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Animal Representations in the Pokémon Game Series

This is a continuation of a blog series I started and never finished on my old blog (Link to previous iteration). I’ll probably move the content from there over to this blog in the future.

Catching Up

Since the game’s very first iteration over 15 years ago, I’ve been a huge lover of the Pokémon series of games. But across those years my once-naive teenage mind has been ravaged by time to become this fully developed, analytical and cynical adult mind. Equipped with this new mind, I had no choice but to passively contrast the cheery, power-of-friendship messaging of the Pokémon game series’ lore, against the darker undertones of the series’ gameplay mechanics (or to borrow a term from Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games, the series’ “procedural rhetoric”), which revealed the former betrayed by the latter.

In short, it was obvious to me that the story and lore of the games said one thing, while the interactive elements said something totally different.

At the crux of this analysis was a decision I made over a decade ago now that because I couldn’t justify killing an animal if I didn’t have to, I would abstain, where reasonable, from consuming or purchasing animal products. With this choice has come a certain outside awareness of the variety of cultural tropes we employ to justify using animals to suit our own human ends and preferences, even when it comes into conflict with the ends and preferences of the animals themselves. Finally, being aware of these tropes, I simply couldn’t help but see them echoed in the Pokémon game series. This is the very contrast I spoke of, between the message of the game’s lore, vs the message of its mechanics.

So I want to explore a few specific gameplay mechanics, and talk about what the mechanics argue, contrasted against what the lore argues for the same subject. By “lore”, I’m talking about what the characters and text in the game literally say about the world they inhabit. I then want to explore what this reflects about our real-world relationships with animals, as just about every core Pokémon mechanic can be directly compared with some real-world cultural interaction with animals.

With that…!

I’ll be discussing one mechanic at a time, in an order that will hopefully not leave non-players lost, starting now with one of the most fundamental game mechanics:

Encounters

In the world of Pokémon games, the player’s avatar explores freely a world, like our own, with two distinct faces: the natural, and the human-made. The human-made world consists of small towns, big cities, and the occasional cottage or retreat here and there. The key city areas are connected by what are called routes in the game. For the most part, a route connects two cities via a paved path, which is surrounded by tall grass.

Behold! A typical route. Note the Tall Grass towards the upper third of the screen. Note also that it would be possible to get from top to bottom (or the reverse) without treading in the tall grass.

Tread through that long grass at your own peril! For within it lurks those things that you’re actually always looking for: Pokémon! The player encounters what are called “wild Pokémon” while walking through the tall grass. It’s a (pseudo-)random event, an encounter; you can just march around through that tall grass until the screen melts away, and you’re brought into to a close-up view of the Pokémon who approached you. This context-switch within the game represents the idea that while walking through wild, unkempt terrain, a wild creature has engaged you.

It just appeared. Like, it wasn’t there, and then it was!

Here you were, on your way to the next major city, minding your own business, when suddenly you were ambushed by this wild creature, and now must defend yourself.

And herein is where the game mechanics betray the lore. Quick diversion: The Pokédex is a virtual tool within the game world that contains short encyclopedic blurbs about the natural behaviour of each pokémon species. (I alluded to some of these blurbs in my past entries in this series, but given that they’ve now been separated by over a year, I don’t expect any reader is “following along” here.) Here’s the blurb for snake-like Pokémon, Ekans:

Moves silently and stealthily. Eats the eggs of birds, such as Pidgey and Spearow, whole.

And here’s another for the seahorse-Pokémon, Horsea:

Known to shoot down flying bugs with precision blasts of ink from the surface of the water.

These entries and more speak of a complex ecosystem between Pokémon species; They speak of a world independent of humans, and Pokémon training, and everything the game mechanics are built around. Through these entries, we’re encouraged to imagine that outside of the human cities, in these natural environments, the Pokémon have their own lives, their own interests, and aren’t simply sitting there waiting to be caught and trained by a human. This is what the lore proposes, and I’d call it a very “animal-positive” outlook. Things aren’t simply phrased in terms of their relation to humans.

The game mechanics, however, in the area of encounters, belie this built world. While the encounters are flavoured with the pretense that the player is simply defending themselves against an ambushing creature, the reality is that the mechanic of wandering through “wild” terrain to provoke encounters is one that is rewarded and therefore encouraged by more than one facet of the game. This “going out of one’s way to pick a fight” is necessary to “grind,” which is the term for the repetitive act of winning battle after battle (we’ll explore the mechanic of “battling” in another entry) in order to power-up your player characters. In most RPGs, this picking fights is somewhat justified by the world’s lore; the encounters you are provoking are with monsters who the world is better off without. In Pokémon, however, they are wild animals, going about their business, when you, the player, entered their territory, causing them to react defensively. With few exceptions across the game series, there is very little established lore that can provide an alternate interpretation for what we are to understand is happening in an encounter.

The mechanics encourage the player to tread through wild habitat that is outside of the human world because it is through doing so that the humans can fulfill their own ends. Even when the player must walk through wild terrain in order to advance from one location to the next, there is no way to avoid the interpretation that it is a human encroaching in the natural habitat of a pokémon.

The encounter mechanic is one that is “animal-negative”. It provides no context for considering or caring about the wants and interests of the Pokémon encountered. There is no reason, within the framework of the game, to want to leave any natural territory unexplored, or to leave any creature unbothered.

One seemingly “animal-positive” mechanic related to encounters is the “repel” item in the game. Though it is not applied out of consideration for the creatures, but rather, in general, for the player’s own convenience, the in-game “repel” item is described as a spray that has a scent that is unpleasant to pokémon, and it keeps them away. While you are sprayed with repel (its effects eventually wear off), you will not get into wild encounters. While, in theory, this allows the player to traverse wild pokémon habitat causing as little interference as possible, the fact is that repel is really only rewarding as a further level of human control over the interactions with wild pokémon. In other words, repel is an extension of the human player shaping the course of non-human interactions, with no consideration afforded to the interests of the pokémon. An interesting “animal-positive” reversal of this trend can easily be envisioned within the context of the game – perhaps a rare item is hidden at the end of a long, outdoor maze, and the human is rewarded for getting to it by disturbing as few wild pokémon as possible, mirroring a conservationist approach to managing human-wildlife conflicts. Maybe we’ll see something like this someday in the series (Note: Maybe it’s already there. I’ll admit to having played Generations I, II, IV & VI only. I am aware of the PETA-like pokémon liberation group in Generation V, and once I play it, I fully expect that it will warrant at least an entry unto itself).

In terms of how this is reflective of real-world attitudes towards animals, I can’t help but think about the human tendency to expand our territory outward, into previously long-wild places, and then describe animal encounters with such terms as “nuisance” and “invasion”. Just as a wild Rattata “appears,” forcing you to defend yourself when you walk directly into its natural habitat, so too do wild coyotes “appear” as we move further into their long-established territory, forcing them and other wildlife into smaller and smaller areas. Conflict in such situations is inevitable.

A wild COYOTE appeared!

To conclude: How does is the lore betrayed by the mechanic of encounters? The lore begs us to imagine a world of Pokémon leading complex lives in a rich ecosystem independent of human ends, while the encounter mechanic heavily rewards our ignoring the significance of any such thing.

Phew.

Future entries will explore more of the games’ best-established mechanics, and offer a similar analysis. We still have to look at collecting, fighting, breeding, show Pokémon, and Pokémon as food. So, what, we’re looking at about 5 or 6 years before we’re done here.

Please join me, won’t you?

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