There’s a popular concept in video games that I couldn’t relate to at all for a long time: Multiplayer with strangers. Why on earth would I first seek refuge from the unhealthily overpopulated world outside in the glow of my monitor, only to be exposed to the stress of social interaction again? Every person outside my circle of friends is a potential troll. And if not, I get nervous about being awkward myself. I might ruin the fun for others by being slow or lacking skill, embarrass myself by misunderstanding common acronyms, take too little or too much initiative in planning tactics, stick my foot in my mouth in personal small talk, or, or, or… No, I’ve never understood the appeal behind playing with complete strangers no matter what the game. I’ve been shy all my life, and I’ve come to terms with that.
In 2017, however, it happened – the first game managed to draw me out. I realized this at a certain moment on a decidedly sunny day when I was roaming through the Bad Vilbel park with my smartphone and oversized powerbank. At the time, I was fortunate enough to live in the perfect area for Pokémon Go, as Bad Vilbel has many Pokestops and arenas that can be walked on a pleasant route off busy streets. Even a year after its release, large crowds were not uncommon during raids, because many even traveled from neighboring towns especially for the occasion. And over time, I got used to just joining these groups to do raids. You didn’t even have to talk to each other – you just stood inconspicuously in the back row. Pokémon Go offered an absolutely stress-free multiplayer experience for shy people like me, where I could slip into a community without really noticing it.
I came across a raid that day as well, but away from the popular spots. There were only two children present, who would have had little chance of winning despite my reinforcement. There are few things more heartbreaking in the world than disappointed kids playing Pokémon Go. So, without much thought, I offered to return to the well-attended park and recruit Pokèmon players in time for our important mission before the counter expired. Raids, after all, run on time. I ran back, looked around out of breath, and approached the nearest couple who were glued to their smartphones. I realized how inexperienced I was at making contact with strangers by how unsettling the question of “du” or “sie” made me feel. In German we usually say “sie” when addressing adult we do not know well, but in the Pokémon Go community the informal “du” was pretty common.
I opted for a grammatically questionable but innocuously neutral “Hello, Pokémon Go?” topped with a disarming smile. Despite the high creep factor, it quickly turned out that I had guessed correctly and that the two were not against a raid. The ice was broken. Admittedly, judging by the rattling panting next to me, they probably would have declined if I had told them beforehand that we had to climb the steepest path in town in the blazing sun. But the important thing was that they followed me, seemed to have fun, and we completed the raid successfully. However, what stuck in my mind more than this victory was when they said to me that I was very open to people because I had approached them just like that and invited them to the raid. That was a shock to me. It was the opposite of what had been said about me by others since elementary school. Just because I wanted to help these kids with their raid.
In fact, looking back, my little over three years with Pokémon Go helped me overcome a surprising amount of my insecurity about approaching strangers. It was a gradual process, but in that moment I realized it. No other game was such an impactful experience for me. Just going out and playing together, no matter how different you are – without the fear of insults or to roin the fun for others withinvoluntarily. A few years and a move later, I still find it impressive how Niantic managed to get people who otherwise would never have played a video game together to do just that. Sitting on the boiling asphalt of a less-than-attractive street that they probably never would have visited otherwise, either.
It was hard to escape the Pokémon Go hype when this immensely successful mobile game was released in the summer of 2016. In addition to the well-known addiction to collecting Pokémon as an incentive, you also had to move through the real world in search of them and, of course, meet real people along the way.
This post is also available in: German