Gotta Catch ‘Em All: some notes on playing Pokémon
Pokémon is a pop culture phenomenon, but underneath its bright veneer lurk deep ethical issues. In this post, Glyn Muitjens will discuss one of these - submission.
I love Pokémon. Although I am sometimes a bit embarrassed to admit this in the company of academics, it is hard to deny that Pokémon provides me with some much needed relaxation at the end of a long day. And I am not alone – the sales figures of the eighth generation of main games in the series, Pokémon Sword and Shield (2019), are once again staggering (on November 21st 2019, more than six million copies had already been sold worldwide), even though it initially received many negative fan reviews. Pokémon has captivated the world since Nintendo released the first videogames in Japan in 1996, and has done so in many guises: (mobile) video games, comics, animated television series, movies, merchandise… The list is sheer endless and still expanding. The most recent testament to the franchise’s cultural currency is the fact that Ash’ – the protagonist of the animated series – first victory in the Pokémon league in 2019 was reported in the Dutch news.
In an attempt at a more light-hearted blog to start off 2020, I would like to zoom in on some issues that I noted while playing the video games. Well, I say light-hearted, but Pokémon has actually been the subject of heated controversy right off the bat: different organisations have voiced concerns about such issues as the violence implied by Pokémon battles, or animal rights in a world geared towards what look to be dog-fights, and what this might teach children. I am unequipped to gauge how justified these concerns are, especially concerning the effects of the game on children, parents should decide that for themselves. I do, however, agree that the world of Pokémon games is much darker than it may seem at first sight, and it is worthwhile to at least occasionally consider the cruelty inherent in it. Rather than focus on the violence, I would like to look at a slightly different theme common to the whole Pokémon franchise, subjugation, and consider how the games try to oppress the severity of this.
The basic premise of the games has remained more or less the same since Pokémon Red and Blue first hit the shelves in 1996. The player controls a young girl or boy, who receives a starter Pokémon from a professor in their hometown, and sets out to travel the land in search of other Pokémon. Along the way, players will catch other Pokémon and train them by pitting them against those of other trainers, receiving money from them if they win. The goal of the game is to overcome a series of trials to become the champion of the Pokémon league. The cruelty of an economy completely reliant on violence – Pokémon set each other on fire, can electrocute others, or inflict slow poison, the effects of which might last even after battle – seems evident. The games try to mitigate this somewhat. The stylized format of turn-based battles does much to take away from the explicit nature of the onslaught – in this sense, the comics are much more gruesome – and the bonding potential of battling together, forging friendships, is emphasized from the very beginning of every Pokémon game. The language used suppresses the severity of the violence as well – Pokémon never die in battle, they ‘merely’ faint, and become healthy in seconds after going through a machine in a so-called ‘Pokémon centre,’ a sort of hospital situated in every town.
The language used is also interesting when talking about catching Pokémon, – the slogan of the series is “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, emphasizing collection rather than battling. Pokémon can be found in the wild, and then caught, after weakening them in battle, in ‘pokéballs’ – portable spheres that envelop the Pokémon and allow the player to carry them with them on their travels. Although here too bonding and friendship are emphasized, the fact remains that, essentially, young children are sent into the woods to subjugate the local wildlife by force, capturing and imprisoning them against their will: the Pokémon resist, after all. Furthermore, to quickly glance at the television series, Ash’ Pikachu, the mascot of the franchise, famously refused going into a pokéball, and no one knows what the inside of a pokéball looks like to a Pokémon inside it. The entries in the ‘Pokédex’ – a device which automatically records the information of Pokémon caught – often hint at the region the player travels as a living, breathing world, in which different Pokémon feed off each other, much like real-world wildlife. Perhaps this worldview is meant to somehow excuse the catching of Pokémon, as if they are better off with humans, removed from the eat-or-be-eaten life in the wild. Some Pokémon are even described as being openly hostile to humans, having the ability to steal their life force, for example, and are thus, perhaps, implicitly less harmful when brought under human control.
The issue of capturing Pokémon in pokéballs is all the more interesting as it is actually problematized by one generation of video games: Pokémon Black and White (2010). In this game, the protagonist thwarts the plans of the evil team Plasma, led by the mysterious N. N’s goal is to take away Pokémon from trainers, not to use them for evil, but to release them from their pokéballs, allowing them to live their own lives and unlock their own potential. After the climactic confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, however, N is revealed to be a puppet of the evil mastermind Ghetsis, who does wish to use the stolen Pokémon for his own gain. After Ghetsis’ defeat, N professes to be inspired by the bond between the player and their Pokémon, and goes off to overthink his relationship with his own, leaving the initial premise of the subjugation of Pokémon under human control strangely deflated, and the matter is not brought up again.
With this in mind, it is interesting to zoom in on the development of the item description of the pokéball over several generations of video games. While the design of the ball itself has hardly changed, its description has, starting in the second generation of games as “an item for catching Pokémon.” The FireRed and LeafGreen games added an element of utility: “a ball thrown to catch a wild Pokémon. It is designed in a capsule style.” Generations four and five, the latter of which includes Black and White, have a more elaborate text but no addition of new information. Starting from generation six, however, throughout the six pairs of games released up to generation 8 (the 2019 Sword and Shield), the description is as follows: “a device for catching wild Pokémon. It’s thrown like a ball at a Pokémon, comfortably encapsulating its target.” It is the word “comfortably” that interests me here, as it adds an element of Pokémon welfare not seen in the previous games. This is a small change, but the pokéball is an item very often used and encountered throughout the game, thus providing much opportunity for its flavour text to be seen. I wonder whether the developers found it necessary to attach a note of comfort to the pokéball right after the generation of games in which matter-of-fact capturing of wild Pokémon was questioned. Did they think they had gone too far, and needed to somehow mitigate any questions about the cruelty of locking Pokémon up in balls after forcefully removing them from their natural habitat? It is only a suggestion, but I suspect the development of the pokéball description provides a glimpse of a (conscious or unconscious) attempt to suppress any feelings of guilt the player might feel over capturing Pokémon.
It has not been my intent to place any blame on players or the developers of Pokémon. I immensely enjoy the games myself, after all, and would not give them up if my life depended on it. Yet, it is possible to enjoy a game while still being aware of and thinking about any negative messages it might contain. In fact, I personally consider it more responsible to do so, as uncovering and discussing them might help mitigate any possible harmful influence.
References to videogames and websites
All Pokémon games are developed by Game Freak and published by The Pokémon Company/Nintendo. Dates mentioned refer to the release dates in the EU.
- Pokémon FireRed version and LeafGreen version, (October 1st, 2004).
- Pokémon Black and White, (March 4, 2011).
- Pokémon Sword and Shield (November 15, 2019).
Exhaustive lists of Pokémon and items can be found on the official Pokémon website, https://www.pokemon.com/us/, and on the two fan-curated websites https://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Main_Page and https://serebii.net/. The latter is also particularly exhaustive in regards to other media in the franchise (animated series, trading card game, etc.) as well.
 I will focus on what are considered to be the ‘main’ games in the role-playing format, thus ignoring the mobile games such as the popular Pokémon Go. Additionally, I will focus on the English version of the games.
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