Thoughts on the Pokémon Go Teams

I’m probably supposed to have to opinions on Pokémon Go by now, so we should talk about that.  Obviously if you know my writing then you know that I tend to be more interested in things like story and characterisation and world-building than in strategy and mathematics and the inner workings of the game, because frankly there are loads of other people on the internet who are just much better equipped than me to deal with the hard-core mechanical stuff.  And Pokémon Go, although I am having a lot of fun playing it, doesn’t give me a whole lot to pick apart, in the way that I like to pick apart episodes of the anime or whatever.  But I would clearly be in dereliction of my solemn duty as an Internet Pokémon Guru if I did not produce some form of rambling commentary on the bits of this game that have managed to catch my interest – namely, the three teams and their competing philosophies.

Pokémon Go, of course, has three teams that players can join: Team Instinct, Team Mystic, and Team Valour.  In the past, anything calling itself a “Team” has normally been an enemy in the Pokémon games, but everyone seems to have made the transition to these three being the good guys without any undue difficulty.  The Japanese names of the teams don’t have the Dan (Gang) suffix that traditionally designates the bad guys (Rocket-Dan, Aqua-Dan, etc.) – they’re just transliterations of the English names, like Chimu Misutikku, presumably because the Japanese term is a lot less neutral than the English “team.”  Anyway, the leaders of the three teams are described as all being research assistants to Pokémon Go’s resident Professor Tree, whose name is Willow – so really all three of them are in cooperation, with a dash of friendly rivalry.  Professor Willow, appropriately enough for Go’s core “find Pokémon in the real world!” concept, studies the distribution of Pokémon species across different habitats and regions.  However, each of the team leaders has a different area of expertise and research projects of their own, which have led them to develop different ideologies for interacting with Pokémon.  Each team is also associated with one of the three legendary birds of Kanto – Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres.  Team Instinct’s leader, Spark, whose patron bird is Zapdos, is interested in Pokémon’s natural intuition, the sharp instincts conferred upon them by their genetic heritage, and is therefore interested in Pokémon reproduction, particularly the development of eggs; he believes that both people and Pokémon should trust their instincts, and do what feels right.  Team Mystic’s leader, Blanche, whose patron bird is Articuno, believes that Pokémon possess great wisdom, and that humanity has much to learn from their secrets if we approach the subject with calm, rational analysis; her great fascination is with evolution, the ability of some Pokémon to transcend the limitations of physical form.  Finally, Team Valour’s leader, Candela, whose patron bird is Moltres, admires both the great strength of Pokémon and their capacity for kindness, and values fighting for what you believe in; she’s all about battles, and like Colress in Black and White 2, her research focuses on the best ways to unleash a Pokémon’s full power.

So far, these three characters only appear once and their only dialogue is their pitch to prospective team members, so we don’t know a whole lot about them, but little things like their art, and elements of diction and cadence in their speech, serve to tell us a little more.  Spark seems casual and friendly; a lot of people perceive him as lacking in conventional intelligence, but as a senior research assistant he must have something going for him, perhaps some of the same superior intuition that he admires in Pokémon.  He wears a Zapdos pendant, and is the only one of the team members to carry a symbol like that, which might represent a more personal connection to his patron bird than the other two feel.  Blanche (whose name is French for “white,” like snow) is serious, stern, and laconic; maybe a little icy, like her patron bird.  All three team leaders come across as very confident, but Blanche’s confidence stems from her analytical worldview; seeing all obstacles as puzzles, she knows she can overcome any difficulty by thinking through the situation carefully and rationally, understanding all the variables and calculating an optimal solution.  Blanche’s somewhat androgynous appearance (I’ve been calling her “she,” but the designers, when asked about Blanche’s gender, have actually given a response along the lines of “whatever you want it to be”) also makes this a good moment to drop in this interesting little article about the trans community’s overwhelmingly positive reactions to all three leaders, and the space that Niantic’s deliberately broad-strokes portrayal of them has left for people to come up with their own interpretations.  That leaves Candela.  Where Spark greets us with a goofy grin and Blanche with a critical frown, Candela wears a confident smirk.  She seems more singleminded than the others in her focus on excellence in battle, seems to be the most competitive, and ends her pitch to the player by asking “are you ready?” – which could just as easily be an invitation to join her group, or a challenge to fight; Candela’s happy either way!  Still, her reference to Pokémon being “warmhearted,” and her choice of “Valour” for the name of her team, imply that she’s not just about the pursuit of strength: Candela and her team pursue strength to defend their beliefs and protect the innocent, no matter what stands in their way.

