One of the few things that brought me solace during this pandemic was the cell-phone based augmented reality game, Pokemon Go. I’ve never been all that much of a gamer, but something about the simplistic gameplay and rock-paper-scissors style type match-ups of the Pokemon franchise always spoke to me and made me feel calm. Add to that the “collector” nature, and it’s a game with a deep well of knowledge (and pocket monsters) to explore.
When the game first launched in 2016, I was one of the first to sign up for an account, and my account has been active ever since. Over the course of the last 4 years, the features that were added to the game created a variety of play experiences that made the game accessible to all kinds of players.
All kinds of players.
A few weeks ago, a group of bullies who had been tormenting me for months finally broke me. I quit playing the game for good.
Part of what makes the game function is “PokeCoins.” You can trade coins for a variety of in-game items which serve to make the game more fun, or at least make more options available to you. Some types of gameplay are only available through the use of PokeCoins, like Raid Passes, which cost 150 coins each. “Raids” are the only way to catch some of the game’s most exciting and rare pokemon, so if you’re a collector, getting your daily coins is a must. You are limited to earning 50 PokeCoins per day, so it takes 3 days to earn enough coins to buy a raid pass.
The only way to earn these coins (apart from spending actual cash money) is to have your pokemon guard “gyms.” The longer they stay in the gym, the more coins you receive. It breaks down to 1 coin per 10 minutes in a gym. To earn 50 coins, you have to have one or more of your pokemon guarding gyms for 8 hours and 20 minutes of a given day.
Thankfully, there are gyms everywhere, and the more pokemon you have guarding the gyms, the more likely you are to receive the maximum amount of coins. Unfortunately, coins are not given as your pokemon sits in the gym, but rather a single batch of coins are given once your pokemon has been kicked out of the gym by a player on another team.
If you’re unfamiliar with the game, one of the other key components is choosing your “team.” There are three teams, Instinct, Mystic, and Valor, which are yellow, blue, and red respectively. Playing with members of your own team will give you bonuses like extra pokeballs to catch pokemon, or bonus damage during raids. Only a player on a different team can kick your pokemon out of a gym, so the game is most fun for everyone when players on different teams can work together, timing out when to defeat gyms so that players on other teams can enjoy the game equally.
During the pandemic, since we were all quarantined, I pretty regularly saw the same players’ pokemon guarding gyms in my neighborhood. I developed a system where I would check to see how long a pokemon had been in the gym. If it was more than 8 hours and 20 minutes, I would battle the gym and put my own pokemon inside, ensuring that each player who had a pokemon in the gym would receive the full 50 coins for the day if they hadn’t already.
My general strategy to ensure that I would receive my coins was to take my dog for a walk just after midnight. I’d do a loop around the neighborhood and kick out any pokemon that had been guarding gyms from the day prior and had racked up the requisite time. Anyone who had pokemon in the gyms would wake up to see that they had already received their 50 daily coins. Over the course of the day, all of those gyms would eventually be emptied, and I, too, would receive my 50 coins.
Then along came LovelyP0pTart and AmShleep. They are both players on Team Instinct. And for some reason, they do NOT like ChloeJadeSkye.
Every time I put a pokemon into a gym in my neighborhood, it didn’t matter which gym, it didn’t matter what time of day, the pokemon would be kicked out and returned to me in exactly 10 minutes. When I opened my app in the morning, I would see that 6 or 7 of my pokemon had returned to me, and I had received either 6 or 7 coins, depending.
Every single time I checked the gym to see who had kicked me out and replaced my pokemon with their own, it was either LovelyP0pTart, AmShleep, or both of them together.
“Okay,” I thought. “Maybe they just want to have the early shift. I’ll wait and put my pokemon into the gym in the afternoon.” So I changed my whole routine. I stopped knocking pokemon out of gyms after midnight, and started doing it during the afternoon walk instead.
It was the exact same story. Within ten minutes, sometimes less, all of my pokemon would be removed. I would have received a maximum of 10 coins. If this pattern were to continue, it would take me over 2 weeks to get the coins necessary to battle in a raid.
I changed up my schedule again. Instead of going on my walk at midnight or noon, I would try to put my pokemon into the gyms around 3am.
I know what you might be thinking. “What are you doing playing a game on your phone at three in the morning? Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”
My sleep schedule has been a nightmare during this pandemic. I’m often up late stressing out, unable to quiet my mind, convinced that the world could come crashing down at any moment. When I am able to fall asleep, it’s never for very long, and it’s never very refreshing. These little moments of peace, walking around the neighborhood, playing a game, was some of the only relaxation and quiet that I had.
So, I put my pokemon into the gyms at 3am.
And the exact same thing happened. Either LovelyP0pTart or AmShleep would systematically trace my footsteps and knock each pokemon out of the gyms. Sometimes, they’d split up and walk in separate directions to cover more ground and kick my pokemon out even faster.
I was being targeted. These two players, whoever they were, were sitting on their phones and going out of their way to ensure that I couldn’t have any fun.
They’re probably just teenagers. They’re probably feeling just as angry and out of control about the pandemic and not being able to go to school and not being able to see their friends. They probably see this whole thing as “just a game,” and they enjoy the feeling of utter power they get from tormenting another player. I try not to take it personally.
But it’s hard. Because if they know when I’m putting my pokemon into the gyms, that means they’ve probably seen me. They probably know what my dog looks like. They’ve probably watched from inside the apartment complex we all live in together and tracked my movements and my schedule.
It’s made me increasingly distrustful of the people around me, and made me feel unsafe in my own neighborhood. They took a game that, for years, brought me nothing but joy, and turned it into a source of frustration and fear.
The makers of the game do not care about this, of course. I reached out to them on their twitter account and received no reply. I sent an email to Niantic. I let them know I was being bullied on their platform. And I received exactly nothing in response.
After deleting the app off my phone, I decided to do a little research and I found out that this isn’t an isolated incident. All around the world, players are teaming up and forming little “gangs” and specifically targeting players who play alone. In some cases, they’ve graffitti’d players’ homes or found players in parks and playgrounds and physically assaulted them.
The specific type of bullying I experienced is the most common, with teams setting “watch”, where each player in a small group will take a period of a few hours a day and keep watch on their gyms, ensuring that no player from any other team can ever get any coins.
These problems go deep, and Niantic has done exactly nothing to deal with it.
So I’m done with Pokemon Go. Four years of work building up my collection, catching shinies and legendaries, powering up pokemon, working on teams for pvp battles… it’s all down the drain. All because of a couple kids on a power trip.
I don’t think they have any idea what they did. I don’t think they understand that their actions online have real-world consequences. And that’s what scares me about the future. How are people going to learn to interact with each other and treat each other with kindness? How are people going to figure out that life is better when we work together towards a common goal, instead of tearing down other people because it gives you more power over them?
I don’t know the answer. All I know is that Pokemon Go has been ruined for me and there’s no coming back from this. One of the few things that made me happy and gave me a sense of calm during all of this chaos has been taken away from me. And I really don’t know what else to do.