They stand on street corners, next to monuments and at the beaches. The hunt is on for the mythical virtual creatures in a new smartphone game that elevates being ‘mobile’ to a new level.
There is, apparently, a Ratatta outside the Times of Malta offices in Valletta. Ratatta, for the uninitiated, is a type of Pokémon - small fictional creatures that have spawned a franchise of Nintendo games, trading cards and cartoons.
And the reason this particular Pokémon is standing improbably in Valletta one summer’s day is the release of a new mobile game called Pokémon Go, which since its launch last week has taken the world – and Malta – by storm.
In just a few days, Pokémon Go has increased Nintendo’s value by some €7 billion, it has been installed on more devices than dating app Tinder, it has more daily active users than Twitter, and its users spend more time on the game than on Facebook.
It is not yet officially available in Malta, requiring some mild tech savvy and location-switching to install on your phone, but a Facebook group for local players has already attracted more than 1,200 members.
“The buzz generated by people playing this game in Valletta is quite incredible,” said Stefan Cutajar, one of a number of local players who gave us their thoughts on the game.
“Despite the unbearable heat, a lot of people working there are ditching the AC to go out and walk through the streets in their break periods to catch Pokémon. I for one have arranged ‘pokédates’ with friends of mine who work close by; although it sounds childish and insane, it’s good clean fun.”
So what is it all about? In Pokémon Go, players use their phone’s GPS and camera to travel around picking up Pokémon located in the real world: if you’re by the sea, you’ll see more water types, while ghost and fairy types come out at night.
There are also ‘gyms’ and ‘PokéStops’, sited at actual landmarks and monuments, which create hubs to pit your Pokémon against other players or stock up on supplies – while also meeting other players in the real world.
“As a person with a sedentary lifestyle, I really appreciate the motivation to go outside, even alone,” said Mike Matusiak. “I’ve walked over 20 kilometres in the past three days and plan to keep going at the same rate for as long as my feet will allow. The touristic areas seem to be the best locations for hunting as monuments and churches are marked as PokéStops and gyms in the game. More Pokémon seem to spawn around these areas so Valletta, Sliema, Buġibba, San Anton Gardens, Rabat and even the airport are some of the ‘hot’ areas right now.”
The touristic areas seem to be the best locations for hunting. More Pokémon seem to spawn around these areas so Valletta, Sliema, Buġibba, San Anton Gardens, Rabat and the airport are some of the ‘hot’ areas right now
In the local Facebook group, people of all ages share tips and the best places to catch rare Pokémon. One player shows off a (non-motorised) scooter he has rigged up with a phone and battery pack, for maximum efficiency.
“Getting people to actually walk around was a great idea,” said Kurt Fiteni. “I took a walk from St Julian’s to Independence Garden and met another two people playing. It’s bringing people together in a way and that’s good enough for me.”
The real world nature of the game has, however, thrown up a number of unique situations and challenges.
“I work as a teacher at a school which – to my glee as a player but horror as a teacher – has two PokéStops and is the gym for the area,” said Christine Briffa.
“This morning I was speaking to my headmaster about how this will mean phones snuck into the school and distractions during lessons. As I was explaining, my phone vibrated and there it was, a Caterpie on my head teacher’s desk. I caught it there and then, much to my boss’s bemusement. I wonder what’s going to happen once school starts!”
Malta is not the only place facing these issues: one dog shelter in the US has used the lure of Pokémon to encourage volunteers to walk their dogs; the Holocaust Museum in Washington has asked players to stay away out of respect for the site; and one teenager stumbled upon a dead body while out hunting for Pokémon.
Several police departments, meanwhile, have warned players not to “Pokémon and Drive”, a concern raised also by local players, although the bus from Valletta to St Julian’s is apparently a great way to pick up Pokémon quickly.
“It’s not just a game but also a flashback to most of us,” said Matthew Mamo, echoing the comments of a number of Maltese players from a generation that grew up with Pokémon, and to whom the new game is as much nostalgia as entertainment.
“Hopefully this game will get a new generation of kids out of their homes and more active. I hope the trading element of the game will be available soon, which will also help kids socialise more. I still remember the long hours I spent playing the card game with friends; great memories.”
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