AK: The agony and the ecstasy of Pokemon in Alaska

A Drowzee on the road in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)
A Drowzee on the road in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney, KTOO)

From the Aleutian chain, to the Tongass National Forest, to the base of Denali, Alaska is filled with pocket monsters.

Since last week, the new “Pokemon Go” game has exploded in popularity, and Alaska is no exception.

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In Anchorage, crowds of people float around parks and city streets at all hours, their eyes glued to their phones as they try to collect creatures.

The game draws on nostalgia for a craze that started almost two decades ago. And it has caught on in places one might not expect at first. Like a military base.

“Almost everybody in my platoon has it,” said Private First Class Dylan Carter, standing outside the soldier’s chapel at Joint-Base Elmendorf-Richardson, phone in hand. Carter is 23, and like a lot of people downloading the new game, he first got into Pokemon when he was a kid. Now, he and his wife, who recently gave birth, have been playing it on long walks.

A Magikarp ready for battle in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)
A Magikarp ready for battle in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney, KTOO)

Carter is in an airborne Army unit. When asked, he denied there’s any contradiction between jumping out of a low-flying plane, and a videogame that basically turns you into a sci-fi animal catcher. One could be enthusiastic about both.

“Everybody’s got to be a man to do the job,” Carter said of airborne work. “But in all reality, it goes back to the nostalgia thing. I mean, I have a Pokeball tattoo. There’s a kid in everybody.”

But the game’s popularity hardly ends in Anchorage. This raises a few interesting questions about how Alaskans in totally different corners of the state, with totally different internet infrastructure, are dealing with the new technology.

So we checked in with reporters from across the Alaska Public Radio Network to find out what issues are being raised.

“Pokemon Go” gets players off the couch by overlaying features from the game over the real world. Downtown Talkeetna, for example, has about ten “Pokestops,” areas where players gather supplies to use in the game, set up around parks, monuments, and buildings — including the KTNA radio station. But there are plenty outside of town, too.

“Where we work there’s about five or six of them just in a small little area,” said aspiring Pokemaster Jason, who was in the downtown area on a recent evening with his girlfriend, trying to find Pokemon.

A low-level Ratat appears before the Talkeetna River, with Denali in the background. (Photo: Phillip Manning, KNTA - Talkeetna)
A low-level Rattata appears before the Talkeetna River, with Denali in the background. (Photo by Phillip Manning, KNTA – Talkeetna)

Pokestops and similar location-based features were chosen by the game’s developer, Niantic, Inc. They mirror the spots built into an earlier game released by Niantic a few years ago called Ingress that used the same augmented reality structure.

Once players gather supplies like “Poke Balls” from spots, Jason showed off how to use them for capturing the actual Pokemon, like a winged creature named Pidgey floating across a smartphone screen.

“There’s an aiming reticle on there, too, so depending on how well you aim, you have a higher chance of catching it,” he explained. A few flicks of the thumb later and the Pidgey was imprisoned inside a red and white orb.

The game is integrated with Google Maps and uses the GPS coordinates on a player’s phone to alert him or her if there are any digital monsters nearby. That can mean walking around for stretches of time, hunting.

“It’ll come up and tell you if anything’s nearby, and you just kind of wander around until it appears on your map,” Jason explained.

Jason’s girlfriend and hunting partner Jasmine sees it as a major benefit that the game coaxes people outdoors for fun physical exercise.

“It’s definitely a nerdy FitBit,” she said.

The game takes for granted that your phone can get online while you’re out and about. But for huge sections of Alaska with little to no network coverage, that’s not always available.

In Unalaska, for example, the internet is slow – think dial-up speeds.  If you’re lucky you might be able to watch YouTube. But you’ll have to wait for it to buffer.

A Squirtle squares off against KTOO reporter Matt Miller in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)
A Squirtle squares off against KTOO reporter Matt Miller in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney, KTOO)

But that’s not stopping 17-year old Faizar Cayron from playing. He’s got an AT&T phone with mobile data, a rarity on the island. He’s even getting up four hours earlier than normal to take advantage of better playing conditions.

