We headed into battle on a sunny evening in Riverdale, hurrying across Lewes Boulevard and ducking down a back alley near the pub.
Three others had just conquered the Riverdale Baptist Church, and Ben Moffatt, in our group, was going to try and take it back.
We marched past the kids playing outside Vanier Catholic Secondary School and took up our positions in front of the church. His three opponents were nowhere to be seen.
Then it was time. Moffatt bowed his head, rallied his troops and began to swipe.
Defeat came swiftly.
“I have no idea what’s going on, to be honest,” he said, looking up from his smartphone after a few minutes. “I just got my ass handed to me from something or other.”
This is Pokemon Go, the viral phenomenon released last week and already downloaded more than 15 million times. Though the mobile game still hasn’t been officially released in Canada, players in Whitehorse are already busy joining teams, organizing events and occasionally wandering into traffic, their faces buried in their phones.
The purpose of the game is to capture and train virtual Pokemon and use them to battle players on opposing teams. The genius of the game is that it requires players to get outside and walk – a lot.
Pokemon can lurk anywhere about town. PokeStops, where players can collect Poke Balls and other tools, show up at local landmarks – museums and public art installations, for instance. Players then battle for control of virtual gyms, like the one we visited at the Riverdale Baptist Church.
In the first two days after downloading the app, Megan Stallabrass had already caught 21 Pokemon and walked at least 10 kilometres.
“I share a vehicle with my boyfriend, so I’ve definitely been using the excuse that I don’t have a vehicle to walk places now that I have Pokemon,” she said. “I didn’t have to walk to the store last night, but I did.”
John Mimee said his brother, an erstwhile couch potato, walked roughly 100 kilometres in his first five days after getting the game. Mimee’s no slouch either, having already wrangled 103 Pokemon on the streets of town.
It’s a bizarre game, in many ways. Around Whitehorse, it produces little clusters of people loitering on street corners at strange times, busily tapping at their phones. Mimee described hanging out with a crowd of close to 20 players at a group of Pokestops in front of the RCMP station in the wee hours of the morning.
There’s another “gym” just in front of the Chilkoot Trail Inn, Mimee said, which has also attracted groups of people playing Pokemon late at night.
But as self-described nerds – Mimee has Zelda fairies tattooed on his arm, and Stallabrass wore a Pokemon T-shirt for the occasion – they insist it’s more social than other games.
“I know I definitely have a lot of social anxiety problems,” Stallabrass said. “And I’ve just been, like, chatting up some other people that I probably wouldn’t have if they weren’t playing Pokemon.”
Pokemon Go is certainly drawing Whitehorse’s hard-core gamers out of their basement lairs. A Pokemon Go Whitehorse Facebook group has already popped up, featuring predictably cryptic posts.
“Anyone about to start pokemon go, if you run away from the normal three starter pokemon four times you can get a pikachu instead,” one reads.
“Lure at graveyard,” reads another, somewhat ominously posted at 1 a.m.
But given its astonishing popularity elsewhere, its appeal will likely reach beyond the devoted nerds of the North.
Moffatt said a big part of the fun for him is that the game gives him a reason to head out around town on his skateboard.
“I’ve been born and raised here, and I’ve been down streets I haven’t been on in like 10, 15 years,” he said.
And there’s an opportunity here that some savvy Yukoners are already looking to seize. There are PokeStops attached to landmarks all around town, including cultural centres, murals and even all the interpretive plaques along the Millennium Trail, according to Mimee.
Josh Paton, owner of Epic Pizza in Riverdale, said he noticed players showing up at a PokeStop outside his business almost right after the game launched. He’s thinking about selling pizza by the slice to players who stop by, or maybe offering a discount to anyone who catches the Rattata lurking outside his restaurant.
“Anything I can do to bring people out, right? I’m a fan of nerd stuff and pop culture,” he said. “So it’s kind of exciting to see something happening.”
Over at Titan Gaming & Collectibles on Main Street, manager Cody Richards is lobbying to get a PokeStop set up outside his business. He’s already sent an email to the Pokemon Go support group with his request.
“I hope that it’ll just bring some more new faces down,” he said. “Maybe bring down a little bit of business.”
He also hopes it might get some more people playing the Pokemon card game.
On Wednesday evening, as we made our way back through Riverdale after the crushing defeat at the Baptist church, Moffatt, Mimee and Stallabrass all said they’d never played Pokemon growing up. They were too old for the game when it first came out in the 1990s, they explained. Stallabrass said she only downloaded Pokemon Go as something to do with her stepkids.
Then we found a Pidgey on Lewes Boulevard and they all took out their phones.
Contact Maura Forrest at