They stream into the picturesque colonial town by the hundreds, day and night. Groups of teenagers. Mother-and-son duos. Couples on dates. A middle-aged government worker just stopping by on her commute home along Interstate 95.
They huddle in front of the town hall, gather in circles on the boardwalk, cram onto the brick sidewalks and overflow into the street. They stare at their phones and flick their fingers across the screens in a zombielike rhythm that easily could be mistaken for a scene from a dystopian, tech-addled future. Pokémon Go’s augmented reality has brought them here to the tiny town of Occoquan, and Pokémon Go is augmenting Occoquan’s reality.
This nearly three-century-old riverfront town in Virginia’s Prince William County has unwittingly become a hotbed for the new game, which is drawing droves of players to the town as they use their phones to capture make-believe creatures that are living in abundance among Occoquan’s real-life residents (all 1,016 of them). A place that touts itself as “an oasis and a little-known gem” offering “that personal touch of Main Street USA” has transformed into a virtual-reality superhighway.
“It’s quite unbelievable,” Occoquan Mayor Elizabeth Quist said. “I get in traffic jams coming home from council meetings on Tuesday nights now. I can’t think of another time on a weeknight I’ve been six deep at a stop sign waiting for other people to go. That’s a traffic jam for Occoquan.”
Occoquan’s newfound popularity has been a boon for the quaint restaurants and shops that line the town’s three-block main strip, as any kind of tourism brings in business. But residents in the D.C. suburb are now complaining that Occoquan has lost its quiet vibe, and town officials are scrambling to figure out how to keep everyone safe.
“You have 22-year-olds playing Pokémon at 2 a.m. and they find an emoji — or whatever the heck it is — and they’re going to make noise,” said Joe McGuire, a town council member. “Now we have residents complaining about it.”
Occoquan’s denizens are demanding a way to make it all stop. They speak of parents struggling to put young children to sleep because of all the Pokémon-related chatter outside their homes, and they worry about the drivers who have been playing Pokémon Go while behind the wheel, careering down one-way streets in the wrong direction. Occoquan’s leaders have put up signs around town warning people not to “Pokémon and Drive” in an attempt to keep pedestrians who are staring at their phones safe from drivers who are doing the same.
Pokémon Go, a smartphone game released in the United States in July, is enormously popular, tapping into the nostalgia of a millennial generation that grew up playing with Pokémon trading cards. The app, made by Niantic, allows players to catch animated Pokémon creatures in real-world locations. The creatures appear through the smartphone camera as players walk around neighborhoods, digital characters that pop into a player’s real world.
And Occoquan, it seems, is an almost-perfect real-world setting for Pokémon, benefiting — or suffering, depending on whom you ask — from a confluence of factors that affect the game.
Because the town is on the banks of the Occoquan River, it is home to both land and water creatures in the game. Occoquan is filled with restaurants and shops, and by virtue of its centuries of history, it is lined with historical markers; these are spots conducive to housing lots of Pokémon, something that is a rarity in most suburban and rural areas. And it’s just 11 miles south of the Capital Beltway along I-95, making it central to many commutes and a short drive from the District.
No one really had any say in the Occoquan Pokémon Rush of 2016: The computers led people here. Niantic used geographic data from an old augmented reality game it created to determine where Pokémon would be located for the new game. Those old virtual maps were based on a mixture of user input, historical markers and other data sets.
“You can’t resist. You just come down here and it’s Pokémon heaven,” said Laurie Lemons, who lives nearby and has been stopping in Occoquan a few times a week on her way home from work. “You hit the jackpot.”
Lemons said she has made an effort to patronize the town’s businesses since she now spends so much time there. She brought her nieces to play the game in Occoquan on a recent weekend and bought them trinkets in the local shops. The town’s ice cream shop has started to stay open later to keep up with demand. And the employees at Bar J now wear Pokémon-themed shirts that they created in an attempt to capitalize on the craze.
“People come in, sit down and they’re like, ‘We’ll be right back,’ and you wonder where they go to and if they’ll come back,” said Casie Sipe, a manager at Bar J. “Then they’ll say they caught something and come back for another drink. It’s crazy.”
