Sunday, Lafayette Square. A peaceful crowd of almost 200 people are gathered in front of the White House, clustered in the shade to avoid the oppressive heat. A sudden exclamation rings out at the far end of the group, and the excitement ripples through the crowd like electricity; people reach for their phones, cameras on, angling for prime position, desperate not to miss a once-in-a-lifetime moment. It’s not an Obama sighting—though, if the president were to step out on his porch right now and dance, it almost certainly would go unnoticed in all the commotion. Something far more thrilling has just materialized—a rare rhino-like Pokemon, Rhyhorn, just begging to be caught.
Pokemon Go is the cause of all this excitement, as well as angst from people sick of hearing about it. The game uses GPS tracking and can superimpose cartoon monsters over real-world locations to (theoretically) force its users to get off the couch to explore the city.
The White House Rhyhorn rumpus was part of Gotta Catch The Mall, a free walking tour that attracted dozens of Pokemon hunters to Lafayette Square. Flannery Wasson conceived the tour, led by her partner Eric Lewis and his company Grand Atlas Tours, when she noticed a sudden interest in exploring the city from a crowd that, fairly or not, is stereotyped as being uninterested in walking, exercise, or the outdoors.
“I started sharing [the Facebook event] with a couple of friends, and it just exploded,” says Wasson, who adds that more than 800 people marked themselves as “interested” in the tour. Then Awesome Con came on as a sponsor, offering Pokemon-themed giveaways and paying for “lures” to ensure maximum Pokemon could be encountered along the route.
Lewis, a seasoned tour guide, went out of his way to ensure the group stopped at a respectful distance from the monuments and memorials and that tour attendees kept their phones holstered while on monument grounds. Of course, those were common-sense ground rules before the game existed, too.
Still, local institutions like the Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery have had to ask that smartphones remain put away. And some less-hallowed places have also made their distaste for the game public. Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Md., posted a sign banning the game, helpfully suggesting alternative, more wholesome phone activities—like sexting. Others, like the 9:30 Club, are fully cashing in on the fad, running promotions for customers who achieve certain milestones in the game while on premises.
Even those people most enthusiastic about playing are experiencing their share of woes. Servers still can’t handle the high level of interest, which can result in widespread lockouts at peak times. While researching this article, I spent a few hours at one of the most heavily trafficked Pokemon locations in the city, The National Zoo, home to dozens of spots to grab extra in-game items, as well as the locations of gyms at which to battle. But it was a weekend day, and the servers were failing constantly. The Pokemon gym at the otter exhibit was a dead zone—at least for any potential Pokemon players.
I asked Lewis if this phone-themed tour saw more or fewer people tapping away on their screens than a typical group, and he said it really depended. He only makes a big deal out of smartphone use if he’s leading a school group there specifically to learn. “Otherwise, it’s just fun,” he said, before being interrupted by an attendee who wanted to show him a just-caught Magikarp. And the tour moved on.