For me, my pursuit of shiny Pokémon began a very long time ago, when I was sitting in a miniature wooden car (and when I say miniature I mean smaller than a normal car, not like the size of a plastic car or something because I wouldn’t be able to sit in that) playing Pokémon Sapphire on my Gameboy Advanced SP, waiting in the daycare at my mom’s gym as she was off exercising. I had been trying to catch the elusive Regirock, which evidently did not want to be caught as shown by me being on around my 20th attempt or so. After running out of Ultra Balls yet again, I reset the game, and tried once more, but this time the Regirock before me was not tan, but rather, more of a maroon color. Not only had I found my very first shiny, I actually managed to catch it too, making the numerous previous attempts worth it. Shiny Pokémon are a very small part of the Pokémon franchise, yet they have become a very large part of the Pokémon community. Although on the surface shiny Pokémon may seem trivial, they are actually deeply rooted in the fundamentals of play, and reflect the desire for alea and ilinx in games, show how a game’s aesthetics influence its community, and demonstrate how achievers in game communities can create entire cultures out of small subsets of games.
So what are shiny Pokémon, exactly? To put it simply, they’re Pokémon that are colored differently than other Pokémon of the same species, and have approximately a 1/8192 of showing up. Apart from the color change and a small sparkling noise when the Pokémon is sent out, there’s no other difference. Now the first question one might ask is who would ever consider going for something with that low a chance just for a Pokémon that looked slightly cooler? The answer, quite simply, is a lot of people.
Shiny Pokémon are a very big part of the community of players formed around Pokémon- almost everyone knows about them, and almost everyone wants them. People spend hours, days, weeks, months, maybe even years trying to get ahold of a Pokémon that has blue fire instead of orange fire, a Pokémon that has red feathers instead of blue, or even a Pokémon that’s a tiny bit greener than its non-shiny counterpart. People try to get shinies in many different ways- chaining by trying to encounter the same Pokémon several times in a row to try to increase the chances, breeding Pokémon to get thousands of eggs in hopes that one will be shiny, resetting their game thousands of times until a specific Pokémon they encounter is shiny, and simply running around until they happen to score that 1/8192 chance. And the biggest question here is one word- why? Why would someone spend so much time trying to get something so inherently useless, something so hard to get, just because of its aesthetics?
The answer to this question can be found first by examining what Pokémon is- a game. People play it for a variety of reasons, and one of those reasons can without a doubt be to catch shiny Pokémon. Shiny Pokémon may seem like an insignificant addition, but really, they demonstrate some of the most central aspects that bring a game to life. The first type of game most obviously exemplified here is that of chance, or what French writer and Philosopher Roger Callois calls “alea”. Callois describes alea as "all games that are based on decision independent of the player, an outcome over which he has no control, and in which winning is the result of fate rather than triumphing over an adversary” (1961, 17). Finding shiny Pokémon is exactly that- chance. Just as people play slots at casinos or spin the bottle or whatever other weird games kids play these days, people hunt shiny Pokémon. Even though finding them is based almost exclusively on luck, people hunt for shinies because finding them is based exclusively on luck. Their reward from their endeavors, then, is something different than normal, something only obtained by those lucky enough to find it. People are drawn to shiny Pokémon because they’re so rare and different- the aspect of chance creates desire.
The second type of game illustrated here, though not as clear as the first, is that of vertigo, or ilinx, “those which are based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind” (1961, 23). Though one can argue shiny hunting is not an example of this as one isn’t exactly physically doing anything vertigo-inducing, I can personally recount countless times when I felt a surge of vertigo while searching for shiny Pokémon. Often, games of chance are not without risk, and though the only thing at risk in this situation is time, sometimes it can be a lot of time. Especially when chaining for shinies, where one tries to encounter the same Pokémon upwards to hundreds of times in a row, a single wrong move can cost you countless hours of work. Linking back to the aspect of chance, as written by Greg Costkyian, “The moment a degree of asymmetry is introduced, players come to value the actions available to them differently” (2003, 89). Because of the aspect of alea, the player begins to view their own actions a lot more intensely- one simple mistake could cost them a lot. The unknowingness of the chance involved in shiny Pokémon goes hand in hand with vertigo felt while going after them, whether it be vertigo from the pressure of not being able to make any errors, or vertigo from seeing the sparkle of the shiny Pokémon indicating that your dedication has finally paid off.
These two categorizations of searching for shiny Pokémon are the fundamental levels of how a game exists as a game. On the surface level, however, the aesthetics of the game, we can see explicitly the motivations for this arduous task. The aesthetics of a game “describes the desirable emotional responses evoked in the player, when she interacts with the game system” (2004, 2). They are what the player sees and feels out of the game, and are one of the prime reasons people look for shiny Pokémon. “From the player’s perspective, aesthetics set the tone, which is born out in observable dynamics and eventually, operable mechanics” (2004, 2). On a more in-depth level, the aesthetic reasons people hunt for shinies can be categorized into four main categories- sensation, expression, submission, challenge, and fellowship.
