Normalising the abnormal: Pokémon GO

By Sara Vestergren and Anne Templeton.

The phenomenon of Pokémon GO has caused crowds to congregate in areas clutching their phones and shouting about rare Pokémon. Pokémon GO players’ behaviour has been compared to that of zombies, which for those who watch “the Walking Dead” or play “Resident Evil” might be quite frightening. The Swedish police even warn about the game giving “zombie-like behaviour”. Small groups of people have been seen walking together staring intently at their phones trying to get into people’s gardens, or walking in circles in a park in the pouring rain. In short, this game has brought out behaviour that is, on the surface, rather bizarre. We argue that this seemingly ‘non-normative’ behaviour can in fact be understood as ‘normative’ within the social context of the game requirements, and can explain why behaviour that may seem odd to members of one group can seem completely normal to members of another.

Pokémon GO is a game based on the Pokémon franchise which uses a map of the real world where people can catch Pokémon at certain locations, get items for the game from designated PokéStops, join one of three gyms, and battle other trainers at the gyms (for a full explanation of Pokémon GO see the company website). Crucially, the game is based on Pokémon appearing in specific locations for a short period of time, and unlimited players can catch those Pokémon if they are within a certain distance of the Pokémon (although it may take numerous attempts).

On one hand Pokémon GO has been blamed for bringing people into competition in dangerous situations, and on the other it has been praised for bringing strangers together, co-operating (which can be seen in videos of people shouting out rare Pokémon names to help other people catch the Pokémon), and getting people to go outside and get some exercise. The game has attracted lots of attention, partially due to stories of people acting in ways that are socially ‘non-normative’. For example, the Swedish police received calls about people acting ‘suspiciously’, in Michigan a man wanted by the police was caught because he visited a Pokémon gym located in the police station, and Canadian teenagers were detained for illegally wandering across US-Canada border while trying to catch Pokémon. Pokémon GO has brought out these ‘non-normative’ behaviours in people, bringing strangers together in coordinated ‘non-normative’ behaviour. One example of this coordinated ‘non-normative’ behaviour was when a large group of strangers tried to catch a Vaporeon in Central Park and brought some of the traffic to a standstill in their attempt to catch the Pokémon before it disappeared. .

We argue that the requirements of the game necessitate these behaviours and the number of people performing the behaviours normalises them. First, we must question what is ‘normative’ and what is ‘non-normative’. Research in social psychology has demonstrated that what counts as ‘normative’ behaviour depends on the social context. Self-categorization theory shows that people can be members of social groups and have numerous social identities, and every social group has specific norms associated with that group. These norms set boundaries for what actions are appropriate and seen as ‘legitimate/normal’, or not, when acting as a member of that social group in that social context. For example, research in the football context showed that certain violent actions were perceived as acceptable amongst English football fans, after perceiving that the police failed to protect them, within the context of their group norms. However, Scottish fans with a different perception had different group norms and saw the violent actions as unacceptable. Pokémon GO requires behaviour which may seem ‘non-normative’ to outgroup members, but can be understood as normative and necessary to ingroup members playing the game.

We argue that people legitimize ‘non-normative’ behaviour, making it normative in that specific social context through shared category membership and perceived support. These actions are legitimised the more group members perform them, and this is enhanced when there is something to gain for the group. Pokémon GO creates a context where players need to walk around and catch Pokémon and take over gyms so that their teams ‘hold’ the gyms. Within this context, if a rare Pokémon is in a stranger’s garden then it is acceptable to stand outside, or even walk into the garden. The non-normative behaviour, standing for a long time outside someone’s house or going into someone’s garden, becomes legitimized by the perception that other players would/are do the same. Hence the non-normative behaviour is perceived as legitimate and subsequently becomes normative in the Pokémon GO context. Moreover, as increasing stories come out of this sort of behaviour emerging, it becomes more acceptable within the group norms to do this – the ‘abnormal’ behaviour has become a part of playing the game and being a Pokémon GO player if you want to do well.

One example that could be seen to go against our argument or group normative behaviour, is the controversial videos that emerged of crowds of people rushing to get to a certain locations, even stopping traffic, in order to catch rare Pokémon. These videos also contain some element of people acting individualistically and competing with one another. Some behaviour can be understood individualistically in the context of the game. The aim of the game is to catch all species of Pokémon, but the Pokémon only appear for a short amount of time and it can take numerous tries to catch the Pokémon – especially the rare ones that the crowds are running to. In this context, it becomes a competition against other players to get to the front of the crowd to become close to the Pokémon. Rather than fostering a shared social identity, this situation promotes individualist behaviour similar to physical crowd behaviour seen at Black Friday. Here, the group norms of helping your team is superseded by the norm of catching the rare Pokémon, and that requires competition with other players to get close to it.

Like in the example of the football fans, Pokémon GO is a key example of how behaviour that seems legitimate and normative to one group can be perceived as completely illegitimate and non-normative to another. Pokémon GO creates a situation where every day ‘normative’ behaviour goes out of the window, and new social norms are needed in order to do well in the game. The behaviour required by Pokémon GO demonstrates the importance of ‘legitimacy’, ‘group norms’, and ‘identity’ in understanding why behaviour is perceived as either normative or anti-normative. The extent to which people are acting seemingly ‘non-normatively’ by blocking up roads and entering police stations speaks for the power of social context on what behaviour is legitimised, and how fluid social norms can be as the social context changes.


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