“So then the bad weather won’t catch up to me,” he laughed. “It’s just the better weather in the morning, and you can go around where it’s not like wet grass and it’s going to be hard to catch Pokémon there.”

Although Cayron prefers the morning, there are kids playing all day long. But many of them don’t have data, and instead are using an island wide network of Wi-Fi hotspots provided by another company, Optimera. Which can be expensive. — just ask Felica Tungul whose daughter plays.

“In a matter of a day she used up three gigabytes of our internet,” Felicia Tungul said of a recent Poke-spree by her daughter. “It’s a lot. It’s almost $80 worth of internet.”

Now, here’s the catch: the “Pokemon Go” app doesn’t actually use that much data—around 10 megabytes in a half hour of play, a lot less than an app like Facebook, which racks up about two megabytes a minute. But according to Optimera CEO Emmet Fitch, your gaming costs could come down to how your smartphone is configured.

“Most phones, by default, are set up to automatically download updates for all the applications that you are running while you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network because everywhere else in the Lower 48 Wi-Fi is essentially free,” Fitch explained.

Users can adjust those settings to stop unnecessary downloads. And Tungul is laying down the law with her daughter, insisting she turn off the app when she’s not playing. But that’s really the only restriction.

“It keeps her active. It’s get all the kids everywhere. If you see a kid running in the street they’re chasing Pokemon,” Tungul said.

But what about trying to reign in gaming in a more formal, educational setting? Because the game’s release coincided with summer vacation, there are only a few places where school is in session. One is the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, which is getting a preview of how educators are responding to a game students can’t seem to put down.

A Voltorb ready for battle at in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)
A Voltorb awaiting capture Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney, KTOO)

Autumn McCumiskey is SFAC’s director of students, and says the explosion in phone-use is a problem, because phones generally aren’t allowed during class time.

“Every time I went into the counseling office, it was ‘Pokemon this,’ and ‘wiggly hoo-haa is doing this thing.’ It just felt like it was something that was taking over every conversation,” McCumiskey said.

“It felt like instead of talking about ‘what did you paint today,’ or ‘how did your dance class go,’ or ‘did you finally stick that mount in partner acrobatics,’ it was ‘have you seen
that Orthodox Church Gym? Isn’t that funny?'”

The other issue popping up is when students walk across town from campus to the Performing Arts Center every night, sending hundreds of young people weaving in and out of traffic.

“It was mostly a safety concern,” said Cecilia Wehde, a counselor who had to start confiscating devices. “Everyone wanted to have their phone out to catch Pokemon and Pokestops and hatch eggs. A lot more yelling at them to put their phones away.”

Wehde thinks this might have been because last weekend was still the “high school” camp, which is a bit more relaxed. And that hasn’t been the case this past week during the intensive musical theater session.

According to student Jack Hale, everyone is buckling down for the camp-wide production of Guys and Dolls.

“I downloaded it, and it took, like, an hour,” Hale said. “There’s been a lot of opportunity to play it, but then again you’re constantly in rehearsal, doing stuff.”

Hale explained that when it comes to musical theater at the Sitka camp, everyone feels a sense of devotion. “You don’t want to waste time on your phone.”

But the kids aren’t the only ones trying to strike a balance between responsibilities and summer fun.

“I’ve seen a few teachers playing it,” Hale said. “Everyone sort of knows what it is, and when they recognize what you’re doing, a light bulb clicks.”

Whether the Pokemon craze will last through the summer and linger into the school year remains to be seen.

Alaska Public Media’s Zachariah Hughes contributed additional reporting for this story.

Zoe Sobel is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk based in Unalaska. As a high schooler in Portland, Maine, Zoë Sobel got her first taste of public radio at NPR’s easternmost station. From there, she moved to Boston where she studied at Wellesley College and worked at WBUR, covering sports for Only A Game and the trial of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

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