Pokemon GO: On Instant Tribalism

A bunch of my friends play Pokemon GO (for those that don't know about it: it's an augmented-reality Pokemon game where you take your phone around your local area to catch, train, fight, etc). I happen to not play, but probably in part because I'm obsessing over a few other games at the moment. 

Generally I think it's a great thing that folks are getting outside and meeting each other.

Among all the chatter on my social media feed about folks running around playing, I've also seen two interesting strands of tribalism: team/color tribalism, and in/out tribalism. 

Color Tribalism

Pokemon GO has 3 teams that you can join: Valor, Instinct, and Mystic. 

Basically, as soon as folks picked a team, social media started lighting up with light-hearted jabbing at other teams. It's all worth a good giggle. I haven't yet seen any consistent agreement on which team exhibits which properties, but I've seen a trend that Mystic is pretty dumb, and Valor is a bit barbaric. I'm sure someone deeper in the mix will correct me.

But it's ever-so-slightly reminiscent of the Green and Blue chariot-racing fan factions of the ancient Byzantine Empire, in which hundreds were killed and thousands beaten due to the mutual hatred between the fans. 

In every city the population has been divided for a long time past into the Blue and the Green factions; but within comparatively recent times it has come about that, for the sake of these names and the seats which the rival factions occupy in watching the games, they spend their money and abandon their bodies to the most cruel tortures, and even do not think it unworthy to die a most shameful death. And they fight against their opponents knowning not for what end they imperil themselves, but knowing well that, even if they overcome their enemy in the fight, the conclusion of the matter for them will be to be carried off straightway to the prison, and finally, after suffering extreme torture, to be destroyed. So there grows up in them against their fellow men a hostility which has no cause, and at no time does it cease or disappear, for it gives place neither to the ties of marriage nor of relationship nor of friendship, and the case is the same even though those who differ with respect to these colours be brothers or any other kin. They care neither for things divine nor human in comparison with conquering in these struggles; and it matters not whether a sacrilege is committed by anyone at all against God, or whether the laws and the constitiution are violated by friend or by foe; nay even when they are perhaps ill supplied with the necessities of life, and when their fatherland is in the most pressing need and suffering unjustly, they pay no heed if only it is likely to go well with their ‘faction’; for so they name the bands of partisans....so that I, for my part, am unable to call this anything except a disease of the soul.
— Procopius, History of the Wars (I.24.1ff)

We see some similar madness in soccer riots and general sports hooliganism: otherwise-reasonable folks wreck property and hurt each other literally because they are wearing the wrong team's colors.

That's not to say I've seen any evidence of this in Pokemon GO: so far it all seems to be a quite friendly, silly rivalry. But it is perhaps something to keep an eye on.

In/Out Tribalism

More directly antagonistic, currently, are the battle-lines emerging between those that like and don't like Pokemon GO (as with politics, there's this huge chunk in the middle that currently doesn't know or care much, as well, but they tend to stay out of things).

The original assault came from those that think playing Pokemon GO is somehow wasteful, immature, or otherwise a bad idea. 

So the economics of this meme aside, the implication is clear: if you're playing Pokemon GO, you're probably unemployed, and that's because you're lazy.

Some Pokmeon GO players, rather than rolling their eyes and moving on, have chosen to engage in the war--not to explain to the haters why they might be wrong, but instead to make some biting generalizations about them, instead.

No friends! Probably true.

So the war of mud is on: who is the greater fool? Who the friendless wretch? I'm sure we'll sort it out on Facebook.

How Easily we Tribalize

Jane Elliott showed us in her blue/brown eyes exercise how quickly and naturally humans turn into tribes that hate each other. Sometimes, all it takes is a little color. 

This is not a dour warning on Pokemon GO: you probably have a leg up on me (literally) if you're playing video games outside in the sun rather than on your butt, soaked in LED glow. Instead, let us consider also how the colors we happen to wear elsewhere (hint hint) may affect our capacity to work together.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.