Pokémon GO, nerds, and social standards

In this article, Robyn Vinter talks about her experiences with the game. She’s getting bothered by strange men (in particular, socially inept ones) trying to use the game as a conversation-starter.

You might have already read her article. If so, you might be aware of the fuss it’s provoked. Offense was taken. Vinter was inundated with hundreds of replies on Twitter. Her account was even suspended.

Given this context, my motives in writing this are inevitably under immediate scrutiny. Who am I and which side am I on? Have I come into this fray to defend this writer or join in attacking her?

Neither. Or perhaps both!

Here’s my angle of approach. I’m interested in the problems with social interaction in augmented reality. The debate around this article, being situated largely on Twitter and soaked with hostility, is at a low level of quality. Here goes my attempt to raise it.

I learned of the existence of the article via this tweet:


Here, mombot suggests for self-identified nerds to exercise their right of reply to the article, directing them to the publisher’s email address. (Certainly a better place for argumentative responses than Twitter.) Particular attention is drawn to the last paragraph:

What happened to the good old days, when gamers stayed firmly indoors with no need to venture outside and nerds feared social interaction?


This was taken as a nasty insult. That’s what it looks like, from a plain reading of the text. This is what many replies focussed on, reading the article as expressing a disdain-for-plebs attitude of intolerance (see that thread after mombot’s tweet, and also here).

Vinter says it was a joke. What happens when we read it as a non-serious, humorous remark? She doesn’t really want gamers to be recluses—she’s a gamer herself. So it was meant as a self-deprecating comment.

Why wasn’t this obvious? Why did we interpret it as a mean-spirited attack from a hostile outsider?

One might suggest that elements of gaming subcultures have been primed for defensiveness. Tracing the roots of this attitude, and determining whether to characterise it as a justified wariness or an irrational paranoia… all super interesting questions… all beyond the scope of this little essay. We’ll return to it another time.

Documenting and analysing e-drama is a fun activity in its own right, but it’s really not my intended focus for this article.

Let’s actually talk about the social aspects of Pokémon GO.

Just as with its predecessor game Ingress, meeting fellow players in real-world locations is the intended consequence of the game’s networked geo-spatial mechanics. So, it’s natural that players in a certain area will meet, perhaps regularly, and start to talk with each other. There can be strategic advantages to doing so, e.g. to share tips. And the game includes (or will later include) specific group battle events—the announcement trailer showed dozens of players congregating in Times Square to collectively fight Mewtwo.

But this social aspect is optional. Perhaps Vinter would like to opt out.

[…] I’d go as far as saying the risk of actually coming across other players is the No 1 thing putting me off playing the game.

So that’s that. I haven’t started playing the game yet. When I do, and if I happen to spot her at a Pokéstop, I won’t start chatting with her.

But wait, this was probably meant as hyperbole. Here’s a tweet where she mentions non-horrible interactions with fellow Pokémon trainers:

Great! If I see her at a Pokéstop, I’ll ask her what she thinks of this article.

It’s going to get better, and it’s going to get worse.

We can appreciate and celebrate the social aspects of this interesting new form of gaming without accepting the idea that social interaction is an unqualified good thing. No doubt, good things will come out of it. Soon enough I bet we’re going to see news articles about people getting married after having first met as players of the game.

More players are going to get involved, so the frequency of Pokémon-mediated social interactions will increase. There will be more ham-fisted chat-up attempts. Some people with questionable social skills will be encouraged to get out and explore their neighbourhoods. Numerous reports describe young people with autism spectrum disorders, usually averse to outdoor activities, getting out there to catch Pokemon. Here’s one, and here’s some analysis.

The point isn’t to bully and shame anyone out of participating, it’s about upholding standards of decorum. Writing op-eds about anonymous bad Pokémon GO encounters seems like a fine tactic for achieving this. Sadly, in this instance, it provoked a backlash focussed around tangential issues, coloured by pre-existing grudges among subcultures.

Flirting is territory fraught with pitfalls. Criticising unwanted, intrusive, and inept flirting attempts from strangers is useful and necessary. Niggas need to learn there’s rules to this shit.

Social gaming stuff to consider

  • Does the game need an explicit code of conduct (i.e. universally understood rules, not buried in the terms of service)?
  • Would changes to rules of the game effectively incentivise desirable social behaviour among players, and discourage bad stuff?
  • Will large numbers of players of alternate reality games change standards of public decorum?
  • In good or bad ways? Do we want to prevent or encourage this?
  • Are PUAs selling PDF books teaching tactics for meeting women using Pokémon GO? Cause they will be!

Why aren’t I playing it? My phone’s not compatible.

This article is a follow-up to my Pokemon-related notes and links gathered here: http://game.mentalconflux.com/2016/07/15/pokemon-go-pokemon-video-games/