The families of 3 British teenagers are waiting to learn the fate of their sons following a clandestine smartphone operation in rebel-held Aleppo, Syria. After an online tip-off related to new mobile app Pokémon Go, A-Level students James Williams, Neil Tansley and Ben Thomas immediately booked flights to Damascus, in their quest to capture a series character known as Pikachu. The internet trail initially led authorities to believe that the trio had been radicalised. Friends and family, however, assured police detectives that a location-based augmented reality game was much closer to their hearts than any credible jihadist motives.
Mobile game developer, Niantic, has been rightly criticised for using conflict zones as locations to to capture, train and battle virtual characters known as Pokémon. Other internationally reported incidents include a German student reaching level 5 in South Sudan, and a group of young Spanish men launching virtual Poké balls across the Indo-Pakistani border in Kashmir. There are also unconfirmed rumours of an American teen caught up in the Yemeni civil war; Nick Otis from Arizona had allegedly used his remaining stardust and candles to raise ‘combat power’ in supporting the Shia-led Houthis.
Back in the UK during an afternoon press conference, the mother of Ben Thomas tearfully read out the final text message from her son:
“Made friends with Kurdish militant group. Russian bombs making gameplay difficult. Islamic State trying to ban avatars. Smartphone scratched but not damaged & due for upgrade soon anyway. James and Neil also still in game and phones ok. They say hi. Hostel blown up so sleeping in rebel tank. Will not give up on finding Pikachu. Love you Mum x PS pls ask Dad to series-link MOTD if not back b4.”