Hundreds of people and their smartphones descended on Dolores Park on Wednesday evening for the first ever San Francisco “Pokémon crawl,” a walk from the Mission District to the Embarcadero for players of “Pokémon Go,” their booze and Pikachu costumes, and accompanying police escorts.
“It’s a good time, it’s cool, it’s a little disorganized,” said Don Nguyen, a 30-year-old software engineer dressed in an inflatable panda suit who, for being so visible, was the de facto leader of the march down Market Street. He and more than 200 others walked from Dolores Park to the Embarcadero starting at 7 p.m., looking down at their screens to catch the occasional Zubat and Pidgey.
“I imagined this would be like a Poké-Con,” said Willie Diaz, a 25-year-old from Fremont who was dressed as a Pikachu. He happened to run into Layla Skramstad, another Pikachu-attired Pokémon player, at the park and started talking about his nostalgia for the Pokémon TV show and Game Boy game.
“Discovering the world was fun in the Pokémon game, and now I’m discovering the real world,” he said, looking down at his phone.
Pokémon Go is a new augmented reality game from Niantic Labs, a spin-off from Google parent company Alphabet. The smartphone game presents a Google Maps-style layout of the world and lets players walk around trying to catch Pokémon, which appear in the in the foreground of whatever the player is looking at using the phone’s camera.
Players can battle over real-world locations called “gyms” or collect items at “Pokéstops,” which are often well-known spots in the real world like murals, statues, and parks.
Dolores Park has several Pokéstops and was a natural location for the Facebook event made for the crawl, which had more than 9,000 participants online as of Wednesday.
Maybe 300 showed up, though hundreds more went to other locations city-wide like the Embarcadero and different bars along pre-marked routes. The event was meant to resemble a bar crawl, and watering holes like the 500 Club and Bar San Pancho served as hubs for players who then joined the march from the Mission District to the waterfront.
But players didn’t stop in for drinks, though many chugged illicit beers or sipped from whiskey bottles as they meandered through the city, the occasional police car keeping pace to prevent distracted pedestrians from walking into traffic.
Instead, they stood in place and swiped at their phones, hoping for a rare Pokémon and occasionally getting one.
“A Bulbasaur! Ah!” someone shrieked at Dolores Park, raising heads from those nearby.
“Charizard!” yelled another, referring to a rare Pokémon in the game.
“Liar!” several others said, doubting the man, who then scolded his phone-toting friends.
“Everyone get off your phones and appreciate this!” he said, pointing at the fields of grass in front of him.
Not all were so skeptical. Amy Backos, a 44-year-old psychologist and art therapist at Dolores Park with her 8-year-old son Oliver, said the game was promising because it got kids out into the real world.
She and her son go for runs around her neighborhood and stop occasionally so she can do push-ups and he can catch Pokemon. But the game’s applications went beyond simple exercise, she said.
“I think it has a lot of potential for art therapy because people can manipulate their environment,” she said. Backos thought the game, and others like it, might be especially useful for allowing children with anxiety to interact with the outside world while still presenting a comforting video game interface.
“The future of alternative reality still allows us to be in the real world,” she said.
Sabrina Scott said that though this was her first Pokémon game, she grew up on the animated TV show and liked being a 30-year-old with a childhood game “in her phone.”
“I grew up when the show was on, so for me it’s cool because it’s like a nostalgic thing,” she said. “I play it every day when I’m at work, even when I’m not supposed to.”
Rex Popovich, a 25-year-old from Oakland, said he’s had run-ins with people he would have never met without the game. Playing in a park in Oakland, he once ran into and spent time with a doctor in scrubs swiping at his phone, trying to catch a Pokémon “instead of smoking a cigarette on his lunch break.”
“I spent half an hour talking to some lady about her trip to D.C. because her daughter was playing Pokémon. I don’t think I would’ve gotten to know my neighbors it someone hadn’t dropped a lure at like 11 p.m.,” he said, referring to an in-game device that bringsPokémon to a specific location.
After an hour at Dolores Park, players began walking towards the Embarcadero, followed by news vans and camera men trying to capture the craze. All looked down at their phones while crowding the sidewalk, glancing up at intersections but otherwise safe in the crowd.
“Hey, I’m fighting for gay rights. Can you help?” asked a volunteer with the American Civil Liberties Union as players streamed past, not interacting.
“I support Zubat rights,” laughed one player as he walked past, referring to a Pokemon.
It was an impolitic moment in an otherwise jovial evening. Marching down Market Street, the hundreds-strong group occasionally ran into smaller groups going from the Embarcadero to Dolores Park, erupting in whoops and high fives.
Most said that though the game was often glitchy and its servers frequently down, they were attached because it was a childhood reality born anew in their smartphones.
“Sometimes it freezes on you,” said Felice Hammett, a 27-year-old from Milpitas. “But it gets you out of the house a lot. You’re in this virtual world of what you grew up with as a kid. It’s pretty much the same game but it’s more high tech, more virtual.”