Pokemon hunt on as mobile gaming phenomenon grips Singapore

From children to retirees, Singaporeans are gripped by Pokemon Go, the location-based augmented reality game

In the past week, strange things have been happening in Singapore. People are gathering in parks and playgrounds till the wee hours. Complete strangers chat, warmly and excitedly, like old friends. And cars are going very, very slowly.

Welcome to Singapore postPokemon Go, a sweeter or more annoying place, depending on where you stand on the Poke-divide.

If you have not caught on, Pokemon Go is the hottest game to sweep the globe, including Singapore. In the free-to-play augmented reality game, players use their mobile device's GPS capability to hunt, capture, battle and train virtual creatures called Pokemon, who appear on the screen as if they are in the same real- world location as the players.

The Pokemon game has been around for 20 years and played on other devices such as Game Boy and Nintendo DS, but what is new about this latest version, developed and published by American software development firm Niantic, is its use of real-world locations, so users have to go to real-life locations to play.

This is why so many Singaporeans have hit the streets and are bonding with other PokeFans who are complete strangers.

Sociology undergraduate Tan Eng Teck, 26, was chatting with a fellow player he had just met in Bishan Park on National Day when a rare Pokemon, Arcanine, appeared on his radar.

 
 

The problem was, the creature was in Ang Mo Kio, which was more than 1km away. His new friend offered: "Actually, we can drive there, you want to try?'" In the heat of the moment, Mr Tan said yes and jumped into the guy's car.

 

Unfortunately for them, the Pokemon disappeared by the time they got there, leaving them one Pokemon poorer, but one friend richer.

Odd, risky and, occasionally, stalker-ish behaviour is the new normal. In the past week, players have spilled onto the streets, ventured into parks and gathered in the heartland, turning previously quiet areas into social hubs. Some people do not go about on foot, but cruise very slowly in cars.

At Yishun Park, hundreds of Pokemon hunters gather daily, with many of them playing well into the night, due to the unusually high concentration of PokeStops there - more than 50 within walking distance of one another.

For the uninitiated, PokeStops, which are often linked to landmarks such as statues and fountains, give players free items to catch or attract Pokemon. They are also popular locations for players to lay lures, which increase their chances of catching rare Pokemon.

Last Thursday, more than 300 people were scattered across the 13.9ha park, squeezing onto benches and sitting on the ground. Some brought portable stools to sit on.

One of the players was housewife Agnes Tay, 59, who was persuaded by her three daughters to try to "catch 'em all". Her entire family is hooked on the game and on the eve of National Day, the family of five stayed out till 3am at Yishun Park.

Another Yishun Park player is Mr Phoon Chee Keong, 36, an advertising agency creative director who was playing the game with his parents, sister, wife and one-year- old daughter. He says: "I've lived in Yishun for five years and have never seen crowds like this here. It's refreshing to see young people out and about, instead of cooped up at home."

To put things in perspective, Pokemon Go players in Singapore are pretty well-behaved compared with some cities overseas, where fanatic players have been caught trespassing or getting into accidents.

But hundreds of people gathering in parks and housing estates over a game is still an unprecedented sight in Singapore.

There were some reported cases of players getting a little too invested in the game at the expense of personal safety. Last Wednesday night, the appearance of a rare Pokemon - a Snorlax - in Punggol Park caused players to run across a road without checking for oncoming cars, causing drivers to jam their brakes. This was captured in several videos uploaded onto YouTube and also reported in The New Paper.

Enterprising individuals have been quick to cash in on the craze. Some have set up stalls selling drinks and snacks in parks, while others have advertised their driving services to ferry players around the island to catch Pokemon.

For those who do not play, the inconsiderate behaviour of some Pokemon fans can be infuriating.

These players do not watch where they are going, leave litter at PokeStops or park illegally by the roadside near hot spots.

Littering has been a problem at Block 401 in Hougang Avenue 10, which has become a hub for hundreds of players, thanks to four PokeStops nearby as well as ready access to food and drink at a coffee shop there. Over the past week, hundreds of people have squeezed into an outdoor playground there every night, sitting on the ground or leaning on the slides.

Hougang resident Lee Kok Keong, 59, a retired drinks stall owner, says that while the players have kept noise levels down, they have been leaving rubbish in the common areas, including plastic bags, drink bottles and food packets.

Retiree and Pokemon player Ee Cho Yong, 62, exercises at the fitness area near Yishun Park in the morning and occasionally checks his app to play Pokemon Go. But the place has become too crowded for him to work out. "Players are hogging the sit-up benches, so I can't do my exercise," he says.

Housewife Maria Tan, 48, who lives in Bishan, was amused to see the number of people on the street looking at their phones rather than watching where they were going.

"They stand at the pavement and block the way, which is very annoying. Sometimes, they suddenly stop in front of you and you bump into them," she says. No one in her immediate family plays the game.

While excitement over Pokemon Go remains high, experts say the frenzy may die down once the novelty wears off. Associate Professor Dion Goh from the Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information says: "Angry Birds and Candy Crush were massively popular, but players lost interest and moved on to other games."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 14, 2016, with the headline 'Pokemon hunt is on'. Print Edition | Subscribe