Yesterday wasn’t the first time the police in Prince William County, Va., warned citizens to stop looking at their phones while crossing the street and driving. But it was the first time they used cartoon characters to do it.
When news outlets began covering the craze over Pokémon Go -- a newly available game on smartphones that has quickly become one of the most popular apps in the world -- Sgt. Jonathan Perok saw a golden opportunity to reinforce some public safety messages.
“I know that people think it’s funny and witty, but they do need to be safe while using the game,” said Perok.
Pokémon Go functions as a high-tech treasure hunt that sends gamers roaming the streets in search of digital monsters that pop up (on the screen) in real-world places. While people are playing it for fun, some public officials are using the gaming fad as a way to engage with and educate the public.
Police departments around the country have expressed concern that wandering gamers make excellent targets for muggings, increase the risk of traffic accidents and could be trespassing on private property. In O'Fallon, Mo., for example, police have already arrested suspects who allegedly used a Pokémon Go beacon to lure players and rob them.
Perok took to his department’s Facebook page to remind people to be aware of their surroundings, to remain visible at night and to not play on their phone while crossing the street or driving. Having a little fun, he also posted three light-hearted photos of Pokémon creatures posing in the back of a cop car, in a holding cell and on his desk.
But the education goes both ways.
“If approached by an inquisitive police officer,” he wrote, “simply educate him or her on what's cool.”
In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, an award-winning Twitter user, responded to a tongue-in-cheek complaint about polluted water in the city’s inner harbor.
“Mayor we have GOT to clean up our harbor so THIS doesn't keep happening!” a resident tweeted along with an image of a wide-eyed cartoon Pokémon fish in the water.
Rawlings-Blake responded by highlighting the public-private partnership that aims to make the city's harbor fishable and swimmable by 2020 -- even for "Magikarp."
Some hope the allure of collecting Pokémon will attract new people to public spaces and meetings.
The Portland, Ore., Budget Office tweeted that it's inviting some Pokémon to its next public outreach event. The National Archives in Washington, D.C., also used the game as extra incentive to visitors.
Luke Stedke, who works at the Ohio state Capitol, was thinking along the same lines when he announced a Pokémon Go tour of the Capitol Square and Statehouse this Friday.
“We’re going to talk about the grounds, and you catch some Pokémon while you’re playing the game,” he said.
So far, Stedke has noticed a slight uptick in people walking around the Capitol Square on weekdays, which he attributes to the game.
“If it’s a way to engage the public, to get them down here and educate them about government, civics and Ohio history," he said, "even better.”
Paul Sparrow, the director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., is waiting to see whether the benefits of the game will actually outweigh the drawbacks.
“Having younger more technologically savvy visitors is critical if we are to remain relevant in the future,” Sparrow blogged. “But what does it say about our culture when people are looking at their phones while visiting a museum? Well that will depend on what they do when they look up.”