The Pokémon Dilemma
It’s hard to accept that our childhood favorite series depicts animal abuse, but the sooner we do, the sooner the series can evolve
With almost 400 million sales since its first video game release in 1996, the Pokémon series is nothing short of a worldwide phenomenon. For those who grew up with the games and TV series, Pokémon is addicting and intensely nostalgic. Each game provides the interactive experience of travelling all around the world from lush forestland to sprawling cities to roaring seas, with each game set in regions based on Okinawa, Paris, New York City, the Scottish Highlands, and the list goes on. And, of course, we can’t forget the main attraction: the Pokémon creatures themselves. These powerful and, more importantly, adorable animal companions venture with you as travelling partners. Have you ever found yourself wanting a fluffdog that can breathe fire? A six-foot tall ferret that never stops walking? A cat that can generate infinite amounts of money? Or even a flying bear? With 896 creatures to choose from, Pokémon’s got you covered. It’s downright sublime, and not surprising that so many fans of the series have cited Pokémon as a source for their love of nature and animals in the real world.
If we really stop to think about it, that popular reaction is weird, right? Because Pokémon in its most basic gameplay form is commercial animal fighting. Or is it? After all, the core gameplay loop is taking your beloved Pokémon and pitting them against other trainers’ animal companions until one or the other faints. At the end of the battle, money changes hands to the winner. The primary objective is to command your Pokémon to fight eight gym leaders’ Pokémon teams for nomination into the Pokémon League. This a martial-arts style fighting gauntlet in which the trainer must beat five consecutive world-class trainers with 30 consecutive Pokémon to be knocked out.
In fact, just look at this clip from the Pokémon Origins anime which I’m surprised made it through the censors. In it, two trainers direct their Pokémon into a battle, the tiny turtle Pokémon “Squirtle” and the fire salamander “Charmander.” Squirtle pins Charmander to the ground, and its trainer tells Squirtle to bear its fangs and bite down on its neck. The screams Charmander makes are nothing short of horrific, and the fire on its tail starts to fizzle out, a universal sign among the Charmander species that it’s about to die. After about 10 solid seconds of hesitation, the trainer finally intervenes.
This clip garnered a modest viral response, with Pokémon fans understandably disturbed and questioning if their lifelong childhood passion is actually ethical at all. I know this was the moment that made me rethink Pokémon, and it certainly has for others. Just look at some of the top comments on this video:
But outside of fan responses to this specific video, the animal cruelty perspective is universally ridiculed. PETA, controversial even among animal rights spheres, became a laughingstock when they released the flash game Pokémon Black and Blue, but even regular fans who pose the question in online fan groups have few, if any, defenders while Pokémon fans try to justify their favorite series. Some acknowledge the animal abuse problem, but write it off as separating fiction from reality, while many others provide defensive and unsatisfying rationales.
But I think the most revealing rationale comes from Holly Richardson’s Medium article defending Pokémon. “If PETA employees grew up playing Pokémon, why attack the beloved franchise?” To me, this questions says less about PETA and a lot more about Richardson and, more broadly, the psychology of Pokémon fans. To Richardson, the problem isn’t with Pokémon itself but with PETA’s decision to talk about depictions they see as morally wrong. She seems ready and willing to sweep what could be a real problem under the rug on the grounds that we all loved the series growing up. I’ve been drinking a dozen shots of Everclear vodka every night since I was five, but drinking is fun, Richardson says (not really), so why would Alcoholics Anonymous attack a beloved alcohol addiction? We can keep playing these childhood faves guilt-free, so long as no one says a word about the real problems below the surface.
I think Richardson’s question speaks to a real unconscious motive that might apply to most Pokémon fans. We love Pokémon. Always have. But to acknowledge the problem would fundamentally alter our lifelong relationship with the series, and that’s scary. There’s whole slew of psychological research that describes this response as “rosy retrospection.” It’s easier to sweep the problems under the rug and villainize PETA for discussing (or exaggerating, to be fair) the problem than that to honestly reconcile our childhood joy with the real possibility that we’ve been playing a cockfighting simulator our whole lives.
