Pokémon NO: How the Game Can Be a Venue for Harassment

Illustration by Marlowe Dobbe

A couple of weeks ago, I was standing on a street corner in Brooklyn desperately swiping at my phone screen. I wasn’t speed-Tindering or trying to find a place to eat, but instead was attempting to take over a gym in Pokémon GO. Unless you’ve been living under a Geodude, I’ll assume you know about Niantic’s massively popular augmented reality app. At a Pokémon gym, you can battle other players—by tapping and swiping on an opposing Pokémon, I was attempting to reduce the enemy gym’s prestige, which would enable me to take it over and gain glory for Team Mystic.

I saw that the gym had been taken by someone else and started putting my party together for another try. As I healed my magic pets, someone crossed the street and began talking to me.

“Are you trying to take the gym?” he said. “I just got it. That was me. You can take it too. I don’t mind.”

Before I could respond (with something like “I don’t care if you mind, that’s not the point”), though, his eyes lit up. “WAIT! Do you know how to get gold?” I nodded in the affirmative, but he didn’t take that as sufficient evidence. “Let me show you,” he exclaimed eagerly, and he began poking at my phone screen, trying to grab it out of my hands.

I took my phone away and ended the exchange, beginning to shake with fear and anger. As a trans woman, I’m all too aware of how quickly interactions with men can turn dangerous. To cis people, getting afraid and angry when someone mansplains to me in public and starts poking at my phone might seem like an overreaction. But him jabbing at my phone was already violating my privacy, and grabbing it would have given him access to my wallet, which is part of my phone case—and with it, my driver’s license, still marked with “M.” Just showing that to bouncers makes me tremble; if this stranger had seen it, I have no idea what might have happened. Would I escape with some goggle-eyed “You’re really a dude?” Or would I have to physically defend myself against a young man who felt deceived by my cunning ruse (i.e., wearing what makes me feel like a person)? Women, both trans and cis, have been attacked for less.

This sort of male misbehavior is nothing new, of course, and femme-presenting people of all gender identities are mostly resigned to being harassed in public. But Pokémon GO has provided a unique opportunity for men to legitimize their harassment under the cover of an inherently social cultural phenomenon.

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It’s not like mine was an isolated incident, either. Writing for The Mary Sue, games journalist Maddy Myers reported that during her first few days of playing the game, she’d been approached, followed, and touched by strange men who were also playing Pokémon GO. In the comments of that article, other women shared their own stories, with one describing a harrowing series of incidents:

“A guy across the park could see me at the gym (its in the centre of the park and is relatively active) he and his friend saw me I heard them say something about Pokémon go and then he dropped his trousers where he was making direct eye contact with me and then he urinated. I left through the parks side entrance and was then followed by a young guy on a bike who was also playing Pokémon go. He may of just been not sure how to interact with me but I was shaken from the events in the park a few minutes before and he was following me closely and persistently, I lost him and made it home.” (sic)

Street harassment is nothing new, but Pokémon GO creates a new avenue for harassing people in public. The game’s mechanics invariably bring players into contact with one another, and Myers’s experience and mine are not unique. While the game is built to get people to be social and head outdoors, I bet the designers didn’t expect it to be a venue for harassment. And people have a troubling tendency to dismiss harassment when it does happen. Responses to Myers’s article in The Mary Sue’s Twitter mentions were full of vitriol:

  • "Guess what? I'll hit on you if I want and there's nothing you can do to stop it…”

  • "Nobody is hitting on you. They're just trying to be sociable. You know, that thing you aren't"

  • "You know, after a certain point, this complaining about being hit on is just bragging about how much you're hit on."

Other comments criticized Myers and her friends for being “shallow” for wondering if they were about to be aggressively hit on and mocked her for not wanting to interact with “plebeians.” “Speak for your fucking self lady,” one wrote. “Some chicks wanna get laid.”

Again, this specific brand of harassment isn’t anything new. Earlier this year, a study of Australian women conducted by Symantec—the makers of Norton antivirus software—found that 76 percent of women under 30 had experienced some form of online harassment, making it just as pervasive as street harassment. But there’s an even darker side to this kind of rhetoric: It’s not merely calling women foolish or misguided, as feminists so often are called online. There’s a streak of gaslighting here as well, in which lived experiences are denied so vociferously as to bully the victim into doubting her own memory of the events.

The crux of all this is the idea that Pokémon GO is a “social green light,” and to some extent, that’s true; players are naturally going to seek one another out in some way, and the team mechanic (at level five, players choose to fight for color-coded but functionally identical groups to take on gyms) encourages quasi-cooperative play. Plus, placing a “lure” on a landmark will allow anyone in the area to catch Pokémon that heed the call. But it’s socialization at arm’s length, at least as the game stands—there’s no way to battle other players directly, see other players’ avatars on the map, or even add friends, which also means there’s no way to block or report players for bad behavior. (Niantic claims to have plans for more social mechanics later; one wonders what moderation systems they’ll put in place.) The only way that Pokémon GO is inherently social is that it places people in the same 50-yard radius; any socialization after that point is completely up to the players. To state that women have volunteered to enter a social contract by playing Pokémon GO is a misinterpretation at best and gaslighting at worst.

Of course, there are plenty of stories that have painted Pokémon GO in a positive light, and as a player, I’m glad to see them—especially when I hear that playing the game has helped some people cope with social anxiety and depression, since I suffer from that as well. If nobody ever wanted to interact with awkward nerds, then I might never have made a friend. But when strangers come up and talk to me while playing the game, it can make me feel uncomfortable—I’m not always someone who’s up for talking, especially if someone’s being a bit competitive or hostile. Pokémon GO is bringing social recluses out into the light of day (or night, if they’re trying to catch a Gastly), and while many of them likely have the best intentions, many don’t—and both types of people are capable of shockingly invasive acts that put women at risk. The Pokémon fandom needs to start taking responsibility for the worst actors in its midst or risk seeing the unique, far-reaching social network it’s already built come crashing down.

Simply put: It’s time to PokéStop the bullshit.

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by Sam Riedel
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Sam Riedel is a freelance writer and editor from Brooklyn. Her work has previously appeared in Publishers Weekly and Fresh Romance, as well as on The Establishment, B&N Reads, and Tor.com; she is also an editor for The Mary Sue. She subsists on a balanced diet of noodles, Pokémon, and comic books. Prolonged contact may cause irritation. Follow her on Twitter @SamusMcQueen.

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