You can choose a team membership when your character reaches level 5, the minimum requirement to challenge a Pokémon Gym.  Your allegiance can never be changed (at least in the current version of the game), and determines whose side you’re on when you claim, contest and defend Gym sites.  The teams are mechanically equal – none has a built-in advantage in the game over either of the others.  Personally, I think it would actually be really nice if membership of a team did give you some mechanical incentive towards a particular playstyle, beyond just dictating the battle lines of your neighbourhood.  We know that the three teams are involved in research of three different Pokémon-related topics: Spark and Team Instinct study Pokémon breeding, Candela and Team Valour study Pokémon battles, and Blanche and Team Mystic study Pokémon evolution.  It would make sense, for instance, if they were each better at the things they study: Team Instinct members hatching eggs faster, Team Valour members spending less Stardust to level up their Pokémon, and Team Mystic members spending less Candy to evolve their Pokémon.  Fiddle with the exact numbers involved in those bonuses, of course, to make sure one isn’t obviously or dramatically stronger than the others, but something along those lines would be nice to make the choice feel more meaningful.  On the other hand, perhaps attaching concrete mechanical advantages to the different teams would detract from the ‘role-play’ aspect of the whole thing, which has produced a great deal of wonderful material on the internet already.

What’s interesting is that although the three teams are mechanically equivalent, their recruitment rates have been dramatically different.  Something like 40% of players (including a majority of my friends who play this game) are aligned with Team Mystic, and only about 25% with Team Instinct (though I believe they’ve been slowly catching up to Team Valour more recently).  And I’ve seen a lot of explanations floated for that, many of which have little to do with the teams’ beliefs or their leaders at all – after all, I’m late to the party because I happened to be squirreled away in the unfashionable part of Greece when the game was released, but a lot of people chose their teams back when they were still just called “Red,” “Blue” and “Yellow,” and no one knew anything about their ideologies at all.  A lot of people just chose their teams based on what their friends had picked (my lone Team Valour friend chose it because that was the team her husband was on, for instance), and it’s strategically advantageous to side with the team that’s already strongest in your area, so small imbalances can easily snowball.  Other people chose based on their favourite legendary bird – and, well, fair enough; Articuno is obviously the best one, come on.  And heck, blue is just a more popular colour than red or yellow – I have at least one friend who just chose the Blue team because it was his favourite colour, before we knew anything else about it.  I’ve even heard a suggestion that people are more likely to choose Team Mystic because, when the game presents the three teams to you, Mystic is in the middle; it seems to me like it would be difficult to confirm this or measure the size of the effect, because people don’t necessarily know consciously that this is the reason for their choice, but it’s a reasonable conjecture.

To me personally, the most important factor seems like it should be that Team Mystic’s ideas about Pokémon training just obviously have the most appeal to the sort of person who would play Pokémon Go.  Like, I’m on Team Mystic – and really, does that surprise anyone who reads this blog?  The guy who writes 3000-word-long, overly analytical commentaries on episodes of the Pokémon anime, and gets into complicated discussions about the relationship between Pokémon evolution and Darwinian evolution, the guy who’s currently writing this postthat guy goes with the team that bills itself as standing for logic, strategy and intellect, that wants to unlock the secrets of Pokémon evolution?  Kind of a no-brainer, don’t you think?  But it’s not just me.  The core aesthetics of the Pokémon games have always included exploration and discovery – the thrill of investigating the unknown.  Most Pokémon games also lend themselves to careful strategising – anyone who’s ever been even remotely serious about Pokémon battles knows that they can be won or lost days in advance of the first blow being struck, purely by team composition and moveset construction.  And Go does seem to be, in no small measure, a game about patience (not least because you need so much of it to wait for the goddamn servers to figure out where you are).  The “collector” mindset of Pokémon in general and Go in particular also appeals mainly to our desires to categorise, catalogue, analyse and understand – all things that Team Mystic values highly.