But I know Pokémon fans reading this might be thinking thinking about how condescending and/or ludicrous I must sound. Pokémon is one of my favorite series, yes, but I’m also a vegetarian who places a high importance on animal rights, so maybe I am biased. Maybe I’m wrong. So I think we should have an honest discussion about what actually happens in Pokémon. I’ll set my biases aside as best I can and investigate Pokémon at face value, and in return, I challenge you to set your nostalgia aside for a moment and pretend Pokémon came out this year. Good? Good. Now get ready to have your childhood ruined.
The Anatomy of a Pokémon Battle
There are a few arguments in favor of Pokémon I’ve seen again and again from fans.
1. Pokémon willingly and happily fight for their trainers.
2. Pokémon aren’t in any real danger during sanctioned Pokémon battles.
3. The Poké Ball, the apparatus used to contain Pokémon, is not cruel or confining.
4. The fifth game in the series, Pokémon Black and White, already explained why Pokémon battles are ethical, so why are we even talking about this in 2020?
We’ll get to that fourth point in a moment, but the first three still warrant some discussion.
The thing about Pokémon battles is that there are surprisingly few rules. Battles may occur under the purview of gyms and the League, but a cottage industry has popped up around casual Pokémon battling. According to an NPC in Gold and Silver, “if you look [a trainer] in the eyes, prepare to battle.” The second trainer you ever battle in the original Red and Blue says “Yo! You can’t jam out if you’re a POKEMON trainer!” The unwritten rule is that if you “lock eyes” with a trainer, you must wager money and make your Pokémon fight. It doesn’t matter if your team is half-fainted and your Squirtle got poisoned by a Weedle in Viridian forest, you must fight and there is no concept of consent in the Pokémon world.
The battle is usually a 6-on-6 match — to “win” the battle, you must use your Pokémon to knock all six of the opposing trainer’s Pokémon unconscious. As your rival (jokingly?) says in Pokémon Red and Blue, “Your POKEMON don’t look dead! I can at least make them faint! Let’s go, pal!” While no game mechanics exist for Pokémon actually dying, Red and Blue takes the player to the Pokémon Tower, which “is erected in the memory of Pokémon that had died,” proving in-lore that Pokémon are, in fact, not immortal and might just be one bad Pokémon battle away from the grave.
Moves are totally unrestricted — unlike the real world of martial arts, moves called “Jaw Lock,” “Throat Chop,” and “Sucker Punch” are totally legal. Pokémon can inflict poison or paralysis, or even set each other on fire. None of this sounds like something Pokémon would enjoy.
After the battle, the trainer can choose to heal their team, sometimes gravely injured, at a “Pokémon Center” to prepare them for the next battle. In comparing Pokémon battling to fights between stag beetles, which does “not [cause] blood shed or significant long term damage,” Richardson implies that because Pokémon are in no real danger either. And maybe she has a point — after all, the Pokémon Center healing is free and Nurse Joy can bring Pokémon from the brink of death to tip-top shape in a moment. Similarly, a Reddit user poses, “as long as you get them to a Pokecenter afterwards, where’s the harm?” But I disagree — think about it this way. The richest person in real life probably has virtually unlimited access to the best healthcare. Is it then acceptable for them to beat their dog with a stick every month as long as they take their pet to the vet regularly? Of course not, so why is it unquestioningly considered okay for Pokémon?
To obtain Pokémon, you either capture them from the wild using a “Poké Ball,” which according to Bulbapedia “limit[s] the power of Pokémon contained inside, taming them.” Wild Pokémon are not immediately willing to be caught. In Red and Blue, you can visit the Pokémon trainer’s school, where students are actually taught to do this workaround: “A healthy POKEMON may be hard to catch, so weaken it first! Poison, burns and other damage are effective!” Once the poisoned and/or burned creature is at the brink of unconsciousness, the odds are highest that they’ll be successfully captured. Then the moment the Pokémon enters its Poké Ball, like night and day they become tame and listen to the trainer’s every command. Sounds like mind control, right? How, then, can we say Pokémon are willing to fight when their sense of agency has been effaced by human design.
