Imagining Pokecologies

The inanimacy of Pokemon — that disconnect between their cute cuddliness and their instrumentality as deathless gladiators — has been a problem for decades, merely papered over by the sweet eco-friendly crusading in the anime. Shifting these problems into a location-based game makes the lifelessness of the Pokebiome all the more apparent.

Sometimes I open a Pokemon from my collection and tap on the little representation of their body, just to see them respond. They react with a kind of inert aggression, acting out a play version of the main attack that they would use in battle, if they were strong enough to take on a gym. None of my current Pokemon are so strong. Few of them will be retained and trained up to reach such a level. Most will be replaced by a younger, stronger version of themself, and sent to the Professor to be experimented on or dissected or simply boiled up into candy that will be fed to other Pokemon. I tap on my Venonat and imagine what it would be like if the little fluffball enjoyed being touched.

Drowzee responding to being touched

The relationship between trainer and Pokemon is completely asymmetrical. I have an enormous influence on the experiences of my Pokemon, and the results of my decisions are shown on their bodies (visually or through numerical data) as they develop, evolve, sustain injuries and are hurt to the point of passing out. My Pokemon have very little impact on my own experience; no choice they make can cause me harm or benefit me. They cannot even slow my own development as a trainer by refusing to cooperate. I have all the agency, and none of the vulnerability. There is no interdependence, no care, no sense that we are tied to each other.

Hunting Pokemon is less like domesticating an animal and more like hunting mushrooms, perhaps: it is about learning where the different kinds spawn, collecting as many as you can, searching harder for the rarer types while amassing a huge quantity of the more common ones. But that comparison belies the agency possessed by mushrooms, which biologists are still only just beginning to understand. Not only can a poisonous mushroom kill me, but the underground network of fungi exists in symbiosis with the trees and other plants. Mushrooms actively contribute to our survival.

Ideally, I like to think of a pervasive game such as Pokemon Go as another world layered on top of our own. But this desire is frustrated by the reality of the Pokecology. Pokemon do not seem to respond to each other; Pidgeys and Caterpies spawn side by side, the Pidgey never preying on the Caterpie and the Caterpie standing tall and proud in clear view of the Pidgey. As far as I am aware, the presence of one Pokemon does not influence the appearance of others. I am not more motivated to catch a Raticate because of some impact she will have on the world around her. Humans can place lures, but neither this practice nor our pernicious habit of catching every critter we see seems to have any rippling effects on the Pokepopulations in surrounding areas.

The Professor seems reliant on transferred Pokemon for his research, and none of the transferred Pokemon are ever seen again. I never see the Professor or any of his colleagues out in the field, simply observing the Pokemon or trying to communicate with them. If I did a participant observation study of the Drowzees, what would I learn? Would I discover a way to work together with them so that I can provide them with something they need in return for them teaching me how to chill out? I will never know.