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5 Non-Virtual Things You’ll Learn From Playing Pokémon Go

Stop the grumbling, anti-video-game curmudgeons. There’s plenty to appreciate about the game that’s taking over the city.

Kids these days … are learning interesting things about Chicago while playing Pokémon Go.   Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

Unless you’ve been living on Lower Wacker for the past week, you may have noticed the sudden ubiquity of Nintendo’s new mobile game, Pokémon Go, based on the popular ’90s franchise of books and video games. Everywhere you look in Chicago, people are using their smartphones like dowsing rods, searching for tiny cartoon creatures that pop up all over the city, usually near a cultural point of interest. Dogs are getting longer walks. Your coworkers are taking longer lunch breaks to explore nearby parks. And that guy next to you on the train isn’t actually taking your picture, he’s just trying to catch a particularly stubborn Zubat.

Sure, critics might bemoan another reason for people to stare at their phones all day, and inattentive players may befall some misfortune. But after playing Pokémon Go for the past week I realized it’s already changed the way I see Chicago in some pretty significant and positive ways.

1. Most buildings are older (and more interesting) than I thought.

Thousands of real-life locations throughout the city appear in the game as Pokéstops or Pokémon gyms that players must be physically close to in order to collect new items and creatures. Many of these hot-spots are historical buildings, markers, and plaques you otherwise might not have noticed. Who knew the Briar Street Theatre was built in 1901 as a carriage house for Marshall Field and Company horses? Who knew the Irving Park YMCA was the official training center for the Chicago Bears throughout the 1960s? Chicagoans live in such an embarrassment of architectural riches, it’s easy to forget that every block from Albany Park to South Shore has a story to tell.

2. Chicago’s public art scene is no joke.

Buildings and historical markers aren’t the only locations featured in the game; works of public art are just as common. I knew there were sculptures in Lincoln Park and murals in Pilsen, but I had no idea I passed a dozen pieces of street art during my daily commute to the office. You probably do, too. Some are tucked away on the side of a building or hidden in plain sight, like the gargoyles on the high-rise next to my apartment that Pokémon Go says are actually depictions of the Greek god Dionysus.

3. Small parks are hidden everywhere.

The lakefront gets all the attention from Chicagoans and tourists alike, but the inland parts of the city are riddled with green spaces. Just a Pokéball’s throw west of the Loop in Greektown, for instance, the 1.4-acre Mary Bartelme Park is one of Chicago’s true hidden gems, complete with an iconic fountain plaza, sunken dog park, playground, enclosed seating area, open lawns, and now … four Pokéstops. Even smaller parks are often hidden between buildings on major thoroughfares, like the tiny strip of trees and playgrounds near Halsted and Armitage known only as Park No. 535, or Evergreen Park near Belmont and Broadway.

4. Local bookstores are loving it.

According to Publishers Weekly, Pokémon Go has been a huge boon for bookstores thanks to foot traffic (some private businesses are Pokéstops, too) and an increased demand for Pokémon-related books. Independent bookstores in Chicago haven’t missed a beat, with Open Books touting their used Pokémon books via Instagram and 57th Street Books sharing memes on Twitter. Meanwhile, Unabridged Books and The Book Cellar are both right across the street from popular Pokéstops.

5. Midwestern friendliness is alive and well.

It’s often said that Chicagoans are friendlier than New Yorkers, and the social nature of Pokémon Go bears that out. I’ve seen complete strangers start up a conversation on the bus. Beneath the statue of General Sheridan at Belmont and Inner Lake Shore Drive, I’ve seen millennials team up with baby boomers to figure out where Pikachu is hiding in the grass. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cubs and Sox fans collaborate between innings at the Crosstown Classic later this month. Video games and smartphone apps are often criticized for keeping people apart, but if you want to “catch ‘em all,” Pokémon Go is a shared experience that seems to be fostering a real sense of community.

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