It’s 1 in the morning when I check my phone, heart already starting to sink. A quick glance at my Pokémon roster confirms my fears: My Pidgeot is back, which mean he’s been kicked out of the gym in the church parking lot across the street. Those bastards on Team Mystic have struck again.
“We lost the gym,” I yell across the apartment, to where my girlfriend sits, sweeping up a few stray Rattatas and Pidgeys like so many loose weeds. “I know,” she says back, not looking up as she flicks a Pokéball at a Zubat or whatever it is that’s wandered into our home. “You want to go and get it back?”
It’s a joke—again, it’s 1 in the morning, and we’re both grown-ups, in our 30s—but it’s not entirely a joke. We’d worked hard to take that gym—teaming up to beat the same over-powered Vaporeons and Ponytas that seem to sit at the top of every Pokémon hub in our small Oregon town—and it tickles my pride to let some snot-nosed teens in blue or yellow take our spot.
My Pokémon Go enemies are always “teens” in my head, despite the fact that I, and everyone I know who plays the game, have been out of high school for at least five years. Since I started playing the game, I’ve begun glaring at the teenagers in my neighborhood in a very old man sort of way, not because I want them to get off my lawn, but because I’m worried that they’re wandering over, with their disposable income and hours of free time, to knock down the meager progress I make in between writing articles for work.
It would be all right if these smartphone-wielding youths were flying the red flag of Team Valor (even if I’d still have to admit a little envy at their high-level lightning rats and muscle-bound rhinoceros monsters). But they’re invariably wearing the yellow of Instinct or—shudder—the blue of Mystic, which means they’re automatically my hated foes. In Pokémon Go, you pick your team at level 5, and it’s as arbitrary—and as absolutely important—a choice as “red,” “yellow,” or “blue.”
The team division is one of Pokémon Go’s smartest decisions, forcing every player to accept the vital distinction between “us” and “them.” There are mechanical benefits to holding gyms—rare access to the game’s free-to-play currency (called, of course, the Pokécoin)—which means a powerful player on another team can be an active hindrance to your economic goals. It’s the exact opposite of all the charming social interactions you keep reading about in articles about the game, with people flash-mobbing Central Park to hunt for rare monsters, or exchanging solemn Pokénods with their fellow trainers on the street. I’d had those moments too, earlier on in my time with the game, but they’d now been replaced by wary suspicion. “Is this the guy who knocked out my Raticate yesterday?” I wonder, when some dude with a phone in his hand looks up to share a smile. “What’s he catching now?” All the trust, the warm camaraderie, is gone, leaving in its place only the desire to keep playing, and overcome this smiling, nodding bastard with some super-powerful monsters of my own.
I am not good at joining teams. When I’m feeling self-aggrandizing, I’ll try blame that reluctance on early exposure to horror stories about conformity, like Stanley Milgram’s electric shocks, or Jane Elliott’s blue eye/brown eye experiment. More often, I’ll just admit to being an overly analytical contrarian who’s not good at playing well with others. Either way, I’m a slow and reluctant joiner. And yet, I find myself getting actually—if minimally—mad that not all my friends have signed on to Team Valor, or that they’re jokingly saying Mystic or Instinct are better. A friend of mine told me he and his wife were on different teams, and it left me feeling baffled. How can they choose not be an “us” together? How can they be an “us” and a “them”?
It’s the day after we lost the church gym, and my girlfriend and I—both Team Valor, of course—are driving around, hunting PokéStops to replenish our supplies. (Despite my worries about what the game says about the xenophobic, poorly evolved beast lurking in the human heart, I’m in love with the way Pokémon Go incentivizes people to explore their local environments. Even if it does occasionally go somewhat wrong.) On our way home, we stop at a gym in a gas station parking lot, idling the engine (sorry, environment) and battling it out. One of the neat things about Pokémon Go is that, when you’re fighting a gym battle, other trainers on your team can join your fight. So when we see a third person jump into our current fray, we quickly look around and lock eyes with a guy in another car, doing the exact same thing that we are. In the rush of victory, it is both awkward, and a little thrilling. We enjoy this newfound bond for about 20 seconds, and then quickly drive away.
Later, we’re back at the church, the closest gym to our house, which has once again been colored a hateful blue. As we fight it out, the guy—who’s apparently just out patrolling today, like any good Valor player should—pulls up near us. We take down the gym, although not without some losses. (Goddamn CP 1200 Vaporeons are burning through my entire stock of Revives.) But as my girlfriend and I celebrate (and try to avoid eye contact with our new friend), I see six or seven people swarm into the church parking lot, smartphones in hand. “Teens,” I think, and my fight-or-flight instinct kicks in. For a moment, I think about buckling down to hold the gym in a war of attrition, my girlfriend at my side, my new wingman in his Subaru. Then the adrenaline drains away as I look down at the colorful, kid-friendly monsters in my hand. “Oh,” I say to my girlfriend as we drive away, leaving our turf to the more-evolved horde. “I guess we’re in a gang now.” It’s a joke. But it’s not entirely a joke.