If you drove by the 300 block of 2nd Avenue S in St. Petersburg Sunday afternoon, you would have seen four adults furiously tapping on their phone screens.
They were not texting a relative or searching Google for the nearest coffee shop. Instead, each was engaging in a digital fight with a Pokémon, challenging their enemy in a battle-like environment until they either emerged victorious or the timer ran out.
Sunday recalled the glory days of Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game in which players use the real world around them as a place to catch Pokémon. The game debuted in July 2016 and took the world by storm shortly thereafter. It was not uncommon to see groups of people traipsing through a park or a downtown area, searching for Pokémon. If someone were to make a documentary about the summer of 2016, Pokémon Go would surely make the cut.
But the phenomenon dropped off almost as quickly as it had begun. A look at Google Trends shows that it skyrocketed to peak popularity as a search term around mid July 2016, when the game premiered, but had already plummeted by mid-August. Since that time, the game has had brief blips of public interest, but has never regained its former success.
Still, for more serious gamers, there has been a sort of pick-up in the last few months, if only based on anecdotal evidence from a walk around downtown St. Petersburg Sunday. A Facebook group for Pokémon Go Tampa Bay has almost 11,000 members. A subreddit for Tampa Bay-based Pokémon Go trainers contains almost 2,200 people. Tourism agency Visit Tampa Bay even compiled a list of the eight best Pokémon Go gyms in Tampa, including Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and Hyde Park Village.
On Sunday, a Pokémon Go community day, groups of people walked down Central Avenue looking for Pokémon. They were almost indistinguishable from other walkers whose faces were buried in their phones, except for one telltale sign: a sort of pointed look that showed they were looking for something specific, a gym or a raid, and not meandering.
Cory Collins, 35, first got into the game in earnest about two months ago when he temporarily left the house after an argument with his wife.
He started playing Pokémon Go with a friend and was immediately hooked. He and his wife eventually made up, but Collins couldn’t let go of his new hobby. So he included her as well. Now, he and his wife go out in downtown St. Petersburg and drive up and down Central Avenue looking for good spots to find Pokémon.
Collins has incorporated the game into his daily lifestyle. At work, he uses his lunch break to walk around and play. He averages about 15.5 miles a week playing the game, he said. Since 2016, that has been one of the game’s long-touted best features — its ability to get people outside of their house and be physically active.
For others, the game offers a wholesome social outlet as an alternative to drinking at a bar or going out to a club. Joseph Couturier, 30, who is dating Collins’ sister, began playing the game with friends after he quit drinking.
“It’s a handful of nerds walking down the street on their phones versus a handful of guys sitting in a bar getting into trouble,” he said.
Others use the game as a way to connect with family or meet new friends. Isaiah Wolfe, 18, plays with his 9-year-old brother, Micah, who has been playing since he was 6. Rane Kien, 28, dragged his two cousins along with him Sunday to the community day, though they both admitted they were not avid Pokémon Go players.
Kien finds his interactions with new friends in public parks or downtown streets often begin the same way. ‘Hey, have you caught the shiny?' someone might ask. A shiny is a popular type of Pokémon that players strive to catch on community days. ‘How many have you caught today?' they’ll follow up. The game creates intuitive ways to find connections with strangers and actually interact with others in public.
So is there any secret to knowing who’s playing the game rather than just perusing their phone?
Jonah Hoppe, 20, referred to the game’s frequent location in parks as an indicator of Pokémon Go players: “If they’re hanging out by a tree.”
That prompted a retort from 20-year-old Rachel Wolfe: “In certain areas, you just know.”