A Theology of Pokemon
I think there are a couple of reasons that Pokemon resonates so deeply with the human imagination. It’s more than just a children’s game about collecting strange bugs. Whether the creators intended it or not, I think it gets at a core human longing to be more united with nature. This plays out in three ways: We want closer bonds with animals, we want adventure in nature without danger at every turn, and we want harmony with all living creatures, understanding without harsh captivity.
People love animals. Just think about people and their pets, and how much money they spend on them. Most people like mammals, like dogs cats and horses, because they have more personality and are more relatable. How awesome would it be if your salamander had more personality? More like a dog, or better yet, a Charmander.
And this idea, particularly in Christian thought and theology, is not new. The bible starts off with humans naming the animals, establishing a bond with them. CS Lewis talked about this and made the premise for his entire world Narnia based on the idea of what if the fall of sin affected the world differently. So in his world the animals can talk and are personified which connects with something inside us to relate with animals in a closer way.
Pokemon, I would argue, takes this idea to the next level. Every Pokemon is approachable and has deep personality. Even the icky ones, honestly are pretty darn cute and appropriate cuddling size. This is in stark contrast to real life animals where unfortunately only a handful of mammals have the kind of bonding we desire.
Pokemon also plays on the imagination of children exploring and finding wonderful things in nature. You can explore a forest and make cute new animal friends along the way, weather it’s a Weedle or a Pikachu. Even scary Pokemon like Ekins or Koffing are cute and fun. In the real world you just hope that rattle snake doesn’t bite you, that nasty worm doesn’t crawl on you, and you wish that squirrel would be your friend and not have rabies.
I think the world of Pokemon envisions humanity’s relationship with nature as God intended it better than perhaps any other analogy. We respect Pokemon and they respect us, we can study them learn about them, play with them, capture them and train them while still treating them well. And they don’t try to eat each other or us. I think this is what the garden of Eden was like. Naming all the animals sounds a lot like filling out a Pokedex to me.
Everything you find is exciting but ultimately friendly, and capturing them is done with cute magical balls not mean nets and cages. The Pokemon even learn to appreciate you and anything can be tamed, from a fish to a dragon. The wild Pokemon are actually jealous of trained Pokemon, because they see the trainers as typically good and allow the Pokemon to become the best versions of themselves. I mean that Bulbasaur ain’t going to level himself.
Sometimes there are bad trainers, and there is no harmony, and this is certainly a problem. Just like animal abuse in the real world, Pokemon views it as wrong and something humans need to overcome. What is idealistic about Pokemon, is that we can be better with Pokemon and they become better with us, as where in the real world, typically it really is in the animals best interest to be wild and free, despite how cute or interesting they might be.
I really believe all of this this is why Pokemon strikes such a chord in the imagination of children. It connects with something deep inside us, something in the way we are wired. And so it persists.
I remember growing up in the 90s and people told me it was a fad. In college I was even surprised to know that the next generation still cared about this thing which I had loved. I’m not surprised anymore though. I would argue we were born with it, created by God to love his creation and be working with it instead of fighting against it.
So the next church that writes off Pokemon as a fad or a children’s game really hasn’t understood Gods vision for his creation and how this is such a good image for it. And if you love Pokemon, before you write God off understand he has a better creation in mind than the one we live in. It will be restored some day, and we can partner with God in that restoration.