn? In Pokemon Go world, it’s stocked with battle supplies.

A cabby pulling a 10-point, 2-minute-long U-turn on Lisbon Street? “Definitely ‘Pokemon Go,'” Bob says. 

“Farm spot,” Jay says, pointing at something on his smartphone that is big, pink and twirling like confetti hovering in Lewiston’s Heritage Park. 

Someone has laced the area with “bait,” trying to lure the Pokemon in. It hasn’t escaped notice. There are about a dozen cars parked, windows lit neon. Inside an SUV, 30-year-old Nina Gray and her fiance, John Berry, 30, are busy flicking Pokeballs at Weedles, Zubats and Hypnos — Pokemon creatures — as they pop out of the park’s imaginary landscape on their screens. After eagerly tracking Pokemon’s progress for years in its other permutations, they’ve spent the past four days playing “Pokemon Go.” Bates College, the police and fire stations — they’ve hit them all in the last six hours.

Five years ago the couple met playing World of Warcraft — an online game of orcs, elves and humans — and he eventually moved from Pennsylvania to be with her. While she drives, he wields a phone in each hand. 

Nina likes that the game “gets people with mental disorders out of the house.” John appreciates the nostalgia. “At any given moment we can meet someone and just give that smirk like ‘I know what you’re doing,'” John says. 

“It brings back memories of a time when everything was innocent,” he says.

Nearby, a group of men has gathered by the Vietnam Memorial in Lewiston, their heads bowed as though in vigil. Everyone has travelled here alone, guided by their smartphone, but a loose coalition has formed. They talk to each other without looking at each other, pretty sure this is the future of gaming and wondering when restaurants in town will offer discounts as some in other states have. 

There’s a certain amount of giggling, of describing crazy things they’ve seen: people playing in parks or along the streets, in cars or at work, as though they weren’t doing the same thing. 

“Nice toss, let’s see if we got it,” Brandon Welch says, chucking a Pokeball at a Jynx on his screen. 

“Who’d have thought they’d make a video game that brought people outside?” someone else shouts.

“It’s virtual reality for our phones, and it’s just the introduction,” another person adds.


We move on, Bob and Jay taking turns plugging in their dying smartphones. The game changes how you see the street. Like a beat cop looking for drugs, in your heart you know everyone is using. You scrutinize the thumb movements of complete strangers. (Was that a flick or more of a press?) 

Outside Kennedy Park I shout, “Excuse me, sir, are you playing ‘Pokemon Go’?” in a voice that sounds like an English butler inquiring about tea time, and the man, apparently expecting this, nods solemnly. We round the corner, hit a few more stops and turn toward DaVinci’s restaurant.

Somehow, Mr. Solemn Nod (he’ll introduce himself as “Don” later) has beaten us to the parking lot and he’s sitting back watching his Lapis, which looks like a prehistoric blue turtle starting to sprout a horn, massacre challengers back at the park. 

Critics worry it’s not all fun and games, from the pitfalls of distracted driving to literal falls. While the game addresses this by reminding users “Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings,” stories about actual and even fatal accidents abound. In California, two men had to be rescued after falling from a bluff while playing. A woman described on Reddit how she fell in a ditch, breaking her foot.

Police in Maine are warning people to use common sense. In Windham, police reminded people that although graveyards are a good place to catch ghost Pokemon, they’re closed after dark. In Bangor, police used humor to caution against distraction, also reminding: “We do not have an emergency phone charging station in the lobby and no, you cannot turn yourself in on a warrant in exchange for recharging your phone.”

There’s a darker side: In Missouri, teens lured players to a Pokestop in a secluded location and then tried to rob them. Elsewhere, a woman found a body while trying to reach a water-type Pokemon near the river by her trailer. (The cause of the death was not believed to be Pokemon related.)

Both the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia have made the same plea: Please, no Pokemon. 

And while many are happy to be public about their Pokemania, some crave anonymity. 

One man sitting in his truck at Heritage Park in Lewiston is friendly but, because he is a minor public official, doesn’t want to be associated with the game.

“My buddies at work know,” Mr. Minor Public Official says. “I’ll drop it: ‘Dude, do you play Pokemon?’ and (they’ll shout back) ‘Hell yeah I’m playing!’ Once you admit, it’s not something to be ashamed of.”

My friend Jay asked that his real name be redacted from this story to keep the guys at work from getting on his case. As we drove around, he repeated variations of “I’m a nerd” to no one in particular. Bob, likewise. 

