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Crazy about Pokemon

Within hours of release of the wildly popular Pokémon Go game last week, Phoenix resident Marcella Maza realized an almost forgotten childhood dream.

"I caught a Bulbasaur in my bedroom," the 21-year-old admitted with a laugh.

"I've been a fan of Pokémon since I was really little and always been obsessed with the cards, so it's been a huge dream of mine to actually get to see and catch Pokémon in real-life places even though it's just on the phone."

The cellphone app blends reality with fantasy by incorporating fictitious characters and locations over real-life places via GPS. It's been all the rage on social media since its July 6 release, especially among users like Maza who played the card game in the 1990s.

Using GPS systems on iPhones and Android systems in a format not unlike geocaching, the app lets users check in at countless Pokéstops, typically points of interest such as churches, statues or historic buildings, racking up points and Pokéballs used to catch more Pokémon.

Like the traditional card game, the characters have various attributes and point values that aid in progressing in the game. More advanced players drop "lures" to help other players capture more of the 250 Pokémon characters.

Within hours of catching her Bulbasaur, Maza said she and friends were wandering downtown Medford along with a few hundred other players, visiting local landmarks to capture Vulpix, Jigglypuffs, Rattatas and the elusive Pikachu.

After level 5, players choose between the game's three "teams" — Instinct, Mystic or Valor — and help compete for territory.

Maza said she noticed the game helping combat social anxiety for herself and friends who would otherwise be more likely to stick close to home.

"I noticed it really brings people out of their shell and gives them a common interest to talk about," she said.

Erika Perkinson and Sean Halliday, both of whom collected Pokémon cards as children, sat on their bikes near Rogue Art Gallery Monday afternoon utilizing nearby lures to capture a few Rattatas and Pidgeys in Middleford Alley. Players nearby talked about a Geodude who showed up near Badass Coffee and what locations close to downtown would be ideal to find water Pokémon.

"I had always loved Pokémon, so I downloaded it Sunday just to check it out," Perkinson said. "As soon as I noticed a few Pokéstops in the distance, I was like, 'OK, I gotta get myself together and go out and see what this is about.'

"We came out three times on Sunday. It's a lot of fun and there's a crab that's been taunting me. We play for as long as our phones and backup batteries will last."

Halliday said there had been large crowds every time the couple had ventured into town, with police officers and local business owners chatting about the crowds generated by the game.

"Look at this," he noted of the nearly four dozen players in Vogel Plaza.

"You don't see this many people in downtown Medford, like, ever."

Tyler Orlow, a waiter at Vogel Plaza's Misoya Bistro, said the crowds had been unexpected with groups of players sitting and standing around chatting about strategies and sharing phone battery supplies.

"There's been a lot of people. Everybody is crazy about it. Seriously, the plaza has been packed the last couple nights," he said.

"It's pretty good people watching and it's kinda cool because it's literally everywhere."

Walking back from The Commons, a popular spot for lures, 24-year-olds Brittany Anderson and Robert Byrd were admiring a Pokémon egg, a game option that requires walking between two and 10 kilometers to "hatch," earned by Byrd.

"If I catch a few more Pokémon I'll be level 17, which is mostly because I've had this 10-kilometer egg I was hatching to get this ridiculously awesome Pokémon, so we've been walking a lot," he noted, showing off a rare purple Lapras on his phone screen.

Anderson said the couple had noticed players of all ages and all in large groups enjoying the game together. Despite a handful of news reports — including robbers thwarted by game players and a Pikachu search leading to crimes being solved — Anderson said the game was largely about nostalgia, fun "and unintended exercise."

"It got me out of my house for the first time in forever — and it's a really protective community with everyone playing in groups," she said.

"We went to Lithia Park and it usually closes at like 10 or 11 p.m. and people were walking around at 2 a.m., even the cops were talking about the game."

Despite naysayers on social media who worry the app could encourage trespassing, gaming while driving or opportunities for criminals to take advantage, Anderson and Byrd agreed the game offered something lighthearted and fun at a time when current events such as shootings and elections are "less than positive."

"People are all walking around talking to each other and helping each other with a fun game," he said.

"People can find something negative in anything if they try, but this has just been amazing to see all these people ... all these people from different walks of life, brought together by Pokémon."

Local Pokémon GO groups on Facebook include Southern Oregon Pokémon GO, and Rogue Valley Pokémon GO Community.

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com. 

A prized character known as Pikachu makes an appearance Tuesday on a phone using the Pokemon Go App in Vogel Plaza in Medford. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta
Central Point residents Marisa Estremado, 17, left, and Mackenzie Cranston, 18, find a Pokemon character known as a 'Growlithe' near a water drain on the Vogel Plaza in Medford. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta