You’ve seen them, probably. Or, I should say, “us.” Gathering suddenly. Huddling under overhangs. Staring at their phones. Tapping frantically on their screens. Blocking commuters. Standing together, but not too together. Tapping more. And then, suddenly, scattering.
If that sounds familiar, you have almost certainly seen the work of a two-year-old chat platform called Discord. This is a story about—yes—Pokémon Go, and those of us who are—yes—still playing. It is a story about how we find each other.
At the end of June, Niantic gave Pokémon Go its biggest makeover since the game launched last July. The old gym system was rebooted, and a new feature called “raids” appeared: battles against rare and high-level Pokémon that briefly take over gyms, which players have a chance of capturing upon successful defeat. To defeat them in the first place, you must (a) go to the physical point on the map where the raid is taking place and (b) join forces with other players. Some require just a handful of players; for others, like the game’s knockoff Godzilla—who, upon capture, will help you lay waste to the neighborhood out-for-summer teens squatting in all your local gyms and restore some shred of Pokédignity to your life (or so I’ve heard)—you might need a dozen or more fellow players to link up and frantically tap their phones together at precisely the same time and place.
But there was just one problem: Pokémon Go was deliberately designed so that users couldn’t communicate with one another. There is no chat functionality. At present, there’s no way to initiate trades with other players, a cornerstone of many other Pokémon games. Users can rename their Pokémon, but only in a way that is exclusively visible to them. It is a kind of mandated utopia: There is almost by definition no bullying or racism or sexism or untoward interactions with younger players or meanness of any kind in Pokémon Go, because it is almost impossible. But with the new raids feature, a problem emerged: There was now a sudden need to find and coordinate with other players in fleeting windows of time.
You might do as I did, and follow the beating wings of a big, ugly bird called Lugia to the outside of some confused workers’ office building, only to find a group of frantic phone-tappers just splitting up with the big, ugly bird successfully vanquished. You might find yourself aghast, unable to conquer the big, ugly bird on your own. You might say something like uuughghghhhhhhhthhebirddddd. You might be approached by one of these successful, departing phone-tappers, and then you might be asked, “Hey, you know about Discord, right?” You might go back to your desk and look it up and be amazed at what you found.
I have written before about my long, lonely campaign of Pokémon Go loyalty. When the game launched last summer, I, like many, downloaded the game and began to devote myself to hunting cartoon pigeons and bats and karp. Unlike so many, I kept playing after everyone else quit. I have spent the last 13 months not-very-furtively trudging out into public in the hope of catching ’em all, and reader, I am pleased to tell you that I have caught just about ’em all. Friends have mocked me; cab drivers have judged me; coworkers have interrogated me; I have persevered throughout. I did this alone, in obsessive and not infrequently self-loathing peace, and that was all fine and good until the raids arrived.
I wanted to fill my Pokédex. I wanted to acquire the fighters I would need to beat the neighborhood teens. I wanted, yes, a Zapdos. So I started to turn up at raids without a plan, where cartoon monsters relentlessly murdered most of my Pokémon. Sometimes I would happen upon other players in the wild. I once spent 10 minutes furiously tapping—the only way to fight a foe is to smack your phone as hard and as frequently as you possibly can, until your fingers turn pink or you launch your phone at the sidewalk (or both)—on one side of a column at a train station, conspicuously avoiding the group that had gathered on the other side. Then one approached. “You know there’s a group over here,” he said, pleasantly. I blanched, stayed where I was, let the pseudo-Godzilla humiliate all my beloved Pokéchildren, and left.
But then: The Discord thing happened. Did I know about Discord? I did not. I Googled pokémon go washington dc discord, I followed some links, and I gasped.
Discord, launched in 2015, is best thought of as a Slack competitor. As on Slack, users can create purpose-specific mass chat rooms, called servers, for free, and then divide them into still more specific channels. The servers are generally private, but most can be accessed with readily available invitation links. The platform was designed specifically as a complement to gaming—its logo is a cheerfully curvy controller—and so makes much of voice functionality that allows users to easily chat with one another through their computers’ microphones. This has been a particular boon to games like this year’s smash hit PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, for which players use Discord to circumvent the game’s built-in microphone to more effectively sneak up on one another.
Discord has also been used for nongaming purposes. Kind Voice, a subreddit that offers a forum to those in need of advice or simply a digital hug, launched a popular Discord server last year. And there’s a darker use case as well: A Tuesday report in The New York Times detailed how white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other far-right activists used Discord to organize last weekend’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, gathering on a series of servers to swap racist memes, find lodging, and arrange carpools. The headline called Discord “the alt-right’s favorite chat app”; the company has since banned several of the largest groups.
Discord has proved to be an invaluable companion to Pokémon Go’s raid feature, and on regional Pokémon Go servers, at least, civility is rigorously maintained, generally by self-appointed administrators with no affiliation to Niantic. “Invite your friends,” reads one representative FAQ. “Unless their idea of fun is being an ASS. Don’t invite them.” “We're here to catch Pokémon and talk about the game,” reads another. “Keep it civil, keep it nice. Be polite.” A server for members of Team Valor—the red team—has a channel devoted to memes, swearing, and “political talk (as long as kept respectable)”; on the popular Silph Road server, discussion of religion and politics is banned outright. “We have much in common across all borders, friends—here we focus on those things,” a post on the rule explains.
The communities are generally founded and maintained by individual players, many of whom were first united on regional Pokémon Go subreddits. Part of the draw for the raiding-inclined is that Discord is highly customizable. The New York City Discord has programmed a bot named Robochu to announce raids and form temporary channels for coordination. (“Pika! @lugia raid reported by [username]! Details: 106th st and broadway or riverside. Coordinate here!”) The city of Los Angeles is divided into 17 regions, each assigned a regional officer. One busy channel devoted to the Bay Area suburb I grew up in is used to coordinate carpools: A player picks up a handful of others and then they drive from raid to raid together. On the Silph Road server, voice channels exist for players hoping to converse in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Like Pete, I have found my own Discord-using Pokécommunity. The D.C. Discord server—called “PoGO DMV,” for D.C., Maryland, and Virginia—is a Pokéwonderland. There are nearly 80 channels for hyperspecific neighborhoods, each rigidly divided into two sections: one place for players to report raids they’ve spotted and another for them to coordinate the time they will descend on them together. There is a channel for questions about server etiquette, one for sharing general Pokémon Go news, one for polls about how best to organize. There are somewhere north of 3,500 members, who busily file sightings and arrange times to meet.
On a recent afternoon, a couple of blocks from the glitzy high-rise where Donald Trump strategist Stephen Miller and former Barack Obama attorney general Eric Holder live, a Discord group convened to battle a Lugia, linking to the local Starbucks Wi-Fi to tether their GPS in place. I live near Gallaudet University, a college for the deaf and hard of hearing; as a result, many raid groups frequently have deaf members, so they tend to do countdowns by hand. Still others have busied themselves in mostly futile (on my part, anyway) attempts to learn how to sign the different team colors. My neighborhood regulars include a D.C.-ish mix of attorneys, other attorneys, whatever kind of attorney makes other attorneys say ooh, interesting!, and attorneys in training. They—we—are joined frequently by an older man who works at a government agency and has two accounts; when the screen-mashing begins, he slides cross-legged onto the ground, props an iPhone on one knee and an iPad on the other, and battles simultaneously from both.
As for me: I’m still waiting on the Zapdos.