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Pokemon Go manages to disguise exercise as play in ways that may make us healthier physically and emotionally

When my girls were small, I never worried about them getting enough exercise.

In fact, it was all I could do to keep up with them.

But as childhood transformed into teenage angst, their interest gravitated to books, computers, television and cellphones, and I was forced to new levels of creativity in attempts to disguise exercise as play.

That challenge just got easier for parents everywhere with the release of Pokemon Go. Pokemon was introduced to the world through two video games for Nintendo’s Game Boy in 1995. My children were swept up by the craze in about 2000, and became fans of the cartoon, trading cards and the video game. I even suffered through “Pokemon the movie” a heavy-handed attempt to discuss equality using cartoon pocket monsters.

So when my 17-year-old asked if she could play Pokemon Go with friends last Thursday night, I assumed she was going to a friend’s house to play a video game.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

And just a few days later, I’m completely fascinated with how the evolution of this ’90s video game is impacting people physically, socially and emotionally.

The game is actually an app one downloads onto a phone. It’s an augmented reality game, which means the Pokemon creatures you need appear on the screen of your phone thanks to cameras and GPS as you wander through the real world.

“It’s a little bit of nostalgia for a lot of people,” said Dan Stephens, 30, who I found playing the game outside a Sinclair gas station Sunday morning. “You’re playing the game, trying to catch all the (Pokemon), but you’re actually outside. It feels more real. It’s just fun. I’ve been meeting a lot of people. Last night I was at Liberty Park and there were maybe 40 or 50 people gathered on the island in the middle of the duck pond playing on a lure, just talking. We’re all talking about how we feel a little silly, but it’s so much fun we don’t care.”

Several aspects of playing Pokemon Go are intriguing. First, it gets people moving.

I’m not sure if it was intentional or simply an unintended benefit, but the game could be the most ingenious way to convince people to exercise — ever.

Here’s how the game has lured even the most sedentary gamers out of their basements and into streets, parks and even mountain trails. Players can pick up eggs at pokestops — which happen to be almost everywhere, including most churches, Salt Lake City Hall, Library Square and Matheson Courthouse — and then the game tells the player how far he or she has to travel to hatch the egg (revealing a Pokemon creature). The app won’t give them credit for miles covered faster than 20 mph, and it rewards them with virtual medals for mileage.

“It’s Japan’s way to combat American obesity,” said Doug Borup, 26, who was battling to keep possession of the Sinclair station, which shows up in the game as a gym where Pokemon go to get stronger. “Either way, I’d be playing something. So playing it and walking around is better.”

Enticing players to exercise was the first thing I noticed as I followed my girls around Friday night. While my oldest is a runner, my youngest has skillfully avoided the sport I love no matter how I’ve tried to disguise it, including mud runs, color runs and good, old-fashioned bribery.

And yet, here she was running, about three miles in total, to catch imaginary creatures.

“I’ve walked about five miles every day,” said Ignacio Caniza, 26, Salt Lake City. “I was at Temple Square at 2 a.m. and there were about 40 people there.”

The Salt Lake Temple, by the way, is also a gym, as is the West Valley Home Depot, a Taylorsville waffle house, and a number of other unsuspecting businesses.

The second aspect of the game that intrigued me is the way it encourages social interaction. While we walked through Liberty Park, Brian Burrington, 46, and his wife, Diana Khaksar, 32, yelled a hello as they jogged around the park’s perimeter trying to hatch eggs.

“I don’t know anything about Pokemon,” Burrington said laughing. “I’m too old; I never played any of the games, but I do like mobile games a little bit. I’m really enamored with this idea of getting out in the world to play this game.”

Khaksar said she doesn’t like games and only downloaded it after she noticed it incorporated running, a sport she enjoys.

“I kind of dragged her into it,” Burrington said, adding that it’s been a great way for the Kansas City natives to explore their new hometown of Salt Lake City. “I like the social aspect even more than the fitness.”

Julius Gardner, 11, said he’s gone "jogging" three times since the game was released on Wednesday, July 6.

“I like that it’s real world,” Julius said. “You can exercise instead of sitting at home.” And that, he admits, is not something he even wanted to do before he started playing the game three days ago.

As we walked through a Taylorsville neighborhood, we passed a father with three young children, several couples and a carload of teenagers. And creating a game that encourages real-world fitness and more social interaction might be the real genius of creator Nitanic.

“I think it’s fascinating and amazing,” said Caniza. “When I see a dad playing with his kids, I think that’s exactly what (the creators) wanted.”

Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: adonsports