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The Rise and Fall of a Community in "Pokémon GO"

I am an avid fan and player of Pokémon GO, and my son, daughter, and I really enjoy playing together and with friends in our area.

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Building Community in Pokémon GO

Pokémon GO is a wonderful game that was released on July 6, 2016. It started with many bumps and has struggled at times along the way, but overall, the game is a massive success and has attracted users from all walks of life.

Building a community in Pokémon GO is one of the most blessed things about the game. As you randomly walk around catching Pokémon, spinning stops, and participating in raids, you frequently connect and interact with other players who love the game and long for relationship.

Despite the fact that there are three factions in the game (Instinct, Valor, and Mythic), it is incredibly common for couples to be on opposing teams, for groups to have various members from all three teams, and for opposing team players to help other teams to defeat gyms. The community has truly broken barriers and created a real depth, and it is powerful how cultural, religious, and age barriers can all be taken down for the sake of joy and fun.

For my community here in Tokyo, Japan, it was no different. We randomly connected, we kept building, and the community truly became a refuge for many people.

Lonely people are able to join a family.

Busy people are able to turn off and just enjoy life.

Older people are able to spark a vigor that's been missing for a long time.

And children are able to have fun with so many people older than them and from so many different backgrounds.

An Example of Community Power

One of my favorite memories came when my friend Shu suddenly disappeared.

For context, Shu and I met randomly two years ago and immediately kicked it off. My son thinks the world of Shu, and seeing them interact melts my heart. He is such a wonderful young man, and he has such a bright future ahead of him.

But late 2018, he wasn't responding to my messages or anyone else's, and everyone in our community began overwhelming him with love and care. It took him a while to finally respond, but he was so overwhelmed by the love and support of our community that he ended up opening his heart and sharing the horrible things he has been going through; financial problems, family health issues, and needing to postpone his education.

From that point, the community came to work. We were able to lift him to his feet, and we were able to help him get back on his graduate program. To this day, he is one of my best friends, and I am forever in debt to the day we first connected, and it brings such joy to me seeing others love him as I do.

This is truly what a community should be like.

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Destroying Community in Pokémon GO

And as quickly as a house can be built, so too can it be quickly torn down. The concept of community is no different, even in a Pokémon GO one.

In early June 2019, something happened in our Pokémon GO Community LINE group. One member spoke about the frequent adding of new members, pointing out three in particular and how he was concerned about this. Two new members he seemingly had respect for, and one new member that he blatantly insulted, my friend Ayano. Many of us were confused and just didn't respond.

Minutes later, another member seconded all the things the prior member had said, including taking her own personal jab at Ayano. At this point, I started privately messaging my friends in the group trying to figure out what in the world was going on, including calling Ayano to make sure she was okay.

Minutes later, a third member said nearly the same thing and laid the thicket insult yet, completely destroying Ayano's character and claiming she was disrespectful, rude, and a horrible human being. At this point, I was furious. What in the world just happened, and why are they picking on my friend? Ayano is just a young woman who enjoys Pokémon GO. Why the sudden barrage of insults?

Bullying in Japan

This is how bullying culture works in Japan. One of our oldest members, whom I created the LINE group with and the person who introduced me to Ayano in the first place, began feuding with Ayano over one of the silliest things I have ever heard; Ayano didn't send her in-game gifts for a week in November, 2018.

Yes. You read that correctly.

Ayano had upcoming exams at that time, so she didn't play Pokémon GO for that entire week, which means she didn't send anyone in our group in-game gifts. However, this one member, let's call her Early Grey, took genuine offense that Ayano valued her education over playing a game, and she's been holding this grudge from that moment.

I have since learned that for six months, Earl Grey has been calculating a scheme to destroy Ayano's credibility in our community and attempt to bully her away. Earl Grey separated the community and began to feed little lies. She would reach out to different members individually and manipulate them and their thinking. She planted seeds of hate that caused a real riff in our group, and it all culminated in early June 2019.

Once the messages started coming, Earl Grey was nowhere to be found. She had done enough influencing over the months that she didn't even have to say a single word. She got roughly half of the group to vehemently turn against Ayano, and the other half of the group had no idea what was going on.

Ayano genuinely considered suicide because of this, and that doesn't just break my heart. It angers me in ways I can't even measure.

My friend Shu and I tried to reason with the group. We talked about how this strategy was bullying, we talked about Ayano and her feelings, we talked about the importance of a loving community, and we talked about the importance of forgiveness and grace. We were shut down at every corner, and our community, which had been around for over 2 years, officially split on June 6th, 2019. It was a difficult day for all of us, but it seemed like the only logical choice.

It seemed like the right choice.

It was the loving choice.

We prioritized Ayano's health and safety, and we prioritized love over hate.

Pokémon GO, like many things in life, can be an amazing vessel for community building and making friends. But that doesn't mean that it is invulnerable to toxic behavior and bullying tactics.

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How Do We Stop Bullying?

As a community, we still need to be aware of the potential toxic behavior that can linger. But what do we do?

  1. We need to truly learn how to be good to one another, how to cooperate, how to defend someone who is being picked on, and how to stand up for what is right and just.
  2. We need to recognize how complex social interactions can be and how certain actions can really affect others.
  3. We need to understand mental illness and how certain social queues can exacerbate individuals who suffer.

Some conflict is normal and just part of life, but it is important to learn how to distinguish between conflict and bullying. We can learn and grow from conflicts in our lives, but bullying? It has the potential to damage someone permanently, possibly even causing them to take their own life.

One would think that something like playing Pokémon GO would be free from such behavior, but in reality, bullying is happening all around us. We need to educate ourselves, learn to recognize it, call it out, and protect the victims.

As the great Edmund Burke once said:

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

For bullying to truly come to an end, we need to take a stand and do something, because nothing is unacceptable.

© 2019 Jason Reid Capp