Sensation is the very surface level of shiny Pokémon- their physical appearance. Many people collect them because they look cool or pretty or just different. The sensation they get from the Pokémon is one they enjoy, so they seek it out. Expression is linked to this as well- people can express themselves through shiny Pokémon just as they can express themselves in any other way. They collect shinies so they can show who they are as a person through it, whether it be because the shiny Pokémon looks in a way that suits them better or simply because it’s something out of the ordinary. Submission is described as a game being a pastime, and this is another cause for people seeking out shiny Pokémon as well. Just as people collect bottle caps or pins, they enjoy collecting shiny Pokémon. There are also smaller but still important reasons related to aesthetics that people hunt shinies for- for example, many people form emotional bonds with their Pokémon, and shiny Pokémon allow them to go deeper into that. Finally, however, we have fellowship, the game as a social framework.
Fellowship is the most in-depth aspect of aesthetics in this situation, as one of the main contributors to the need for shiny Pokémon is the Pokémon community itself. The game of Pokémon has a very big single player component, but does have multiplayer aspects as well. This multiplayer aspect of Pokémon does have some weight in the formation of the community, but it is not rooted in multiplayer gaming, but rather in the concept of Pokémon itself. Pokémon is a franchise of transmedia, and it is deeply rooted in much of today’s youth. Its community, therefore, is born not in the game, but around it. People share information with their friends and online, exchanging news about the newest games and the Pokémon they’ve caught. As Celia Peirce Writes, “Players in these networked worlds sometimes develop a sense of community that transcends the game itself” (Peirce). Likewise, shiny Pokémon hold a big role outside of the game world.
How do shiny hunters relate to this community? Richard Bartle separates players in online communities into four categories- explorers, killers, socializers, and achievers. The last category, achievers, are where shiny hunters come in. Bartle describes achievers as players who “give themselves game-related goals, and vigorously set out to achieve them” (1966, 1). As mentioned before, Pokémon is not explicitly an online game. Due to the transmedia surrounding it and the open communication and spreading of information on the internet, however, a vast online community has been created dedicated to the many adventures in the world of Pokémon. Shiny Pokémon, therefore, are one of the main targets of achievers in this community, and are very coveted things due to their rarity. “Achievers are interested in doing things to the game, ie. in ACTING on the WORLD. It's the fact that the game environment is a fully-fledged world in which they can immerse themselves that they find compelling; its being shared with other people merely adds a little authenticity, and perhaps a competitive element” (1966, 2). As stated here, the presence of a community gives reason for shiny Pokémon to some people- someone to show it off to. Achievers are one of the main groups of people who go after shiny Pokémon- though they do not have any practical use, they show dedication, or simply luck, but they give off a sign of uniqueness. They are something that not many people own, and therefore they hold power.
The community itself, however, has created a culture around shiny Pokémon. A small tiny addition to the game, with an extremely rare chance of occurrence, has created countless people in love with the concept of shiny Pokémon. People give them away as gifts, people offer them for rarer, harder to find Pokémon, people trade them for other shinies, people show them off in battle or in trade- as much as Pokémon has created a community of gamers, the people in this community have made a game out of shiny-hunting. And yes, of course, Nintendo is responsible for this subset of the game, and the several methods of finding shiny Pokémon. But what has come out of it is much deeper than a few lines of code and a recolor of each Pokémon. The desire for shiny Pokémon is what drives their existence- what should be just a neat easter egg has turned into an entire culture.
People dedicate enormous amounts of time to finding shinies for whatever reason they have, despite it not being the intended purpose of the game, and this truly demonstrates the power of games. For one simple addition to be able to form an entire culture around a small subset of a game is really showing of how games are able to form communities. Similar things can be seen in other games, such as in Team Fortress 2, where people mercilessly collect hats just for how they look. Many online MMORPG’s have costumes that you need to pay actual money for that do nothing but make you look goofy. All of these things have two things in common- they provide no in-game usefulness and are simply coveted because of how they look, and exist in an online community. Bringing other people into the equation is often the tipping point. The ability to show other people how cool your Pokémon looks is the only reason they might need to spend months on end looking for shiny Pokémon.
Shiny Pokémon are practically useless. But really, that doesn’t matter at all. When you look at a game, you don’t ask yourself if the game is useful to you, you ask yourself if you will enjoy it. Shiny hunting shows many fundamental aspects of what makes a game a game, both on the fundamental level and on the aesthetic level, and because of that, people catch them, no matter how “useful” they are. Some shinies hardly even differ from their non-shiny counterpart- I happened to run into a shiny Bidoof and didn’t even realize it was shiny until after I KO’ed it because it was only a shade lighter. But was I still angry? Of course I was. Just because it was almost exactly like the next non-shiny Bidoof I encountered, I was upset, just because it was shiny. That one tiny difference made a huge impact on the game, and that, I feel, is why the concept of shiny Pokémon and video games alike are simultaneously baffling and incredible.
Hunicke, Robin. MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. 2004.
Bartle, Richard. Hearts Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who Suit Muds. 1996.
Caillois, Roger. The Definition of Play: The Classification of Games. 1961.
Costikyan, Greg. Uncertainty in Games. The MIT Press, 2013.
Pearce, Celia, and Artemesia. Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds. The MIT Press, 2009.