Unless you are as blinkered as a Pokémon trainer by their phone screen, you won’t have missed the sensation caused by Niantic’s new augmented reality mobile game. Pokémon Go has already incited all kinds of amazing things – from trolling Westboro Baptist Church to getting fit, finding dates, and even nabbing a murder suspect. But built into the game design is the potential for large-scale gang conflict, and this is one time where thousands of people playing in the real world could make things much worse.
In Pokémon Go, there is a turning point that happens once you reach level five. Though for the casual player, who has maybe flung a few Pokéballs at the Pidgey in their bedroom before going back to Candy Crush, this won’t be apparent. Even more engaged players might not recognise that they will be faced with a game-altering choice.
As in almost all Pokémon franchise games, you’re required to pick an initial creature to accompany you at the start. Traditionally, choosing your starter ‘mon had about as much importance and power as if you were able to choose your star sign – and the same kind of actual impact during gameplay. This is even more so the case in Go, where levelling-up has completely changed and geographic accessibility means many players have no choice but to leave their starter behind in favour of more plentiful ‘mons.
So instead, the choice that truly matters, and the only way to distinguish yourself and gain glory in the Pokémon world, is when you’re asked to pick one of three teams at level five. And you’d best choose wisely.
Current online gossip suggests there is no practical influence your team colour has on gameplay, though the same could be said about what football team you barrack for having no effect on your enjoyment of the sport. So naturally, mob mentality and team culture in Pokémon Go has already started drawing invisible lines in the sand – preparing for battle.
All teams being equal, there is no reason for one to be the baddies. In other games where it’s good versus evil – such as teams ‘Paragon’ versus ‘Renegade’ in Mass Effect, or ‘Alliance’ versus ‘Horde’ in World of Warcraft – allegiances are pretty clear. Player avatars will give you a hint, if their evil deeds aren’t evidence enough. It’s much simpler in Pokémon Go, where the choices basically come down to primary colours – Red (Team Valor), Blue (Team Mystic) or Yellow (Team Instinct). For many people it was just a case of picking their favourite hue.
My decision to join the Blues was based on what teams my friends were in. Infuriatingly, I soon found the Reds occupying all my local ‘gyms’, with Pokémon at least six levels above me. Perhaps because of this, the Reds also seem the cockiest, at least online, and usually the ones tagging or trespassing on private property. Us Blues, as the largest faction, act in turns pretentious and paternal. Meanwhile the Yellows, to steal a completely different pop-culture team conflict, are basically the Hufflepuffs of the Go world. It seems that, without any clear reasoning behind it, a game that has over ten million different players has organically evolved with relatively clear team identities.
Gaming can be taken very seriously, and it’s no different for Go, where trainers have played during pregnancies and after being stabbed. I haven’t battled many gyms, though the tension of watching my beloved pets fight to the death would be stressful enough without money, fame and gang credibility on the line. While current tensions between factions are limited mostly to meme-based trash talk, there are already team badges, graphics, slogans – everything except a uniform, and that’s only because the game’s audience seems more predisposed to web design than needlework.
My worry is that while Pokémon Go rivalry remains mostly ‘friendly’, it would take just a single catalyst to start some gang warfare. There have already been arrests and threats of violence. When a Juggalo-looking sex-offender threatened to “purge” Go players, Reddit commenters living in his Texas area made it clear the violence could go both ways. “What he’s gonna do,” wrote user Hannyu, “is run across someone like me who conceal carries while out playing this game with my family and he’s going to get killed.”
Even if the violence doesn’t come from outside the community, there are plenty of chances for tension between battling factions when regular CBD evenings now look like this:
Any major event could cause panic and chaos, especially if it involved one of the never-before-seen legendary Pokémon on which each of the three factions are based.
Another augmented reality game from Niantic, Ingress, has organised citywide events where teams compete against each other. Combine these events with Pokemon faction passions and I suspect there will be more than just digital monsters roaming the streets.
And if you still think Pokemon-related bloodshed is unlikely, then just watch a player’s bile-filled rage when the servers go offline.
Rafael S. W. is a graduate of creative writing and one of the founding members of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He has been published in Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging and Dot Dot Dash. He also competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games.