But I suspect a more serious factor in the imbalance here is that Team Instinct, currently the weakest of the three, just doesn’t have great PR.  Spark essentially bills his group as Team Valour Lite.  His talk of trusting your instincts and going with your gut is going to be appealing to basically the kind of passionate, action-oriented people who will listen to him, like what he says, and then pick Team Valour anyway because they liked Candela’s more energetic pitch better.  It’s also not going to persuade any of the calm, intellectual lot who tend to lean towards Mystic.  Meanwhile, Team Mystic and Team Valour seem like they could easily function as a pair of straight opposites: fire and ice, passion and reason, action and reflection.  I could go on, but you get the idea; they’re a textbook “ Red Oni, Blue Oni” pairing.  For most people, it’s not hard to pick a preference from one of those two extremes.  Team Instinct fits somewhere in the middle with respect to most of the opposed qualities of Valour and Mystic, but it’s not immediately obvious what their own outstanding qualities are.  Spark and Team Instinct really do have a lot going for them, I think – but you need to dig a little deeper than what the game puts in front of you to find it.  Of course, the representatives of Team Instinct in the online Pokémon community have done a great deal to give their team more definition and a stronger identity, which might go some way towards upping their numbers over time.

Team Valour, Team Mystic and Team Instinct should theoretically all attract different types of personalities – of course, the internet already has a well-established, universally understood and broadly applicable system in place for grouping people with similar personalities, and I’m far from the first person to apply it to Pokémon Go.  I am referring, of course, to Hogwarts houses (in case anyone is wondering, the quiz at Pottermore, approved by the Sainted Rowling herself, says I’m a Hufflepuff, though I think I have a lot of Ravenclaw traits as well).  Team Mystic, analytical, intellectual and curious, is obviously Ravenclaw, while Team Valour, passionate, just and strong, is just as obviously Gryffindor.  Team Instinct, when you think about it, actually turns out to be Hufflepuff.  It seems odd at first, but it actually does a lot to draw out the things that really distinguish them from Valour and Mystic.  Their interest in Pokémon breeding, and particularly in hatching eggs, gives them a powerful nurturing streak.  Because they value individuality over both strength and intellect, they’re naturally disposed to interact with others in a spirit of fairness and equality.  Spark is the only leader who explicitly encourages the player “come and join my team!”, in the Hufflepuff spirit of openness and inclusivity, while Blanche and Candela give their pitches and then wait for you to come to them.  The position Instinct has fallen into as the underdogs of the Pokémon Go metagame, caught in the crossfire between Mystic and Valour, has caused them to pick up additional Hufflepuff-like traits that weren’t necessarily given to them by Spark’s introduction in the game itself; they’re tolerant, peace-loving mediators who don’t take things as seriously as the other rival teams, and their achievements are the product of perseverance, dedication and outright stubbornness.  When people join Team Instinct specifically to support the underdog team (which is the reason I’ve heard some people give), that’s Hufflepuff’s desire for fairness.  Their leader even dresses in Hufflepuff yellow and black (a coincidence, most likely – but a fortuitous one).

Of course, this does leave open the question of how House Slytherin would approach Pokémon training… I suppose they would certainly appreciate the vaguely eugenicist zeal of players who breed for perfect IVs…

Anyway, let’s talk more about how the styles of these teams fit what we already know from the Pokémon franchise.  What would Ash, Misty and Brock think?  Ash’s passion, competitiveness and sense of responsibility are Valour traits, but I think at its core his style of training and battling is actually closer to Team Instinct.  He’s extremely proud of his Pokémon’s individuality and uniqueness, something which is a major sticking point in his arguments with Gary (whose single-minded dedication to strength, and relatively lesser interest in either making friends with Pokémon or learning more about them outside of battling, make him pretty solidly Valour).  Ash also doesn’t really care much for the conventional wisdom of how to train Pokémon and battle with them; he’d rather go with what feels right at any particular moment.  In fact, he makes something of a speciality of being unconventional, of winning battles that, by all logic and common sense, he really should lose, using tactics that he puts together on the fly, sometimes even making up whole new techniques.  He’d definitely find things to like about both teams, though, and I’m not absolutely certain where I’d put him.  Brock, similarly, is guaranteed a home in Team Instinct by his common ground with Spark as a Pokémon breeder, and shares some of Ash’s concern for nurturing the individuality of Pokémon, but also has important traits that would serve him well on Team Mystic.  Brock’s reflective nature, considerable knowledge of Pokémon, and keen awareness of how much more there still is to be discovered would all win him respect from Blanche and her followers.  Misty, by contrast, is mostly Team Mystic.  She doesn’t necessarily have the book smarts that a lot of Mystic members probably do (though she’s certainly extremely knowledgeable about Water Pokémon), and she has a competitive streak that sounds more like Valour some of the time.  However, Misty’s approach to Pokémon training is generally very level-headed, conventional and practical.  She’s pragmatic, good at keeping her wits about her in a fight, and expects consistency and reliability from her Pokémon – which is why Psyduck rubs her up the wrong way so badly.

