The University of Wisconsin at Madison got a call on Saturday saying a group of bicyclists on the campus had their heads buried in their smartphones, and were weaving in and out of traffic.
The caller offered a theory: They were playing Pokémon Go.
Since late last week, officials at colleges across the country have noticed the swift adoption of the game, which players download onto their mobile phones. Students who might appear to be aimlessly wandering have actually been exploring their campuses, desperately looking for Pokémon, as the characters in the game are known, and congregating around "Poké Stops," where they reload on supplies such as "Poké balls," an essential tool for catching "Pokémon."
Pokémon Go, a spinoff of the 1990s kids’ card-game phenomenon, is a downloadable, "augmented reality" game that uses the GPS device on a smartphone to track a player's location, and creates a virtual-Pokémon world on the screen, viewed through the phone’s camera lens. As players explore their physical surroundings, various Pokémon characters appear. The goal is to capture them.
Colleges are eager to embrace the trend. They are also taking steps to make sure their campus communities remain safe, using social media to urge players to be aware of their surroundings. The University of Central Florida’s police department went so far as to advertise via Twitter that its shuttle services were available to students who were playing Pokémon Go on campus late at night.
Courtney Gilmartin, assistant director and public-information officer for the Central Florida campus police, says the buzz surrounding Pokémon Go appeared on her radar late Thursday. It has since "exploded," she says.
"Half of the community was tweeting about what was going on in Dallas; the other half was tweeting about Pokémon Go," Ms. Gilmartin says.
Students have reportedly continued playing long after dark, Ms. Gilmartin says, wandering the campus and trying to catch Pokémon. "I talked to a student on Friday who said he was here until 3 a.m. playing," she says.
But not all players are students. Samantha L. Jackson, a coordinator for academic-advising services at Central Florida, is also a proud player. "I’m currently on Level 10, hoping to level-up by the end of the day," she says.
Ms. Jackson says she knows of two other university employees who play the game, but no one else in her office does. Since late last week, she says, she has heard mostly positive things about Pokémon, but some people aren’t impressed. "Some people are just confused," she says. "They just don’t see the general appeal of it."
Derek Hennen is a Ph.D. student in entomology at Virginia Tech. Like many graduate students, he played the Pokémon card game as a kid. He was never interested in animals and biology until he learned about Pokémon, whose fictional characters have a striking resemblance to real creatures. He credits the game for opening his eyes to entomology.
"It planted the seed," he says.
So far, he says, he views the Pokémon Go trend as a good thing. People who tend to stay indoors are now going outside more often, meeting people, exploring their campuses, he says.
Ms. Jackson, at Central Florida, agrees. "Students are really walking around campus a lot more," she says, "and I feel like they’re ironically becoming more aware of things that are on campus because they have to walk to these different Poké Stops."
Alexander Mas says he is happy the game came out now, and not a couple of months ago, when he was a student. A program coordinator in graduate business programs at the University of Miami, Mr. Mas says he might have been too distracted.
"I wasn’t sure if I was too grown up for it," says Mr. Mas, who is 27.
Even college leaders are getting in on the act. The president of Wheaton College in Massachusetts, Dennis M. Hanno, posted a photo on Instagram of a Poké Stop on his campus.
College campuses are good sites for Pokémon Go because of the abundance of landmarks. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the controversial Confederate statue "Silent Sam" serves as one such stop, The Daily Tar Heel reported.
Silent Sam, the confederate memorial that has been a target of continued protest on campus, is now a Pokéstop. pic.twitter.com/y6PKiTEIoa— The Daily Tar Heel (@dailytarheel) July 11, 2016
Whether on bikes, like those distracted riders at Madison, or walking on a campus, Pokémon Go players need to look up from their phones and pay attention to the real world, too, says Marc A. Lovicott, director of communication for Wisconsin’s police department. Concerned about the rising popularity of the game in the coming weeks, and in the fall, he tweeted out a cautionary note:
Dear Everyone,— UW-Madison Police (@UWMadisonPolice) July 11, 2016
Watch where you are walking. Pokemon aren't worth it.