What do people in Times Square and Jerusalem’s Old City have in common? They’re both out hunting for Pikachu.
Pokémon Go, the latest mobile app game to sweep the globe, uses players’ phone GPS to locate where they are, then makes Pokemon appear on the phone screen in real life locations so players can “catch” all 151 virtual creatures.
Released July 6 in the United States. Australia and New Zealand, and one week later in Germany, the free-to-play app has jumped to number one on the Apple app store, ranking just above NBA LIVE Mobile and Snapchat.
A location-based, augmented reality game, the app – available for both iOS and Android platforms – turns monuments, memorials and tourist attractions around the area into Pokéstops, places on the in-game map where players can read more about the site and collect items like Pokéballs and stamina potions.
Expanding upon the popular 1990s game for the Nintendo Gameboy, Pokémon Go has become an instant cultural phenomenon. Players interact with the world around them in real-time to build their Pokédex, a personal creature encyclopedia, and use their pets for battle against other Pokémon trainers.
Gamers are running amok trying to catch the rarest Pokémon. In Israel, the game has also exploded in popularity, particularly with students visiting from the US.
Pokémon Go at the Western Wall (Credit: Screenshot)
“Who would’ve thought that I would learn so much and see so much of this city through a video game,” said Erica Issenberg, an American student interning with the Shira Pransky project via the Israel Experience/Onward Israel program. “Pokéstops have allowed me to discover hidden statues and monuments around Jerusalem. It has been quite the experience.”
Besides allowing tourists to experience more of Israel, the game has become a conversation- starter.
“Pokémon Go has allowed me to talk with Israelis on the street,” says Tufts University student Phillip Goldberg, who is interning this summer with the Citizens Accord Forum between Jews and Arabs in Israel. “Not speaking Hebrew is an obstacle for me, but the shared experience and jargon of Pokémon Go is something I have in common with the yeshiva students living next door.”
Daniel Horowitz, here on Taglit-Birthright Israel, is similarly keen about the game and its lingo. “I would have dreams of flying Charzards when I was a kid,” he said.
“This is the closest thing to it being real. I’m ecstatic.”
IDF soldiers are also coming down with Pokémon fever.
Recent updates from social media accounts feature soldiers playfully boasting their accomplishments.
One recent post from the Facebook account “IDF Tweets” shows a picture of a Charzard, a fire-breathing dragon, flying alongside a plane with the caption “newest addition to the air force.”
“I don’t have it yet, but all my friends love it,” said a soldier.
But not everyone is giving the game rave reviews. It has received a mixed critical reception, and attracted negative attention due to reports of accidents involving distracted players, and public nuisance associated with it.
Evan Hendell, a student at Cornell University on the Aish Internship program, was initially thrilled about the game. But after a few days of playing non-stop, he deleted it.
“The game started to get old really quick, and I felt like I was wasting my time,” he said. “I came to Israel for a true experience. I have spoken to a lot of people about being obsessed with technology and its effects on human interactions, yet I was still contributing to something that wasn’t real.”
The adventure-based game has also received mixed reviews in the media, mostly about user safety hazards and the inappropriate placement of Pokémon creatures in the real world.
One player incongruously found a “Koffing” monster, named for its use of poisonous gases, at the Helena Rubenstein Auditorium at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Similarly a Pokémon was found at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland.
On Tuesday, the Holocaust memorial site tweeted that it will not allow visitors to play the new smartphone game because it is “disrespectful on many levels.”
Andrew Hollinger, communications director at the Washington museum, noted that staff are trying to remove the game from the site.
“Playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism,” he told The Washington Post in an interview on Tuesday.
Some tourists here have similarly been angered by the inappropriate placement of Pokémon.
“I think it’s outrageous to make such a holy site part of a game that has no spiritual purpose,” said Hendell on the presence of Pokémon at sites like the Western Wall. “It’s a slap in the face to anyone who cherishes and respects that site. People are standing in front of one of the most amazing places in the world, and they can’t appreciate it because of a silly game.”