On L-A’s Riverwalk the next day, I passed a group of girls still in their soccer gear who were, like, so embarrassed to admit they were playing.  

Eighteen-year-old Jarod Bagasse, who was skateboarding around the Longley Memorial Bridge, was another matter. “This is unbelievable!” he shouted as cars honked appreciatively.

“Dude, you’ve got to get some (Poke)balls,” Bagasse said. Then, noticing I was under attack by a Pokemon, he added, “Man you’ve got a Hypno.”

He added, “It used to feel weird for liking Pokemon but now — now it’s cool. Pokemon’s legit — shouldn’t be something you have to hide.”

Some critics say the phenomenon does nothing to stem the growing distance between our digital and physical selves. At the courthouse in Paris, a clerk familiar with the game slid me a grainy picture showing a beat-up dark van lurking in a driveway, an image of caution and dread that meme-makers like to reuse with every new social trend. 

In the picture, an overly friendly creature is sitting in the driver’s seat, the words
“Rare Pokemon Inside” spray-painted on the side of the van. 

The caption reads: “How to kidnap a 28-year-old in 2016.”

Yet for many, a street of strangers has suddenly become a street of collaborators, offering the chance of meeting people who’ll say, “Yeah, me too.”

‘The planet’s ours now’ 

For many, the game gets them someplace they’re usually not: outdoors. Jay and Bob, admittedly exercise averse, said they were averaging 5 to 10 miles of walking a day.

Jessi Davis, 24, of Auburn has increased her weekend step count five-fold. Capturing a tadpole beneath the Longley Bridge this week, she’s been walking the Androscoggin River every night since the game’s release. A gamer, she thinks it’s getting shy people out of the house. 

“One person asks you what team you’re on, and seven other people shout ‘Me too! Me too!’ It’s crazy. I guess it took a video game,” Davis said.  

Then there’s 27-year-old Justin Gilmore. Milling around in a group by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Lewiston, Gilmore operates on the principle that the rarer Pokemon are found further from your home, so he’s driven as far as Hope, Maine and New Hampshire. 

He makes nightly trips from Norway (that’s his Flareon guarding the library, by the way) into Auburn and walks the river trail hunting for Pokemon for a few hours. Return; repeat.

“I was really into Pokemon when I was young. I had Red, Blue and Yellow (Game Boy versions) and love the nostalgia. The fact that it’s brought into the real world, you can do something outside and enjoy it.” 

Gilmore, while drugging a stubborn Snorlax with some berries, said he has dropped $70 in real money for in-game extras, part of the steady $1.6 million the game rakes in daily, according to Forbes.

“I wished I’d dropped money in Nintendo stock,” a man nearby lamented. 

Gilmore, who works at Oxford Casino, said Pokemon creatures abound and users flock to reap the harvest. The game’s ease of use has transcended the typical gamer demographic. 

“If the company can get out more content and get people to fight each other they’ll be really successful. If they keep having server issues, I don’t think it will last that long.”

There doesn’t seem to be an incentive to slow down: Anyone can seize a Pokemon gym, anytime. And the rise and fall of Pokemon territory is mesmerizing even by the standards of a generation hardened by “Game of Thrones.”

Caitlin Campbell, 27, of Auburn represents Team Mystic; her friends, Team Valor.  

“It’s a harmless rivalry,” Campbell says smiling. “Legs get broken.”

As we spoke last week, her Vaporeon was trying to defend the Bonney Park gym she pinched from Team Valor 10 minutes prior. She walked by the assailant — a dad trailing two young kids — and they stopped to exchange pleasant trash talk.

 A few minutes later, her gym fell to Team Instinct. 

“Our friend in Sabattus is in a battle with some 10-year-olds,” Jessi Davis told me. “He’s 28. There’s a gym at the end of the road, so he’ll walk down at midnight and get it back. The next day, when he goes into work, he’ll see these 10-year-old kids walking toward it.”

At Festival Plaza in Auburn, 7-year-old Tucker Berube of Auburn punched his fist in the air, adding a Zubat to the 80-odd Pokemon he caught when his mother let him borrow her phone the day before. 

“Pokemon” is his one-word response to his favorite aspect of the game. His brother, Timothy Berube, 17, laughed with amazement: He’d only caught 32.

“All the ’90s kids are like, yup, the planet’s ours now,” Berube said. 

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