Richardson further argues that Poké Balls are not confining. She points to the existence of the premium “Luxury Ball.” From this, she concludes that Pokémon are not held captive, but “held in a five star regal hotel.” First of all, there’s no in-game evidence that the Luxury Ball contains a five-star hotel, but even if we granted that, the Luxury Ball is just one of many Poké Balls players can choose from. In fact, the marked designation of a Luxury Ball suggests that that the rest of the Poké Balls are not luxurious. And let’s be honest with ourselves — Ultra Balls have a higher catch rate at a fraction of the price, so most of us go with those instead.
I don’t know. I’m really trying to meet Pokémon fans halfway here, but the evidence of the Pokémon world being rife with abuse seems pretty damning. But wait. Within the gaming press, Game Theory’s Matthew Patrick is the only other person to argue in favor of Pokémon depicting animal abuse, and the most compelling critique against MatPat is that he totally ignored, intentionally or unintentionally, the ending of Pokémon Black and White, which provided an in-game explanation of why Pokémon battling might be ethical. And I agree with that critique. There’s no way to honestly discuss the ethics of Pokémon without talking about those games and the messages they were trying to send.
So let’s talk about that. Pokémon Black and White’s plot, after all, is centered around animal ethics. It’s a self-exploratory questioning of faith in Pokémon trainership which ultimately concludes Pokémon battles were fine all along. However, they wrap up the argument in bad faith and, as I’ll argue, the game provides an easy answer not supported by the many other damning implications of the text. In fact, I’d say Pokémon Black and White reveals something intriguing about unconscious biases being mutually between the authors, the game they made, and the wider audience who unquestioningly accepted the game’s pro-battling message, leading to a dismissive black-and-white attitude about Pokémon’s complicity in depicting abusive acts.
Psychoanalyzing Pokémon — Cruelty in Disguise
There’s a reason why Pokémon Black and White was written at the time it was, and a reason why its story surrounds the question of animal ethics. Pokémon’s developers, The Pokémon Company and Game Freak, likely knew a lot was at stake with this game. 2011 was Pokémon’s 15th anniversary, making Black and White the first set of games whose fans had literally been playing their games for a lifetime. Just old enough to see a generation of kids through their childhood but just young enough where most critical investigation came still came from the mind of a child, the debate on animal cruelty specifically in regards to Pokémon was virtually unheard of. At the same time, America was place where social justice beliefs were starting to hit pop culture in a big way. The U.S. also has one of Pokémon’s biggest audiences. So it’s no coincidence that this game, with the first and biggest example of social justice themes in the series even today, takes place in the Unova region, an analog for New York City. Long-term, it’s likely The Pokémon Company predicted a future where if animal activists were right, the series would be boycotted out of existence. Pokémon Black and White can be read as an existential crisis for the series — in order to keep the same format as it always had, and to survive, the game needed to justify the ethical existence of Pokémon battles, which was easier said than done.
Therefore, I want to argue that Black and White deliberately gets the player to give their entire childhoods a second thought, if only for a moment. The new attention to animal rights concerns will be unsettling to players accustomed to the previous game’s uncomplicated positive attitude on Pokémon battling. The story responds to the enigmatic anti-hero N, who runs an ecoterrorist group known as Team Plasma (an analog to the real-life Animal Liberation Front), who steal and release Pokémon from their trainers. This problematizes the attitudes of the pro-Pokémon-battling main characters and, in turn, the player.
In the player’s first interaction with Team Plasma during an organized protest, they actually raise compelling points and aren’t strawmanned.
