BENNINGTON >> Downtown Bennington has seen a dramatic increase in foot traffic this week, thanks to the release of a new video game.
While that may seem counter-intuitive, game developer Niantic last week released Pokemon GO, an "augmented reality" smartphone game that requires players to travel out into the real world to capture creatures from Nintendo's popular franchise. Historic, religious and cultural centers throughout the country, and the world, have been transformed into Pokestops, where players can stock up on the items they'll need for their journeys, and Pokemon Gyms, where Pokemon trainers battle each other for supremacy.
Since the game's release, players of all ages, but primarily those in their teens and 20s, have flocked into the downtown, the place with the highest concentration of Pokestops and Gyms in the area. From the morning until late at night, aspiring Pokemon trainers can be found battling at the Gyms at the Four Corners and the Bennington Free Library, or searching for Pokemon around Evan's News and Gamer's Grotto.
The game works by using Google Maps, and the smartphone's GPS functionality, to determine the player's location. As they walk around, Pokemon will spawn around the player, with more of the creatures being found in more populated areas. Once a Pokemon is found, the game uses the phone's camera to display the Pokemon on the screen, as if it were really there in front of the player.
Once they reach a certain level in the game, players are asked to choose a team, either Valor (red), Mystic (blue), or Instinct (yellow). Teams battle for control of gyms, and anyone looking at the in-game map can see which team controls which gym at any time. Other gyms in Bennington include the Vermont Veterans Home, Blue Benn Diner, the Bennington Battle Monument, Hemmings Motor News, and the Captain Samuel Robinson plaque in the center of Old Bennington.
One popular place to find players is on the steps of the Green Mountain Christian Center on Main Street, where players can access two Pokestops simultaneously, one at the Christian Center itself, and the other at the Catamount statue in front of the Banner offices. One player there, Brandon Hilton (Team Valor, Level 13), who graduated from Mount Anthony Union High School last year, said there was no doubt that more people were coming downtown. Another, Cameron Lafountain (Team Valor, Level 11), said she had gone out hunting, and seen other players out at 3 a.m. the night before. They, along with Madison Sanderson (Team Valor, Level 10), said they rarely found themselves downtown during the summer before the game came out.
The three had been downtown for between two and three hours on Thursday. Hilton said he often worked, and this was the first time he was able to stay in town for so long. Sanderson said she had spent about seven hours on Main Street the day before.
"It's mostly Team Valor," said Hilton on the other players he's encountered in Bennington, "Team Instinct doesn't exist, and Mystic has nothing on anybody."
"We basically own Main Street," said Lafountain. They said whenever Mystic or Instinct capture a Gym, a group of Valors go immediately to take it back.
Meanwhile, at the Four Corners, one Team Mystic player was valiantly trying to take the Gym from Valor. Tim Downs (Level 13), said he was coming downtown at least once a day since the game came out, which he said was at least once a day more than he normally visits. "I come downtown every now and then, but now it's every day," he said, "Me and my friends have noticed that we're actually spending more money downtown, too." He listed South Street Cafe, HolyCow Frozen Yogurt, Gamer's Grotto and Lucky Dragon as places they had been visiting frequently. "A lot of the places that are open later and sell food and water," he said, "I definitely bought at least six bottles of water yesterday."
Some businesses have begun to take note of the increased foot traffic, and are finding new ways to entice Pokemon GO players into their stores. "Pokemon GO Players – If you're playing in downtown Bennington, HolyCow Frozen Yogurt has 12 USB and 12 plugs to recharge your phone if it dies," the shop posted on its Facebook page, "Come inside our air-conditioned shop, take a break, have a treat, charge your phone and who knows you might catch a Pokemon while you are there."
The Gamer's Grotto offers free wifi and charging stations, and is selling drinks at 10 percent off to anyone playing the game. Owner Keith Carey (Team Valor, Level 18) said that while he hasn't seen a big increase in business, he has seen a clear increase in traffic, and, he said, "I've seen a boost in attitudes, it's been really refreshing." He said that this Saturday night, the store will be hosting a Magic: The Gathering Tournament beginning at midnight and running until 5 a.m. While he usually locks the door during midnight tournaments, he said this time he will be leaving them open, so Pokemon Go players can come in and buy refreshments during their early morning Pokemon hunts.
In some communities, people have worried that the increase in gamers walking, or even driving, while distracted by their phones could lead to injuries or accidents. In Pittsfield, Mass., the police department posted a message warning players, "In all seriousness folks, PLEASE educate your children on the dangers of wandering around and forgetting your surroundings. We don't like being the party police. And for you adults that have been driving around in search of these imaginary creatures, do not drive and play at the same time. There have already been many reported accidents, both non-fatal and fatal since this came out a few days ago."
Bennington Police Department Chief Paul Doucette said his department hasn't seen any increase in reported crimes or accidents since the game was released. He did say there has been an increase in reports of pedestrians walking out in front of vehicles on crosswalks, but he said that is common every summer, as more people are walking downtown. He reminded everyone to remain aware of their surroundings, and to be safe when crossing roadways. He said his department has been aggressive in enforcing Vermont's ban on the use of handheld devices while driving, and will continue to do so.
"I've seen people of all walks, people who would never interact otherwise, sitting and playing with one another," said Carey, "That's what I really love, the camaraderie."
Derek Carson (Team Valor, Level 16) can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.