Pokémon Go Teams as Imagined Communities
Tea: Chocolate Ginger Tea
It is safe to say that Pokémon Go has changed the world at least for a short amount of time. When a not to be further specified presidential candidate has puns about the game forced into his (or should I say her) speech then it is to be assumed that the game has a wide enough reach and popularity to be weaponise properly. I, for one, am, of course, far more interested in the cultural aspect than any potential vote-increase I could hope to attain from a sentence like: “Pokémon Go to the polls.” When you stopped shivering from the immense wincing you are sure to have experience just now, you can now enjoy reading about the idea of Pokémon Go Teams as imagined communities as defined by Benedict Anderson.
Anderson’s idea was actually in response to the very elusive idea of what a nation is, what defines it, and what brings people to sacrificing themselves for it. So a little introduction to his theory: Anderson defined nations, as the title would suggest, as imagined communities. They are not false communities, as this would theoretically suggest that something like a “true community” can exist, which is entirely impossible in the eyes of Anderson, at least in this day and age. The ‘imagined’ quality also comes into play as every member feels connected to every other member, even though he will never and in all likelihood can never meet all of them. The image in the minds of the people is what counts and if they can imagine themselves to be connected and on some level familiar based solely on the fact that they share, for instance their hometown, then this suffices. ‘Community’ refers to a similar idea: All the members are comrades and actual class differences do not matter, since the overarching idea makes all even, “horizontal comradeship” as Anderson calls it. The imagined community must also be limited, in the nation example this would be done by the geographical or national border of a country, but as will be shown later, can also take various other forms. The important part is that there is a border, no matter the concrete manifestation. Something must exist to underline the basic ‘we’ and ‘them’ mentality. The last aspect is sovereignty. A nation, or rather the idea of it, was based on enlightenment thinking and not any divinely-ordained hierarchy. This idea by Anderson was used to explain the concept of a nation as a cultural artefact, but as we will see now, can be applied to many different cultural examples.
– Only scratching the surface of this theory, but a really interesting read if you are interested. –
Pokémon Go has the player pick one of three teams after he reaches level five. All three of them are represented by one of the legendary bird trio’s Pokémon. Team Valor is represented by Moltres, Team Mystic by Articuno, and Zapdos represents Team Instinct. These teams all have a primary colour attached to them that you can probably figure out yourself. Every gym you now conquer bears the colour of your team. You need only search the internet for all the funny, vile, and somewhat disturbing content connected with the Pokémon Teams. This ranges from the “obviously superior team and the obvious assholes”, to almost military-esque behaviour of certain sites organising gym conquering during the night. And this is all a lot of fun, especially to watch from the outside, but I still wondered what lies behind all this. There is no price to gain from being in the leading team, at least not right now, and there is no telling whether your teammates will get up at 3 am just like you.
– The three Pokémon Go Teams, their logos, primary colours, and respective team leaders. –
Here Anderson’s theory strikes. We will now go through all the criteria mentioned above and see whether they are applicable to this case and perhaps we can thus dissect why people are willing to die for their team, I mean get no rest for their team. The first aspect of ‘imagined’ is fairly simple: There are no real teams, after all it is just a game. Members of a team can never, and this is a real ‘never’, meet every single member of their team, since this is a global game and furthermore there is no way of even telling who is a player and which team he/she belongs to when passing each other on the street. Yet, one can see the gyms conquered by others around oneself. Therefore knowing that these mysterious other members do indeed exist and that they are working on strengthening the influence of their team. Which leads directly into the ‘community’ aspect, and this holds true as well. Pokémon does not differentiate according to class, the entry fee is low, a smartphone is all that is required an after that everyone is basically the same. Only your achievements count now and what you are willing to do for the team. Furthermore, you profit from your team holding gyms if you are part of it, as you gain currency in specific time intervals. A business man on the bus is just as much a part of Team Valor as the schoolgirl and the trailer for the game even hints at this “horizontal comradeship”.
– Capturing a gym and a gym by an opposing team. All of this is visible to every player, of course. –
Are the Pokémon Teams also limited? Hell, yes! You have rarely seen something that has such clearly defined boarders. All the “this team is obviously trash” only strengthens these tendencies. The fact that once you join a team you cannot change your pick also reinforces this. Pokémon Teams are like the Night’s Watch: commitment for life! The choice thus bears a certain weight and as a consequence no one wants to be forever stuck with the “wrong” pick and is thus more likely to go to some lengths to go out and work for his/her team. This in return also strengthens the community aspect again, as all of the team members have made the same lasting choice. At the back of all of this, is a competitive idea: All these teams are fighting and it is therefore also very clear who the “enemy” is and who the ones you are fighting for should be.
– Talking trash about the other teams is probably one of the most important aspects. –
The last aspect is a tricky one: Are Pokémon Teams sovereign? Not really. They are not nations after all. But as it so happens, there are other aspects for cultural formations that define imagined communities, namely a shared practice. This is what turns soccer fans during the world cup into an imagined community, since they all watch and cheer for their favourites. The common practice of Pokémon Go is of course the catching of the titular pocket monsters. And through this we can add another criteria ticked off the list to underline Pokémon Go Team’s status as an imagined community. In fact, nearly all of them apply.
Every single team thus marks its own imagined community and all of that through very strategic choices, like the pick of the team being permanent. This furthers the emotional engagement people will experience with the game, especially since they are all falling victim to the imagined character of their teams. Every funny little comic pitting the teams against one another helps this one way or the other. By the end of it, the allegiance to one’s team is strong and knowing that your fellow brethren are out there at night capturing gyms, you must do your duty and go to war (in gyms only, of course). Like the soldier in combat the player is willing to make sacrifices for the greater idea that is the nation/the team. He will fight, kill, and die all for the nation or more light-heartedly: Capture, conquer, and get a nasty talk about work duties from his boss.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Verso,  2006: 1-7.
Image sources in order of appearance:
- https://criticalteatime.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/0de5c-anderson252c2bb-2bimagined2bcomunities252c2bverson2b2006c.jpg (Last date of access: 08.08.2016)
- https://cdn1.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/6GYWjl4bX7taK0OveEaDrYsYjK0=/cdn0.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/6835565/slack-imgs.com.0.jpeg (Last date of access: 08.08.2016)
- http://phandroid.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/pokemon-go-gyms.png (Last date of access: 08.08.2016)
- http://images.britcdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/teams-pokemon-go.gif (Last date of access: 08.08.2016)