Plasma argues that humans and Pokémon do not “stand as equals.” “Trainers order Pokémon to do whatever they please” and “[trainers] work [Pokémon] hard under the guise of being partners.”
And maybe they’re correct — Pokémon are routinely knocked unconscious, and anthropomorphic Pokémon like the four-armed Machamp are depicted performing manual labor without compensation.
The most unsettling point they make is an epistemological one — humans assume the interaction is mutually beneficial, “Yet, is it really true? We humans all entertain only that same thought. Has there never been the consideration that it might not be?” These lines border on metacommentary.
It makes us rethink all the Pokémon games we’ve played before, and that’s existentially horrifying if we’re at all nostalgic. In all the previous Pokémon games, not one trainer has questioned their assumptions about how Pokémon are treated. Nearly every line of NPC dialog from main characters to gym leaders to random villagers over five games has talked about Pokémon battling in some way, and always in a positive light. People in this world are obsessed. Their convenience store is a global monopoly called the Pokémart, even though they sell products unrelated to Pokémon battling. Their currency is called Pokédollars. This is the equivalent to if, in our world, people went on incessantly about dogfighting, banked with dogdollars to buy over-the-counter drugs at DogMart, and had no other life interests or goals. This truly is a Poké-industrial complex that few have questioned, both in-game and in real life.
In less than 10 lines, Team Plasma puts every line of dialogue across an entire series into questions and unravels the animal cruelty we’ve repressed. If Plasma is right, people disproportionally benefit from the transaction of battling — they gain protection, fame, and wealth — and so it’s convenient to believe Pokémon are equal, while the reality gets pushed to the unconscious. And for the first time in the series, Plasma brought this to the surface, made the unconscious conscious, and for the rest of the game, the main characters must deal with that cognitive dissonance.
Frequently, the response is tone-deafness and denial. Cheren, usually the plot’s token intellectual, can’t get himself to interact to Team Plasma’s question at face value, saying instead, “What reason could there ever be to steal somebody’s Pokémon? None, that’s what,” then following this black-and-white statement with the less certain, “there are Pokémon that believe in and even respond to Trainers,” (ignoring the Poké Ball’s brainwashing potential), “Given that, how could Pokémon be pitiable? I just don’t get it.”
Burgh, a Pokémon gym leader, dodges the question entirely. “Everyone shares a similarity in one respect: their valuing of Pokémon. We communicate with even our closest friends through Pokémon!” But Plasma members would respond this precisely demonstrates how normalized Pokémon abuse is. “I’m thankful that you gave me a chance to reconsider what it meant to get along with Pokémon. And so I swore…! I would earnestly stand face to face with Pokémon!” But if Plasma is right, there’s nothing earnest about anything Burgh is saying. What’s going on is that the main characters, never having considered this ethical concern before, are struggling to reconcile an uncomfortable idea, and they respond with unsatisfying answers for the player. Initially, the game sets up a legitimate debate and establishes character motivations.
Things start to fall flat toward the end of the story with Black and White’s foil to the player character, N. Unlike all the series’ silent protagonists, who have been inundated with messages of the equal relationship between humans and Pokémon, N has the unique power to communicate with Pokémon, and has concluded they’ve been wronged by humans. Would this not suggest that Pokémon have been directly telling him their struggles and pain? Both N and the player share a love of Pokémon, but N’s character arc is an embodiment of the player’s unease in response to these challenging questions. N struggles with the irony that in a world without weapons, Team Plasma hypocritically must use and battle captured Pokémon to achieve Pokémon freedom. To avoid this, he entreats the legendary Pokémon Reshiram to move all Pokémon to an alternate universe, where humans and Pokémon must live separately.
But in the climax’s crucial moment, Reshiram rejects N, and instead wants to be caught by the protagonist. N hears Reshiram say “I want to fight you… Make me your ally!” Therefore, the question is reversed. If Reshiram wants to be caught, wants to fight, then Plasma was wrong — one unsettling question is solved for the protagonists, and another is given to N, who assumed his entire life Pokémon did not want to be caught. He realizes that his “feelings swayed” and that there could exist Pokémon “who liked people,” saying “I should never have opposed you when you were surrounded by Pokémon who love you.” Problem solved, right?
