The new obsession with Pokemon Go is not only conquering the world of gaming and international pop culture — in Israel, it has essentially joined the military.
The app allows users to catch the creatures from Nintendo’s Pokemon franchise, making them appear on smartphone screens as if they were actually surrounding the player. Millions have downloaded the game since its launch a week ago, and Israel has not escaped the craze.
Staffed by enlisted soldiers still in their teens, the Israel Defense Forces has embraced the game with enthusiasm, with its social media demonstrating the excitement and widespread use. On the Israeli Navy’s Facebook account, soldiers on ships boasted jokingly about hunting for Pokemon creatures in the middle of the Mediterranean.
“There are some Pokemon that only we can get to #gottacatchemall,” reads this post.
The Home Front Command, responsible for preparing and protecting Israeli civilians in case of attacks, decided to harness the craze to the cause of preparedness. The unit turned to Facebook and Twitter to ask Israelis to send in photos of Poke-creatures located in home bomb shelters in order to raise civil defense awareness and ensure citizens know where the closest protected space is.
“Have you found Pokemon in your shelter?” the post asks. “If you are playing Go, send us a screenshot of the creature in your protected space.”
One IDF soldier took his Pokemon-hunting mission seriously enough to add the game’s logo to his military insignia.
Another staged a video “ambush” of a soldier excitedly chasing a “Pikachu.”
It comes as little surprise that Israelis have embraced Pokemon Go with such a vengeance. The country has one of the highest percentages of smartphone ownership in the world. The fact that the game has technically only been released in the US, Australia, and New Zealand and is not available on the Israeli app stores has not proven to be an obstacle, with locals changing their phone’s region to download the game onto their smartphones and finding it fully operational in Israel. A Hebrew-language Facebook page devoted to the game has garnered 3,500 members.
Everywhere from local parks to the Tel Aviv University campus, young Israelis on summer vacation have been roaming around looking for virtual creatures through the augmented reality game. A late-night stroll by this reporter in a suburban Tel Aviv park found rapt players glued to their phones interspersed with joggers and large Arab and ultra-Orthodox families picnicking in the dark, as the daytime heat had been too intense.
With typical Middle East black humor, the craze has even been jokingly incorporated into news stories. When the headline circulated on Tuesday that an Israeli Bedouin had jumped the border fence and entered the Gaza Strip, there was tongue-in-cheek speculation that perhaps he had done so while chasing an elusive Pokemon creature.
Naturally, the story that broke the same day from the United States that the Holocaust Museum in Washington had to issue a reprimand that Pokemon hunting on its premises was inappropriate drew great interest and coverage in Israel as well. There have not yet been reports, however, that similar measures were necessary at Yad Vashem.
On Wednesday, even the country's president, Reuven Rivlin, jumped on the Pokemon train, posting a photo of a Pokemon cat creature in his residence and suggesting that someone should probably alert his security detail.
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