Into the Not-So-Wild World of Pokémon

When I was a pre-teen, I caught the Pokémon bug hard. The trading cards came first: little pieces of cardboard with adorable invented animals on them. The bargaining for trades (voluntary or otherwise) on the playground during recess became so intense that Pokémon cards had to be banned from my school. Then came the video game, a two-tone, highly pixelated adventure game that made Gameboys a household name (at least for middle schoolers), and finally I dipped my toe into the anime series. There is no doubt young me was Pokémon-obsessed, regularly repeating the litany of all 151 original creatures to my patient but somewhat bewildered mother. And I was not alone: Pokémon is now one of the highest-grossing media franchises of all time, beating out behemoths like Mickey Mouse and Star Wars, almost completely through its ubiquitous merchandising and the omnipresence of its little yellow mascot, Pikachu.

But Pokémon is not just a product for children to obsess over (although it is certainly that). As the years have wound on and Pokémon has continued to release content, it has also been slowly inventing, piece by piece, a game world that holds a mirror up to our own desires about nature. In each new game, Pokémon iterates on the ecosystem it invented before, making it more user-friendly and including new features that appeal to players. By doing so, Pokémon has constructed an ecotopia, a cute and welcoming place for participants to body out an idealized multispecies paradise. But in building that ecotopia, the Pokémon franchise has also distorted and sanitized certain aspects of animal and human interactions. What is lost is not merely verisimilitude but also complexity and nuance. There is no wildness in the wilderness of Pokémon games; they are equal parts petting zoo and jungle gym, and while that has a place in children’s media, it leaves important aspects of nature on the cutting room floor.

Pokémon as Pets

The central conceit of the Pokémon universe is that, in a place pretty similar to the world of the twenty-first century, there are also fantastical creatures that live with and help out humans. They are mostly pets, but they are also transportation services (Lapras), construction workers (Gurdurr), even cell phones (Rotom). But insofar as they are pets, they are idealized versions of pets: perfectly cute, infinitely loving, deeply sociable, never defecating or vomiting. They also tend to be emotionally intelligent, supportive, and companionable, the way humans have bred companion species in the real world to be. And of course, because this is a children’s game, Pokémon are often aggressively adorable, triggering the desire to just squeeze them super tight and squeal when you see them for the first time. To get these Pokémon, players (known in the game as “trainers”) have to catch them from the wild. There is a definite human fantasy here, embodied in the real-world fascination with exotic and rare pets: the fantasy that every wild animal secretly wants to be your pet. And there is a palpable tension in the Pokémon games around this point. Pokémon instantly go from fighting for their freedom against the trainer’s attempt at catching them to being a loyal and obedient companion once caught, causing what’s known in the gaming world as ludonarrative dissonance, or a contradiction between narrative and gameplay.

The line between wildness and domesticity is blurred in Pokémon games.

Once the Pokémon is caught, the primary activity trainers do with their Pokémon is battle them against other trainers. However, true to the game’s naive utopia, it doesn’t run into the ethical stumbling blocks of actual animal fighting. If catching and keeping Pokémon is an idealized version of exotic pet collection, then Pokémon battling is an idealized version of dogfighting: bloodless, cruelty-free, and with the full consent of the animals participating. Pokémon, you see, have a deep-seated desire to compete with each other in these fighting bouts, and it is not born so much out of territoriality or aggression as an abiding need for self-improvement. Of course, it’s worth remembering that these desires are not somehow “innate” to the wild animals in the Pokémon world. They have been programmed in by the game designers, a convenient way to have a game constructed around animal fighting while still being perfectly appropriate for children.

Meet the Trainers

In the Pokémon games, trainers are usually presented with two goals at the start of the game. The first is linked to battling: win the Pokémon league and become the league champion by working on your Pokémon’s combat prowess. Generally, a player increases their Pokémon’s combat abilities by leveling them up, usually through having them train against other Pokémon to increase their attributes. It’s a simulated meritocracy, where effort yields success and recognition, eventually culminating in being crowned champion of the region. The themes of hard work and striving are recurring ones in Pokémon; as the theme song to the Pokémon anime series declares: “I want to be the very best.” Here, Pokémon become idealized labor for the goal of the trainer: tireless, loving the struggle, functionally voiceless. There is no pushback against the player-trainer, since the goals of the Pokémon and the trainer perfectly align.

A red and white plastic ball sits atop a scattered pile of Pokémon cards
Pokéballs like the one in this photo are how players/trainers “catch” Pokémon from the wild. Photo by Thimo Pedersen, 2021.

But if the trainer doesn’t think the Pokémon they caught in the wild are quite up to snuff, they can use the game’s extensive animal husbandry system to breed Pokémon that are stronger and faster than what a player can find in the wild. Much like real-world animal breeding, it becomes a system of studs with good stats and natures that you breed in ever-ascending statistical perfection. Oftentimes, at the end of a breeding program, the trainer is left with a massive number of Pokémon that they have no use for (commonly called “breed-jects” by the community). To deal with the excess Pokémon, trainers don’t have to wrestle with the thorny issues of culling. Instead, trainers can choose to release Pokémon back into the wild, where they are presumed to be successful despite never having to fend for themselves before. Once again, the system rewards human pleasure without consequence. Players get the steady flow of progress without any negative consequences for the simulated animals they are using to succeed in the game.

