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I recently read the Project Polaris piece on postcolonial games and felt that I should write out a full postcolonial analysis of Pokémon.

Nikhil Murthy, Blogger

March 25, 2024

7 Min Read

I recently read the Project Polaris piece on postcolonial games and felt that I should write out a full postcolonial analysis of Pokémon. This uses my work on Syphilisation and my essays on postcolonial game design as a basis.

Pokémon

Pokémon is a sprawling franchise and I need to put down a couple of starting points before getting into an analysis. Firstly, Pokémon is a multimedia franchise. This is often lost in video game analyses of the franchise, but people come to Pokémon from a number of angles and they interact with each other. When I catch a Pikachu in a game, the Pikachu from the show is in my mind. An analysis needs to account for that.

Secondly, Pokémon is targeted at children. This isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. The game still says what it says but an audience of children is going to receive a number of things differently and ignoring that feels like reading in bad faith.

Combat

With this in mind, the cockfighting metaphor is no longer convincing. Pikachu is both pet and best friend and both of those identities take precedence over combat. The closer parallel is make-believe; pretending that your dog can breathe fire and take out a marauding pigeon.

Another strong parallel is sport. Pokémon battles have strict rituals that must be followed. You cannot run away, you cannot catch another person’s Pokémon, you wait until the battle has officially begun before attacking. Additionally, the Pokémon Leagues and the gyms are all highly structured.

More meaningfully, you shake hands with your opponents, win or lose, and if you did end up losing, you simply go train some more and then come back and try again. You play for no stakes other than pride and no loss is permanent.

These form a sharp distinction with colonial combat, which is a means to an end; colonial conquest. There are no rules to colonial conquest, as anyone with a passing grasp of the history can recognize, and there are no handshakes at the end. Colonialism is built on the assumption that some people are fundamentally better than others, sport is only fun because you compete with your peers.

Nevertheless, there are some important complications that could be implemented. Interestingly, some of these already have precedent in the show. For instance, have Pokémon that don’t want to fight. This helps provide personality to the Pokémon. Also, the nature of the game presents Pokémon almost exclusively as creatures that fight. Pushing back against that adds texture to the game.

Secondly, consider some alternative methods of conflict resolution. In the Pokémon TV show, there’s often more to the story of how Ash got a Pokémon than simply fighting and capturing the creature and this history holds weight every time you see the Pokémon after as well as making a statement on Ash’s relationship to his Pokémon and his attitude as a Pokémon trainer. It’s a shame to leave so promising an approach fallow in the video games.

Gotta Catch ‘Em All

The tagline is the real core of the game, even if a player rejects it, the play experience is centered around the idea of catching all of the Pokémon in the game. This is presented as a research task. A professor gives you the goal at the start of each game and is underpinned by the standard design pattern of collections.

This is obviously ridiculous in itself. The Pokedex is always ready with handy facts about the Pokémon. Clearly someone has caught them all before. However, this works out when considered from the perspective of a ten year old. Children are always given tasks that have already been solved countless times before and yet dressed up as somehow important. At schools, at fairs and at museums, kids go through similar charades and so see nothing strange about a similar activity in a video game. This is what allows Team Rocket and the trainer fights to work as well.

This collect-em-all approach is an outdated view of science and one with strongly colonial roots. It comes from European naturalists venturing into the colonies in order to stuff a museum or zoo full of exhibits. It’s all done in the name of science, but how much can be learned from a stuffed bird on a perch or a bleached fish in a jar or a Pokémon forgotten in an anonymous computer box?

If you are to research for the sake of science, the first step should be to try to understand local knowledge. The ideology of the colonist did not allow for the value of indigenous knowledge and so had to start from scratch every time and these games reproduce that dynamic out of video game conventions, whether in the mainline games, in Pokémon Snap or in the TV show.

Let players work together to solve issues with the people of the area and with each other. Have them work to safeguard and repair ecologies rater than just harvesting them.

The grind of random encounters and collection completion are now tired mechanics as well, especially in the context of a 25 year old franchise. The context under which people play has radically transformed, it’s time for the mechanics to update as well.

Personally, rather than getting a new game and cycling through the core loop a thousand times to have brief looks at 100 new Pokémon, I would much rather play a game with 10 or 15 new Pokémon, each of which is given some dedicated space for itself. The Pokémon TV show only ever introduced a few new Pokémon in a 20 minute episode and often limited it to one, but gave each Pokémon a story of its own and so let them shine. I think the next game should try the same.

Classifications

The game’s hard classifications are also worth looking at. Colonialism loves classifications and necessarily so as race science was fundamental to the colonial project. Even the more benign classifications tend to fall apart when faced with the complexity of the real world. Mammals don’t lay eggs, except for the ones that do. Fish need gills to breathe, except for the ones that don’t, When you start to consider individual variations, things fall even further out of control.

Ho-oh showed up both in the original games and in the first season of the show, well before it was introduced as a full Pokémon. This complication was hugely meaningful to the player, it signified a much wider world than the one that the game explicitly defines.

Furthermore, have other exceptions to the rules. Birdwatchers know that sometimes you see one well outside its normal habitat, should Pokémon not have that same freedom? Must they all learn the same move at the same level? My dog has a bunch of quirks unique to her, separate from her breed, should my Growlithe be any different?

Pokémon

Pikachu is beloved because of his idiosyncrasies. He is a Pokémon with personality. Pokémon in the games just don’t have that. They don’t have desires or preferences. Any gestures towards that would add a lot of texture.

What do the Pokémon want? Are there ones who don’t like to fight? Ones who get bored if they haven’t fought in a while? Pokémon who like to relax by a river or in a forest? Pokémon who have something they want to say? Pokémon who want a quick break to cuddle or to play? Games built around pets are very popular. It seems wasteful to leave this unexplored.

Another interesting idea is to connect the ends to the means. Did you gain the Pokémon’s respect before catching it? Did you beat it in a fair fight? Letting the Pokémon remember these things and then later overcoming initial impressions adds to the story you share between you.

Additionally, some Pokémon might be excited about the idea of going on an adventure. Some might be sad about leaving their native space. Some might be afraid of going somewhere new. It’s deeply colonial to take them without their consent. Let players build trust if they need to. Let some Pokémon choose not to go with them.

B-Sides

Some quick final points to think about:

  • Leveling systems hold the colonial idea of progress as unmitigated good. Bad habits are easier to form than good ones.

  • Darwinism and colonialism are inextricable from each other. The march of evolution is probably too entrenched to reconfigure now but is colonial in itself.

  • The breeding systems are ugly, especially when put next to eugenics, next to engineered breeding and next to puppy mills.

Finally, for a lot of kids, a Pokémon is as close to a pet as they will ever get. Make the experience as meaningful as it can be.

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