Absolutely not — there are so many problems with the final takeaway of this game. Reshiram is the game’s only example of a wild Pokémon wanting to team up with a trainer. In every other case, the trainer must use mind-altering Poké Balls to make them docile.
But that’s not the whole picture: The player may also breed Pokémon to cultivate better skills and abilities. One could make the argument these Pokémon, having grown up in captivity, are not necessarily mind-controlled. Why then, might they enjoy fighting? Well, published research on illegal animal fights have demonstrated that animals bred to enjoy fighting isn’t an unusual outcome. University of Tennessee’s Harold Herzog’s doctoral dissertation on cockfighting roosters revealed that chickens bred from gamecocks had superior blood pressure systems to commercial chickens, designed to “withstand” blood pressure spikes “which can result from fighting.” Moreover, gamecocks are selectively bred for “aggressiveness and fighting ability.” If this is also the case with Pokémon, then aggression and violent behavior is bred into them. Love of fighting, then, would not be an innate Pokémon tendency across the board. Captured Pokémon are mind-controlled by way of Poké Ball, and bred Pokémon are selected for fighting aptitude. Humans in the Pokémon world, then, are still culpable in Pokémon cruelty.
Not to mention the “it’s not abuse if you like it” argument Black and White seems to make doesn’t interact at all with unethical fighting moves like poisoning or immolating the opponent, or the objective of knocking opponent Pokémon unconscious. If Pokémon battling must exist, it could just as easily be a friendly sparring match, with regulations banning dirty fighting and win conditions that don’t require the Pokémon to faint. None of this is ultimately put into question. The central character development began with trainers struggling to come to terms with how Pokémon might be treated, only for that to be cast aside at the last second. I can practically hear the subtext. It’s okay, honey, you don’t have to change a thing, or rethink your pre-existing ideas in any way. Keep gravely injuring animals and don’t forget to buy our next game in the series! This is to say that Pokémon Black and White sets up a compelling debate, only to short-circuit it in the most deceptive way possible, leading to an unsatisfying payoff antithetical to the buildup. Why did the game set up such an intriguing debate only to fumble it in the eleventh hour?
Black and White Morality: Why Fans Listened
Despite all this, the fans were largely convinced by Black and White’s message. Why were they so eager to accept it? Literary critic Catherine Belsey’s extrapolations of psychoanalytic interpretation might provide an answer. To Belsey, literature always depicts the unconscious contingently on peoples’ and greater society’s attitudes in real life. Her criticism of the Sherlock Holmes novels provides a psychoanalytic reading of Holmes’ attitude toward women to arrive at a conflicting male perspective rooted in unconscious tensions. Robert Dale Parker summaries that “The story represses feminine sexuality while at the same time teasing us with the continuing consequences of the feminine sexuality that it represses.” In other words, works like Sherlock Holmes and Pokémon Black and White, ones that deliberately explore psychological themes, by their very nature rely on the unconscious attitudes and desires of readers or authors IRL — Belsey’s psychoanalysis cannot separate the artistic work from the real world.
This is what’s going on with Pokémon. Now unlike PETA, I’m not saying that Pokémon is demonstrably normalizing animal cruelty, nor do fans have an unconscious desire to join an illegal cockfighting ring and beat up cute animals — it’s purer than that, right? Pokémon’s a series that has aged with its audience — many of us grew up exploring the Pokémon world for all its spirit of adventure, vivid nature settings, and endearing animal companions, and undiscerning as we were, we failed to see the ethical implications in the face of nostalgia. Later in life, if we consider the ethical ramifications of Pokémon fighting, it can feel like our entire childhoods are at stake. We thought the series was about the love between humans and their pets, but how can that be if we’re willing to see them fight to the brink of unconsciousness? So it becomes easy to dissociate that tension into the unconscious.