The second goal of Pokémon games is linked to collection: a professor approaches the player and asks them to catalog all the Pokémon in the region into an encyclopedia called a Pokédex. There are two different levels of categorization, seen or caught, and completion only counts if you “catch ’em all” (the motto for the whole franchise). It’s a Victorian naturalist’s dream job: collect a finite list of species in an ecosystem, write down all their statistics (height, weight, and one interesting fact), report back to your research institution, and be rewarded for a job well done. Here I use the term “ecosystem” very loosely. There is no sense of food webs in Pokémon games, and predation is more alluded to than explicit. And there is no sense that a player’s presence in the wilds of the Pokémon world ever has a deleterious effect: no Pokémon are threatened with extinction or ecological collapse. But there is a staggering number of Pokémon to collect. At this point in the franchise, there are over one thousand distinct Pokémon to catch, and that’s not counting regional variants and subspecies. It’s a perfect world for the collector—a John James Audubon or a Henry Walter Bates would have a field day. Once again, the designed nature of Pokémon fulfills the desires of its human players by turning the world into an untroubling and simplified eco-playground.

The Invented Nature of Pokémon Go

In 2016, Niantic, in collaboration with the Pokémon Company, released Pokémon Go, the franchise’s mobile app game, which projects the invented game world onto the real environment. Unlike most other mobile games, Go is an augmented reality game that syncs up with the player’s locational data and overlays the Pokémon world on top of the real one, so that real-world locations and environments have meaning within the game. This means that players can summon their Pokémon into the real world and do cute things like take pictures or play with them, which has an endearing effect. As the name suggests, Pokémon Go also incentivizes the players to visit (real) local parks and landmarks where the (digital) rarer Pokémon live. It mixes enjoying the outdoors with explicit gamification; the app tracks miles walked and new sites visited, and it gives players something concrete to do while there.

A hand holds up a phone displaying the Pokémon Go app in front of a city street with cars and trees in the background
On the Pokémon Go app, the game map is superimposed over real-world geographies. Photo by Mika Baumeister, 2020.

The simplistic nature of Pokémon is often presented side by side with the real-world environment, and the juxtaposition can be jarring. Shortly after its release, Go ran into a number of situations where players were congregating and playing in places designed for reverence and solemnity, like cemeteries and memorials, and now the app is constantly exhorting players to respect the real-world communities that the game incentivizes the player to visit. The app also reminds the players to remain cognizant of their real-world surroundings that may present hazards, like cars. And, somewhat counterintuitively, real-world wild spaces are not particularly good for catching wild Pokémon since the number of Pokémon roaming about is pegged to the number of active cell phones in the area.

Here we can see the flatness of Pokémon’s invented nature. Sure, all the enjoyable, human-tailored elements are still present in Go: the collection, the fighting, the cute pets players can feed treats to and take simulated pictures with. But it is rubbing shoulders with a more complicated non-virtual world, where wild animals might not be happy to see you, visitors do have real-world consequences for the environments they enter, and not every place is human-friendly. However, there are real benefits to this designed nature, too. Spaces that are set aside for wild-ness can be unwelcoming to the elderly or to people with disabilities, and often a local park or museum is more accessible.

A Pokémon Safari

A yellow street sign features the silhouette of a Pikachu. Underneath, a blue arrow sign with the text "Pokégenic" points to the left.
A Pokémon sign in Okinawa, Japan. Photo by Roméo A., 2022.

As long as Pokémon remains successful, its invented “nature” (ecotopia) will continue to be iterated upon. In 2021, over a year into the pandemic, Nintendo and the Pokémon Company released a game called New Pokémon Snap, a sequel to the original 1999 spinoff game. It is an on-rails photography simulator in the Pokémon world, where players go on a photo safari for research purposes and snap photos of Pokémon in their “natural” habitat. The line between wildness and domesticity is blurred in the game—some of the safari’s maps are in wild spaces, but others are around the research lab or in a nature park. Once again, the Pokémon world serves as a space for human desires about nature to play out, complete with travel to exotic locales where tourists do not hurt the environment or exploit the local workforce. And while the Pokémon are presented as wild, a large goal in the game is to get them to trust you, for example by throwing them a special fruit to eat—a unique opportunity to digitally flout real-world park signs that implore visitors not to feed the wildlife. And, of course, the fact that Snap was released in a time when travel restrictions were still in effect and when many people were turning to video games and digital spaces to simulate real-world interactions makes the gentle and simple nature of the game even more welcome for stressed-out players looking for a fun time.

Pokémon has been slowly inventing, piece by piece, a natural world that holds a mirror up to our own desires about nature.

It has been a long time since I bought my first Pokémon card, and since then I’ve seen the franchise grow and change. The space the games have invented over the years is a refreshingly wholesome place, cute and welcoming. But that emphasis can act as an excuse to keep things simple and cheerful, allowing the games to side-step many of the thornier aspects of human-wildlife interactions and relationship with domesticated animals. As long as Pokémon continues in this vein, its invented nature will keep expressing a naive utopia, a no-place that devoted players will spend a great deal of time visiting and enjoying.

Featured image: A plastic figurine of the popular Pokémon Eevee stands in a forest space amid dirt and foliage. Photo by Connor Dickson, 2022.

Nate Carlin is a writer, freelance reporter, and Pokémon enthusiast based in Madison, Wisconsin. You can find his work on WORT 89.9 FM or at Tone Madison, where he covers local policymaking. His last contribution to Edge Effects was Get Playful With These Six Environmental Board Games” (March 2022). Contact.