Players risk all to catch their pocket monsters

POKEMON WORLD: In Tokyo, Japan
POKEMON WORLD: In Tokyo, JapanPHOTOS: REUTERS, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY, BLOOMBERG
POKEMON WORLD: In Ulsan, South Korea
POKEMON WORLD: In Ulsan, South KoreaPHOTOS: REUTERS, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY, BLOOMBERG
POKEMON WORLD: In Jakarta, Indonesia
POKEMON WORLD: In Jakarta, IndonesiaPHOTOS: REUTERS, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY, BLOOMBERG
POKEMON WORLD: In Siberia, Russia
POKEMON WORLD: In Siberia, RussiaPHOTOS: REUTERS, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY, BLOOMBERG
POKEMON WORLD: In New York, the United States
POKEMON WORLD: In New York, the United StatesPHOTOS: REUTERS, EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY, BLOOMBERG

PARIS • Walk into a minefield, enter a military base or simply cross the road without looking: Fans of Pokemon Go are prepared to do whatever it takes to capture the likes of Pikachu and its friends.

The wildly popular augmented-reality smartphone game expanded into 26 more countries this week and is now officially available in more than 35 countries.

The game overlays a digital world of creatures, virtual areas of interest and other features onto the real world, which users interact with using their smartphone cameras, sensors and geolocation features.

"Pokemon can be found in every corner of the earth," the app tells users when they download the game. And that is precisely the problem.

Since the game was released on July 6, it has gained millions of users around the world. That includes some who made headlines with questionable decisions to play at Auschwitz, the Arlington cemetery and the 9/11 memorial.

The authorities are taking stock of other pitfalls: Bosnia has had to warn players to avoid chasing the creatures onto landmines left over from the 1990s. And in Indonesia, a French player was stopped by the police and questioned for several hours after the app led him into a military base. He was later released.

That incident came as Indonesian officials called the game a national security threat that could allow its enemies to penetrate military sites and gain access to top secret data. Civil servants have been ordered not to play Pokemon Go at work in a bid to protect "state secrets".

Indonesia's concern about national security being threatened by the game was echoed by other countries.

"Pokemon Go is the latest tool used by spy agencies in the intel war, a cunning despicable app that tries to infiltrate our communities in the most innocent way under the pretext of entertainment," said Mr Hamdi Bakheet, a member of Egypt's defence and national security committee in Parliament, according to a report on Al Jazeera.

Russian websites also published articles claiming that the game is a US Central Intelligence Agency plot.

A spokesman for game developer Niantic denied the allegations that the game is a tool of espionage and said the company asks all users "to abide by local laws, and respect the locations you visit and people you meet during your exploration".

National security was not the only concern surrounding the Pokemon Go craze. It has already been blamed for a wave of crimes, traffic violations and complaints in cities around the globe. In addition, there have been reports of people injuring themselves by not paying attention while playing the game.

Those concerns prompted Japan, where the game was launched on Friday, to issue a nine-point safety guide before the official release, warning of dangers gamers could face, including heatstroke, online scams and dubious strangers. And in France, where the game is still unavailable, police have already tweeted advice to Pokemon "trainers", including, "Do not play Pokemon Go while driving".

Even the White House in the United States was forced to react to headlines in newspapers such as "Woman trying to catch Pokemon in cemetery gets stuck in tree".

"We encourage people to not suspend common sense even as they turn to Pokemon for a little summer fun," said Mr Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, at a regular media briefing.

But some leaders are embracing the fad. President Reuven Rivlin of Israel posted a photo on Facebook of a Pokemon in his office with the caption, "Somebody call security personnel".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST, THE JAPAN NEWS/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'Players risk all to catch their pocket monsters'. Print Edition | Subscribe