On “Geek Spaces” and the Social Politics of Pokemon Go

Kenney Park, next to Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts, is a small but popular space containing a basketball court, a playground, an open plaza, a fountain that people can walk through on hot days, and – recently – four Pokéstops. This plus its proximity to other Pokéstops and gyms has made Kenney Park a popular location among players of the new augmented reality game Pokémon Go.  To the outside observer, this looks like oddly-clumped groups of people staring at their phones and occasionally spouting phrases like “one more Gastly and I can evolve a Gengar” while oblivious toddlers chase their grandparents through the water jets at the center of the plaza.

I want to stress that we – and I do mean we, as I myself have caught more Charmanders in Kenney Park than I have everywhere else combined – have never disrupted the activities of the people who visit these spaces for reasons other than Pokémon Go.  We are not loud, we are not unruly, and we aren’t in anyone’s way.  In every setting I’ve encountered while playing this  game, Pokémon Go players quietly coexist with non-players in these public spaces.

Yet our presence seems to have an effect on some people, and not in a good way.

One night as I was leaving Kenney Park (my battery was low and I needed to recharge), I passed a trio of white 20-somethings on the street corner across from the plaza.  One of them, the only woman, said: “I just feel really uncomfortable right now.” One of the others replied, “I just wanna go in there and knock everyone’s phones out of their hands.”

Had I been a braver person, I would have politely requested that this guy stop being a douche (or worse).  That, however, is not who I am.

One evening in Boston Public Garden,  a young woman and two people who were presumably her parents passed through another popular Pokémon Go spot.  I overheard her say, “Literally everyone here is playing Pokémon right now,” with the same tone and facial expression one would use to complain that no one in the house ever showers. She even held up her hands as if to ensure we kept our distance.

The man who could have been her father made eye-contact with me, so I smiled at him and nodded.  He looked away, uncomfortable, and I returned to my game.

It’s not just people loudly and pointedly voicing their discomfort with our presence.  I have, both individually and as part of a group, received taunts, jokes, and downright harassment by people who for some reason object to us playing Pokémon Go in public spaces.  Comments have ranged from passive aggressive and immature (“Did I run over a Pokémon?  GOOD!”- from a cyclist who looked old enough to be my father) to direct and downright abusive (“Hey ****s! Stop playing ****ing Pokémon Go!” – from a young man in the backseat of a passing car).

These incidents did not surprise me.  I have had geek interests since childhood and am well aware by now of the stigma around geek culture.  It has, however, surprised me to see that Pokémon Go players as a whole appear to be immune to these harassments when they occur. We exchange eye-rolls, laugh to each other, or often don’t react at all.

I once overheard a player describe an incident where a man attempted to throw water balloons at the players gathered in Kenney Park.  According to the story, he made multiple attempts, but the balloons kept hitting the curb instead of the crowd.  Eventually, one player shouted, “Try spinning them!” and every player in the plaza burst out laughing.

I wish I had been there.  Not only because then I could confirm that this incident actually happened, but because it would have been a joy to witness after years of being internally and externally shamed for having geek interests.

(Spinning the Pokéballs, for those who don’t know, is a technique that is used to try to capture Pokémon who are particularly powerful and/or difficult to catch.)

Plenty of people who enjoy Sci Fi, fantasy, or other so-called “geek genres” understand the experience of othering by people who do not share these interests.  We’ve been laughed at, ostracized, and/or openly shamed for years.  For me, high school and college was a slow discovery that other people shared my level of engagement in series such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, even cartoons and comic books.  It was a revelation; I didn’t need to hide who I was anymore because there were people just like me.  I could join geek communities and be proud of myself as a part of them.  This discovery literally changed my life.

Even so, geek culture has typically been relegated to niche spaces such as comic book stores, conventions, and of course the internet.  Geek spaces run wild on the web as fans from all over the world intensively discuss fictional characters and worlds, sharing their own artwork and writing with one another.  Still, these spaces have typically existed separately from the mainstream, and geek culture  has not been integrated into our society as a whole.  For example, it is common to see people in public spaces playing basketball, frisbee, or even baseball.  Less common: public Dungeons and Dragons tournaments.  Tabletop role-playing games are conducted in the back rooms at comic book stores or in players’ apartments.  We revel in who we are, possibly more than we ever have, but we continue to do so quietly, privately.

And then Pokémon Go happened.

Pokemon Go, by nature, directly contradicts the isolationism that has been intrinsic to geek culture for so long.  It forces players to walk around our neighborhoods, encourages us to gather in public places such as Kenney Park or Boston Public Garden. The aim is to get people active and exploring their spaces.  It has succeeded in this, of course, but it has also pushed parts of geek culture into spaces where we have not previously existed so openly. And that is making a lot of people uncomfortable.  We are not disruptive, but we are visible, and that appears to be too much for some people.

Many “non-geek” communities seem to view people with geek interests as being socially-awkward white men who live in our parents’ basements and have never had a girlfriend.  (For the record, as a white woman who does not live with her parents and DOES have a girlfriend, I see this reputation for what it is.) Pokémon Go is directly contradicting that stereotype.  We are all genders.  We are all ages.  We have a range of abilities, and we would have an even wider range if this game were created to be more accessible. We are straight, we are cis, and we are LGBTQIAP+.  We are black, white, Asian, Latinx, indigenous, and multi-racial.  We are single people, couples, families, and friends.  We are nearly everyone.  This diversity is obvious the first time you encounter a gathering of people playing Pokémon Go, and it’s beautiful.

The concept of a diverse group of people publicly enjoying a geek interest is apparently so threatening to the social order that some people – all of whom, as far as I’ve witnessed, have been white men – need to taunt and harass us as if we were all back in middle school.  The brilliant thing is, this time it’s not working.  We see these taunts for what they are and are unfazed.  Empowered by each other, we proudly exist in public spaces that belong to us as much as they belong to the people who neither know or care what a Voltorb is.  Because there are six billion people in this world and if coexistence wasn’t possible, humanity wouldn’t have lasted this long.

I recognize that I am drawing parallels with other marginalized groups, specifically pertaining to race, gender, gender identify, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, religion, and any number of other factors I may have missed. While I would never say that the experience of geek culture is proportional to what these groups have faced – in many cases these situations are literal matters of life and death – but the idea is similar. We have long accepted our marginalization and are now pushing for visibility and acceptance in public spaces, literally and metaphorically. This can feel threatening and upsetting to the people who have occupied those spaces for decades (centuries, even) and are suddenly feeling as though we are somehow infringing on their “rights.”  Hopefully this backlash will fade as these majority groups learn that we are not pushing them off the bench, merely compelling them to make room for us to sit there too.

So yes, I will continue to play my game based on an anime based on a manga based on a game.  I will pause in my attempts to catch that Fearow in order to smile at the small child chasing a butterfly in front of me.  I will carefully step around the water jets in order to access the Pokéstop at the back of the park. I will coexist with people outside of geek culture, proud to be who I am and like what I like. And that guy who believes I simply need to “get a boyfriend,” will someday, I hope, get over it.

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