Psychologists call this phenomenon “rosy retrospection.” Rosy retrospection occurs when our nostalgic memories of the past alters our recollection of the world as it actually was. Most of us didn’t become fans of Pokémon for the engaging battle system (though that may have helped); instead we powerfully remember a childhood “free of worries and responsibilities and rich with pleasure” as we travelled through a carefree world of adventure and animal companions. In remembering the latter and not the former, “it is this discrepancy in recollection that creates the distorted perception.” The bias that emerges out of rosy retrospection can cause real damage: “When you aggregate these retrospective beliefs, public opinion becomes disproportionately positive towards the past. The political consequences of a biased public opinion can be vast.” And bias can be powerful and hard to undo. Lord et al. provide quantitative evidence demonstrating that people are more likely to believe that confirms their existing ideas, even if it has factual errors, if it means not having to consider factually sound disconfirming evidence.
So when The Pokémon Company hands fans an easy but poorly argued answer that lets them keep playing Pokémon without worrying, we have theoretical and statistical reason to believe they’ll readily take it, regardless of how the games actually depict Pokémon-human relations. In the end, we’ve made the same mistake as the main characters of Black and White — responding to the disturbing reality of Pokémon with denial and dissociating our unconscious fear of losing what made our childhoods full of wonder. Our understanding of how Pokémon are treated in these games remain black and white, and we never allow the series to change and grow into something more ethical. Three games later, Pokémon are still captured in mind-controlling Poké Balls and are expected to get into brutal fights because their trainers made eye contact. Maybe on some level that’s our fault.
Removing the Everstone and Letting the Series Evolve
And that really sucks, you know? I don’t think The Pokémon Company and Game Freak are these evil corporations that want kids to enter the blood sports scene. If you know your Pokémon history, then you’ll know creator Satoshi Tajiri was a wholesome guy who just wanted to bring his childhood love of bug-catching in the forest to the Game Boy after realizing Japan’s rapid urbanization meant that future children might never get to experience his childhood love of animals and nature. Well, Pokémon inspired that same passion for millions of children and adults across the world, and I think that’s wonderful and worth celebration. Pokémon’s early development a constant uphill climb — Nintendo just didn’t see the commercial viability of a bug-collecting simulator and fought the game’s release at every turn. This is probably why Pokémon got a combat system — nearly every game before it had a combat system, and fighting sells well. But unlike other games, the unfortunate implication that comes from pet ownership + RPG combat created an existential crisis that the series still deals with today, and hasn’t solved.
I’m not out to see Pokémon get canceled. I know I wouldn’t be an environmentalist without the game’s perfect setting and without Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire’s ecocritical messages, and I bet many feel the same way. No other game will capture the splendor of exploring the sights and scenes of Lumiose City’s Autumnal Avenue, getting lost in the lush ancientness of Ilex Forest, navigating Skyfall Bridge as the camera pans around the player in different views of the Castelia harbor and skyline, or surfing the deep-blue oceans of Hoenn, all with your cuddly companions by your side. But over the years, I’ve found it harder and harder to play Pokémon in good conscience. The moment Charmander death-screamed in Pokémon Origins, the moment Team Plasma debunked us all, the moment I finally noticed what was there from the beginning, I lost my childhood.
This is precisely why we owe it to ourselves as ethical consumers to deal with this cognitive dissonance at face value. If we fall victim to the unconscious and take Black and White’s message at face value, nothing will change and we’ll never truly, consciously and unconsciously, feel good about playing this series that so powerfully impacted our childhoods. If we aren’t more honest about what Pokémon is, the series can never escape depicting animal cruelty. But if we recognize our biases, if we can hold The Pokémon Company responsible then, maybe, the series will evolve into something so much better. Maybe we’ll see a future Pokémon game where humans and their animal companions are truly equal. And as Pokémon fans, that’s a future we should want.