The impact of COVID-19 may have temporarily turned a social game into a lone activity but the community is pulling together to stay upbeat and connected. My research on fans and fandom shows just how much Pokémon GO and YouTubers can provide a network of support for players.
When Pokémon Go was first launched in 2016 it was seen as the perfect game for getting people out walking in their local community. A mobile app designed for group interaction and global participation. Almost four years on it still remains very popular and has attracted millions of new players to join. However, with the recent lockdowns imposed by national governments, the continuing spread of the Coronavirus has turned the communal game into an indoor activity.
In response to players who wanted to make the game safer Niantic has opened it up to allow for necessary social distancing and self-isolation. In-game barriers and pay walls to access extras have been relaxed or lifted entirely. Removing the need to walk to catch pokémon or pick up much needed items to play has dramatically changed the game but have been largely welcomed.
Thanks to the global pandemic social media has become an increasingly important platform for sharing tips and exchanging stories about playing the game differently: inside and without the usual social grouping. Popular Pokémon Go YouTubers who have helped to promote the game through their channels since launch have become de facto community leaders around whom players can gather and maintain social contact.
The Community Comes Together
The extent and diversity of the Pokémon Go community offers a global insight into how other countries are coping with the pandemic. Meme sharing and humour bring players together. My previous research on Pokémon fan conspiracy theories highlights the ways in which humour, knowledge and creative practice merge to inspire new and innovate texts that are shared in the community. As with many fan communities creativity and participation is displayed through how members react to shared experiences; for example, the impact on global stocks of toilet paper.
However, more importantly in the contexts of the Coronavirus, online platforms like YouTube and its content creators have become networks of support for players who may be feeling isolated. My ongoing research on fan communities highlights the ways in which popular culture becomes the glue with which people join together, more so during particularly stressful times. Before the web these relationships were built up over time using written communication such as letter writing and fan fiction or meeting in person at conventions. The growth of digital culture means fans can now interact much quicker and much further than before.
Australian influencer ZoëTwoDots is doing in-game gift drops which means players can receive much needed items if they can't venture outside. Adding players to her friends list, whilst only temporarily, bridges the gap between creator and fan - Australia and the world. US based TrainerTips is posting video updates about his self-isolation at home and sharing good mental health advice from medical professionals. His message is about supporting the effort to stop the spread of the virus.
Actions like these make the big issues seem more manageable. They offer the gaming community a virtual place to gather and feel connected. Sharing experiences and not just playing. The game has had to look beyond what it promised in terms of physical exercise and exploring your local environment. Continuing to play Pokémon Go and being part of the gaming community during the pandemic has become a way of dealing with social issues like mental health, isolation and coping with stress.
Online but not Isolated
Pokémon Go has routinely offered space for social connections and community sharing, regardless of being outside or not. Well before the effects of Coronavirus LA based YouTuber Mystic7 used his social media influence to create the Willow Community. A website and social media platform that uses the tools of technology to help people with mental health problems.
Other YouTubers have shared their own stories of personal struggles and health problems, in turn creating social bonds with their virtual followers. In a recent Twitter thread and series of videos Nevada-based content creator PkmnMasterHolly talked with her followers about topics like social anxiety and suicide. In responding to criticism online she revealed her own personal story and how the game has helped her overcome depression, connect with a community, and turn her hobby into a living.
These examples demonstrate the supportive nature of fandom whilst highlighting how fan communities form intimate and hierarchical structures. Fan studies research often focuses on ideas of social hierarchy where fans share a common interest while also competing for status. The well-known and popular Pokémon Go influencers have maintained positions of authority due to their game knowledge and insider access to Niantic. However, their reactions to the global situation shown in new content and the development of online platforms to help those with personal problems suggest something else. Such hierarchies are also based on emotion and empathy and relationships with their followers are just as personal and close as if they were in person and not online.
While Pokémon Go will have changed by the time the crisis has ended, the large social events will return and Niantic will no doubt revert to prioritising income generation over making it easy for players to stay inside. But by then the ways which people play the game will have adapted and the community will have become closer. The physical and social aspects of the game are still important but the impact of the pandemic shows how the surrounding network of YouTubers and their use of social media add more to the game. They may be sponsored but their content is more personal than that. Coronavirus highlights what really makes playing the game such a shared experience and perhaps why it is still so popular almost four years after launch.