In the past few days, you may have heard stories of people scouring the local area in search of strange creatures called Pokémon, hunting their prey in the streets, hospitals, mosques, churches and even the toilets.
Such rumours might cause you to wonder whether the next person to knock on your door might also be looking to kill or capture some dangerous beast. However, there is no need for panic.
While such stories are well-founded, the people they describe are not delusional; they are merely playing a new smartphone-based computer game — or to be more precise, a "location-based augemented-reality" game.
The Nintendo-owned Pokémon franchise, which soared in popularity in the late 1990s, made a strong comeback on July 6 with the launch of its free-to-play mobile game called Pokémon Go, based on the original Pokémon computer game series.
Pokémon Go connects the virtual world of computerized monsters to real one in which we live, allowing players to search for monsters that don't actually exist… by tramping around the world that actually does, the two words (real and virtual) linked by a smartphone's GPS system.
The new virtual-reality game was developed for both iOS and Android devices, and launched on July 6 in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, then expanded to Germany July 13, with several beta versions now available in other countries, including Egypt. The launch was so successful that it had to be slowed down in order to avoid crashing computer servers.
Within 48 Hours the game topped the list of smartphone app downloads in the US and became Apple’s iTunes most popular app. Meanwhile, shares in Nintendo rose by more than 50 percent in the past week, putting the company's market value at US$34bn. Survey Monkey Inc reported that Pokémon Go is now the biggest mobile game in US history, attracting just fewer than 21 million daily active users.
Safety, privacy concerns
The game relies on the GPS systems and clock in smartphones, which detect where on the planet a player is located and what time it is. Based on their location, various Pokémon characters "appear" in the viscinity (virtually on your phone screen), allowing players to catch them by bowling a virtual ball at them.
As players wander around, they discover more Pokémon characters and add to their list of captured critters. The need to keep looking forces players to wander around the real world, often to new and interesting places, often with worrying real-life consequences.
The list of unfortunate outcomes has been growing in the US and elsewhere, and as the game spreads to Egypt (via a beta version) it seems Egyptians are also falling prey.
In the United States, the victimes include a 19-year-old girl who discovered a dead body floating on the Wyoming Wind River while she was looking for a Pokémon. In Holland, users have been warned after several wandered onto railway tracks while playing.
Meanwhile, in Missouri, police reported that armed robbers had lured victims to remote locations using the game. There have been numerous cases also of people falling over and bumping themselves due to not paying attention to the real world as they wander around glued to the game.
There have also been reports of people wandering into inappropriate and private spaces in search of Pokémon, causing consternation and outrage. For example, in Australia's Northern Territory, police have urged gamers to stop seeking Pokémon inside Darwin police station, which is off limits to anyone without genuine police business.
Several commentators have also raised concerns regarding privacy. The app records the movements of users, meaning that those playing the game can be tracked wherever they go, something of a concern should that data be hacked.
Moreover, the blogger Adam Reeve has warned of a security glitch that means anyone signing into the game via their Google account will be providing the game makers with access to their emails, contacts, calender and photos. Such a feature means that the game compromises player's privacy, says Reeve.
Egypt joins the fun
While the game has not been officially released through Egypt's official Android and iOS stores, many Egyptians have accessed the game by other means, such as downloading the game files directly online or pretending to be in another country with the help of a virtual private network.
Young users seemed obsessed with the game, wandering around buildings in their hunt for Pokémon. Sometimes the hunt takes them to informal public spaces such as coffee shops and public gardens, but also to cultural monuments and religious buildings.
According data from Google Trends, the game is among the most popular online search terms in Egypt, competing with a football match between the Ahly and Zamalek football clubs.
There has also been an explosion of interest on social media, with Egyptians posting their stories of strange and dangerous Pokémon pursuits. Some have found themselves in trouble with strangers who took offense at the idea of someone apparently pointing a phone camera in their direction. In such circumstances, Pokémon hunters can easily be mistaken for stalkers and harassers.
Meanwhile, others have been less than impressed with the experience for other reasons, including the physical effort involved.
“I played it for a while and stopped," Abdel Rahman Ali, a 26-year old engineer told, Egypt independent. "It’s very enjoyable but exhausting, because you have to move a lot and go to numerous locations to hunt the Pokémon creatures.”
Ali also found the experience both embarrassing and funny at times, not least of all because of the strange and unexpected locations of his captures.
"The funniest location was when I found a Charmander [virtual Pokémon character] sitting next to me in the coffee shop,” he said.
Among those who enjoy the game is scriptwriter Mohammed Ibrahim (25) said he likes fact that it gets him walking about the city streets.
“It’s an addiction," said Ibrahim. "I find myself and my colleagues hunting Pokémon creatures all day in the office, and I usually share my stories frmo the game on Facebook.”
He is waiting for the launch of the official Android and iOS versions to be launched in Egypt, and is looking forward to challenging his friends with the latest versions.
“I’ve heard that the new version will set a challenge, whereby you and someone from another country both aim to reach a Pokémon within his country’s borders,” he said.
No doubt, as the craze expands its global reach, the new variations in gameplay with provide even more fun for Pokémon hunters — and some challenges too.