What about the Pokémon themselves?  Go links Articuno with Team Mystic and Moltres with Team Valour, which makes sense given our intuitions and traditional symbolism for ice and fire.  Fire is linked with passion, spirit, hot-headedness and so on.  Ice and cold are linked with calmness, calculation, and detachment.  You get the idea.  Moltres also has arguably the most aggressively-slanted stats of the three, while Articuno has the best special defence stat, a quality that often seems to be linked with strength of will.  Hell, you could probably even make an argument out of their locations in the original Red and Blue – Articuno out in the middle of nowhere in the Seafoam Islands, and Moltres in Victory Road, a stone’s throw from the Pokémon League competition (note also Moltres’ status in the anime as patron of the Indigo League).  But then we run into Team Instinct and Zapdos, and again we sort of need to take a few leaps to get at what makes Zapdos and its element, lightning, appropriate to Team Instinct.  Zapdos is the fastest of the three legendary birds, suggestive of Team Instinct’s propensity for snap decision-making, and that fits with our typical associations for the speed of a flash of lightning, but… what else?  There might have been a vague push at some point to try and associated each of the birds with one of the seasons: the Pokédex on Crystal version attributes summer thunderstorms to Zapdos, and mentions Moltres’ migration in the spring, and it doesn’t really take any prodding to link Articuno with winter.  There are enough problems with that interpretation that it doesn’t seem to be widely accepted – most obviously, there are the wrong number of birds (we could assign Lugia to autumn, but I’m not aware of any hints that Game Freak has ever made in that direction).  If we could just run with it, though, a link with the season of summer makes a lot of sense for Team Instinct; in the modern world, it’s a season we mostly associate with fun and relaxation, and it provides another link to the joy and optimism evoked by Instinct’s bright yellow team colour.

There’s actually another trio of legendary Pokémon that I think could represent our three teams in a much more clear-cut fashion (although their colours, unfortunately, don’t really match).  Think about it – three aspects of our personalities, of our spiritual selves.  Where have we seen that before in Pokémon?  For me, what comes immediately to mind is the Sinnoh Lake Guardians.  Currently Niantic has no timeline that we know of for introducing generations of Pokémon beyond the first, but one assumes they intend to do it sooner or later, and I can imagine Candela, Blanche and Spark would react quite positively to meeting these three ethereal beings.  Obviously Uxie, the spirit of knowledge, curiosity and memory, belongs with Team Mystic, and Azelf, the spirit of willpower, determination and achievement, probably belongs with Team Valour.  Once again, what’s left is telling: Mesprit, the spirit of emotion, compassion and joy, goes with Team Instinct.  It fits quite neatly with the ideals that real Team Instinct members have been assembling for themselves online, and a lot of fan-made portrayals of Spark (who, remember, is all about going with his gut – trusting his feelings above all else).  Again, we don’t know when Niantic plans to do anything with generations II and up, and it probably depends on Go being able to maintain its present phenomenal success over a fairly long period, but if any die-hard members of any of these teams are interested in looking to the future, the Lake Guardians seem like solid Pokémon to rally around.

So these are our three teams: the tough guys, the smart guys, and the fun guys.  My Team Mystic allegiance remains unshaken by all of this soul searching, though I have to admit I’m developing more of a soft spot for the other two, particularly Team Instinct.  Just remember, the leaders are pretty clearly all friends, so there’s no reason we can’t all be too – play nice!  And may the best team win!

(…it’s Team Mystic, duh)

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