They stroll, tentatively, staring at their smartphones like handheld radar screens.

They stop, randomly, when they reach their targets.

And they gather, smilingly, to parade their catches and plot their next.

They're playing "Pokemon Go." And they're doing it in Cayuga County, too.

Like every American city, Auburn has become the stalking grounds for a virtual monster hunt ever since the augmented reality mobile game was released July 6.

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'Pokemon Go'

A Pidgey appears on the State Street Mall in Auburn.

The game uses a phone's GPS technology to place Nintendo's colorful "pocket monster" characters on the player's map, such that when they're near a Pokemon, they can see it transposed over their surroundings through the device's camera lens. The player, or Pokemon trainer, then swipes the touch screen to trap the monster inside a Poke Ball.

Catching more Pokemon and reaching real-life landmarks, called PokeStops, lets players access stronger and rarer versions of the critters, which they can pit against other players' in another set of landmarks called gyms.

"Pokemon Go's" popularity has been record-breaking: It's the fastest mobile game to pass 10 million downloads (in seven days), and its success led owner Nintendo to set a single-day trading record on the Japanese stock market (476 billion yen). It's also been estimated that the game, which is free to play but sells an in-game currency, generated $14 million in sales in its first week.

In Auburn and the Cayuga County area, the game's popularity translates to more than 700 Facebook likes already for the week-old Pokemon Go CNY group. Mark Morabito, the group's organizer, said its Facebook page has been growing by about 100 likes a day.

Morabito, 33, of Auburn, formed the group to facilitate communication between local "Pokemon Go" players, arrange meet-ups and map the area's PokeStops and gyms. The group's website, pokemongocny.com, features a Google map to which anyone can add the landmarks. Morabito pinned as many as he could find in Auburn, but the map covers the whole central New York area.

Morabito said he was too old to play Pokemon when the franchise first launched on Nintendo's Game Boy handheld in 1995, but his younger friends hooked him.

"It's a great way to hang out with your friends," he said. The (Market Street Park) pavilion is a big hot spot. There are dozens of people there every night, and if something pops up, someone will say where it is."

"Pokemon Go" is also a shared interest between player Samantha Penird, 26, of Auburn, and her 5-year-old daughter. While Penird drives, she said, her daughter will catch the monsters on mom's smartphone from the backseat.

"She gets to have fun, and I get the Pokemon," Penird said.

Last week, Penird said, the game coaxed a 3 km walk around Union Springs with her little brother, who also plays it. Though less dense with PokeStops and gyms than Auburn, the lakeside village does have a few of its own.

Penird said that as she drove back to Auburn, the game even led her to visit deceased relatives in St. Joseph Cemetery. Getting gas at the nearby Sunoco station, she noticed that the cemetery is the site of a PokeStop. There, she saw three children, about 10, and three teens playing the game near a monument.

Though its overnight smash success and technological novelty may suggest "Pokemon Go" will become a fad, both Morabito and Penird believe the game will stick around a while. 

"I know there has been a lot of controversy" Penird said, mentioning the July 13 car accident in Auburn caused by a driver distracted by the game. "But as long as people play responsibly, I think it will last a long time."

Penird also noted another early problem with the game: PokeStop sites drawing unwanted attention from players. The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., for instance, made headlines when it pleaded with players to stop hunting Pokemon on the hallowed grounds. The game's developer, Niantic, has since made available a support page where sites can request to be de-listed as PokeStops.

In Auburn, however, a few businesses have embraced the traffic from Pokemon trainers. The Auburn Ale House at 288 Genesee St. contains a PokeStop in the form of a Jerry Rice 49ers jersey hanging above the bar, which owner Bob Harvey said has drawn about eight to 10 people there a night. The bar's even working on a vodka-based Pokemon Punch, as well as a virgin version.

At 100 Genesee St., Mesa Grande Taqueria isn't itself a PokeStop, but the restaurant has nonetheless been offering 10 percent off orders to customers who show staff their nearby catches. Assistant Manager Collin Henderson, who thought of the promotion, said about eight to 10 players cash it in daily.

The restaurant's Auburn, Camillus and Perinton locations will likely hatch more "Pokemon Go" deals, Henderson said, as the game maintains its grip on the imaginations of millions.

"Everyone's been really happy. We've seen kids get deals for their families, middle-aged people coming in," he said. "We saw all the people walking by playing the game, and we wanted to tap into that."


Pokemon Go CNY's map of PokeStops and gyms in the Cayuga County area:

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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Features editor for The Citizen.