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Welcome to the Apocalypse, Brought to You by Pokémon Go

July 14, 2016, 12:30 PM UTC
Pokemon Go Injuries
Pokemon Go is displayed on a cell phone in Los Angeles on Friday, July 8, 2016. Just days after being made available in the U.S., the mobile game Pokemon Go has jumped to become the top-grossing app in the App Store. And players have reported wiping out in a variety of ways as they wander the real world, eyes glued to their smartphone screens, in search of digital monsters. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
Photograph by Richard Vogel—AP

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Rarely have we seen a digital obsession take hold of millions of people so completely—and so rapidly—as we have with Pokémon Go, the “augmented reality” app that only came out a week ago, and has now eclipsed Twitter (TWTR), Instagram, and even Facebook (FB) in the amount of time users are spending with it.

Not since the days of Farmville and Angry Birds has such a massive flash crowd formed so quickly around a game. But Pokémon Go is significantly different from those other obsessions.

The difference, of course, is that this game isn’t played by moms and kids on their phones, sitting at home anonymously in their living rooms or in their cars. It’s played by people you can see, stumbling around Central Park and their neighbor’s back yard and other unlikely places, looking for virtual characters to add to their collections.

Already, officials from both the Holocaust Museum and the Arlington National Cemetery have appealed to players to respect the solemnity of their institutions by not running around in them trying to catch virtual monsters with their phones. Whether that will stop anyone remains to be seen.

There have been reports of violence involving Pokémon players, although some of that is fictitious. At least one man was injured when he smashed into an illegally parked car that a player had abandoned. Police have felt it necessary to warn drivers not to play the game while they are behind the wheel.

Reading all these news stories, it feels as though it’s just a matter of time before one player shoots another for stealing their Charmander or for beating them in one of the head-to-head combat features. The game has already been involved in several robberies.

As apocalyptic as things might feel right now, however, entertaining obsessions like Pokémon Go have a tendency to burn very brightly and then subside. For the moment the game seems like the most important thing in the world, but other priorities will almost certainly come to the fore in time—perhaps even other augmented reality games. Does anyone remember Farmville?

In the meantime, it’s a fairly delicious irony that a twist on a 20-year-old game is responsible for getting tens of thousands or even millions of people to leave their computers and homes and wander around in the actual world, even if some of them are behaving like idiots. Thanks, Pokémon!