Throughout July, people flocked to the Witch City as they hunted for imaginary creatures with their smartphones, finding community in a digital phenomenon grounded almost entirely in reality.
To close out the month, they were also hunting gym leaders — the highest ranking members of gyms where Pokemon trainers train, from the original Pokemon video game.
Hundreds of people turned out for “SalemGO! Catch Em All,” a locally run scavenger hunt that took the spirit of the massively popular “Pokemon Go” mobile app and brought it even closer to the real world.
The event was run Sunday afternoon as a collaboration between Creative Salem and Flying Saucer Pizza Company, out of the restaurant’s location on Washington Street. A costume contest was also run out of Silver Moon Comics & Collectibles.
But Flying Saucer was only where the event — a “walk,” as it was billed — started. Where it ended was entirely up to those who registered to play, according to Chris Ricci, a member of Creative Salem.
“The walk itself is about a 21/2 hour walk. It’s all throughout the city,” Ricci said. “The objective for everyone is to find different gym leaders. They’re tasked to go around, take a picture with them and ask a question.
“At the end of the walk, they’re going to be quizzed for all the questions they were asked,” Ricci continued, “and the team with the highest number of points and the team that got it done the fastest will get prizes.”
“Pokémon Go” launched in the first week of July to near-viral popularity — in fact, the app was continually failing to run due to widespread server issues triggered by an unexpected number of players.
In the game, players navigate the real world as the app on their smartphone notifies them of nearby Pokémon — digital creatures that can be caught, strengthened, upgraded and used to battle other players, known as trainers. The world is also saturated in PokéStops, which drop free items when visited, and gyms, where three teams battle for control of territory.
The game became so popular, that communities started putting together “walks,” where players are given a route to follow and things to do in alignment with playing the game, according to Ricci.
“I’ve noticed a bunch of different walks starting up around the area,” Ricci said. “I thought the walks were kind of cool, but why do the walk if you didn’t have a really good objective to it?”
The solution, Ricci said, was recruiting volunteers to dress up, or cosplay, as gym leaders from the original Pokémon video game, which was released about 20 years ago.
“People could walk around on their own accord, find different areas where the gym leaders are located, things like that, hit some PokéStops, come back here, grab a bite to eat, grab a drink, go out and continue the walk,” Ricci said. “The idea was to get people to go around Salem in a wide range.”
Not just a kid’s game
The turnout far exceeded what Ricci anticipated, he said. For up to an hour after the event launched, a line of as-yet unregistered players continually wrapped around and wove through Lappin Park.
Among them was a trio of Pokémon aficionados wearing matching team gear and game memorabilia. One of them, Peabody resident Christopher Alton, also had a flag pinned to his back. The black flag was adorned with the letters O.B.O.C., standing for “One Ball, One Catch.”
Shari Vervates of Danvers said the trio had been playing Pokémon since it started 20 years ago.
“We still play Pokémon, and we’re adults,” she said. “This isn’t just a kid’s game anymore.”
A quartet of players from Haverhill and Salem, New Hampshire, roamed the streets in matching shirts sporting references to Team Mystic, one of the game’s three factions.
“Living the nostalgia is fantastic. Being able to see other people in cosplay touches the heart,” said Salem, New Hampshire, resident Ray Cabrera. “It’s great to see other people in the community sharing what you share.”
The cosplay angle of the event was nothing to joke about, either. As part of the event, nearby retailer Silver Moon Comics & Collectibles took part as judges of participants who hunted in costume.
But it wasn’t just casual players coming dressed as their favorite catch. Many of those in costume did so as a group, according to Leslie Smith at Silver Moon.
“We think it’s great,” she said. “It’s good for family time, good to get them up and walking. To see the kids walking around and the parents being involved is awesome.”
One of those families was the McCaw family of Beverly — with father Steven, wife Rebecca and daughter Kimberly all dressing the part in some way.
Steven McCaw has shared a special bond with his 8-year-old daughter through the game, he explained.
Over the years, many versions of the video game have been released in pairs — with one version diametrically opposed to another.
“When she got old enough, she played Leaf Green. Then she played Black, and I played White. I played X, she played Y,” Steve McCaw said. “When Sun and Moon comes out, she’s getting Sun. I’m getting Moon.”
“Pokémon Go,” the father said, is a bit different. Now Rebecca McCaw is in the fold as well.
“We’ve been able to come out and do all this stuff,” Steve McCaw said. “We did the Pokéwalk in Boston last week. It was nowhere near as well organized as this one.”