Although weekends used to see tourists coming through town for lunch by the water or a lazy boat ride down to the base of the towering Purple Heart Bridge, crowds usually were limited to annual events such as the Duck Splash, when the local Optimist Club drops hundreds of rubber ducks into the river for a fundraising race.
But now, every evening after work, sleepy Occoquan transforms into a playground for teens, 20-somethings and beyond to catch and train these fictional creatures into the early morning hours.
“It’s a lot harder to find a parking spot now. I used to never have a problem,” said Clarke Lilly, a 28-year-old who lives nearby and says he does not play the game. Lilly was sitting with friends at an outdoor table at Madigan’s Waterfront on the boardwalk one recent evening, having drinks, and he was surrounded by tables of people who were playing on their phones while eating dinner.
“You always see them walking on the street, not paying attention, looking at their phones,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Watch out!’ ”
Some residents in the surrounding Prince William suburbs say they go into Occoquan once or twice a year to grab dinner with their families. Now they’re going multiple times a week.
“It gives me and my wife a reason to go out and do stuff with our daughter,” said Anthony Groves, 29.
“I like to get out and walk, and this is something to do while you’re walking,” said Mike McDonald, 52, who came to Occoquan to play the game with his 26-year-old son.
Occoquan resident Lori Mackenzi has been training for a marathon, and at 4:30 a.m. one recent Tuesday she was forced to run around a group of teenagers glued to their phones.
“At 8:30 p.m., that can be good for Occoquan,” Mackenzi said. “But at 4:30 a.m., these kids should not be on the streets.”
McGuire, the town council member, acknowledged that this is all good for the town’s economy, as city leaders had been looking for ways to boost retail traffic. But the Pokémon crowds, he said, are too much for the town to handle. Trash and beer cans are often strewn across the sidewalks and residents’ stoops after seemingly raucous nights, and there are safety concerns.
“It’s a dual-edged sword for us. It gives us a lot more exposure; people are discussing the town for the first time,” McGuire said. “We were trying to get more people here, but this is just inundation, suddenly.”
Although Occoquan officials say that Pokémon Go has not yet resulted in any criminal incidents in town, the game has prompted serious safety concerns throughout the country. Armed-robbery suspects have been accused of targeting distracted Pokémon Go players. A man was arrested in late July in connection with Pokémon-related robberies at the University of Maryland’s campus in College Park. And this month, a 20-year-old man was fatally shot while playing the game at a tourist attraction along San Francisco’s waterfront.
Pokémon Go’s creator, Niantic, did not respond to requests for comment.
The late-night noise, haphazard driving, trash and general safety concerns have put people a bit on edge in Occoquan. The town employs just one police officer — Chief Sheldon Levi — who has publicly discussed needing more help to ensure that everyone is safe and quiet.
“Pokémon phenomenon. While it is a royal pain, it is certainly upon us,” Levi said at a recent town council meeting, during which residents complained about the disturbance. Levi said he secured the services of a Prince William County police officer to patrol the town every other night until Aug. 21, from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., an unusual move for a town that sees little to no crime.
“Are we paying any extra for this?” a council member asked the chief.
“Oh, yes,” Levi responded, noting that the town is outlaying $40 an hour for the beefed-up police presence, using a state public safety grant it receives each year.
Sometimes Occoquan locals can be spotted at night making their way through the town’s small green spaces and along the boardwalk trying to make sense of it all. One resident described with wonder how on a recent evening she saw an osprey catching a fish, then marveled at its grace as it made a high-pitched whistle and fed the fish to its offspring. But that wasn’t what amazed her: The woman was surrounded by about 70 people playing Pokémon Go, and no one looked up.
Residents are hoping this craze slows down once schools open in Virginia after Labor Day, but there’s no way of knowing when they’ll be able to reclaim Occoquan.
“We have a real problem down here at night, and it’s becoming out of hand. It’s totally gotten out of control,” resident Nancy Farmer said at the town council meeting. “It makes living here horrible.”