Pokémon gets political

Despite the fact that the Nintendo game, Pokémon, has been through many incarnations (there are at least fourteen versions between Pokémon Blue, 1996, and Soulsilver, 2010) the story has remained pretty much the same.  You put together a team of monsters, train them up, fight the Elite Four to become the league champion, and along the way defeat the bad guys.  Now and then the gamemakers add new monsters and new gimmicks, but the basic story doesn’t vary.

Until now.  Because the new games, Pokémon Black and Pokémon White, have a twist, a story behind the story.  As you fight your way through the Unova region preparing yourself to compete for the league title, you keep running across people making speeches in town squares arguing that it’s cruel to keep pokémon in little balls and use them as battle tools. Pokémon are meant to live free in the wild, they say, and we should all release the ones we’ve imprisoned and leave them alone.  The people making these speeches are, of course, the bad guys—Team Plasma, they are called—and we have to fight them.  But it’s not obvious why they’re so bad until we discover that their leader, one Ghetsis, actually wants everyone to release their pokémon so that he’ll be the only one who has any, at which point he intends to take over the world.  As this is dawning on us, we also gather that the money and much of the political pull behind Ghetsis comes from a teenager named Lord N.  But when we eventually meet N we find that he has no idea of Ghetsis’s true intentions but is forcefully committed to the idea that keeping pokémon is cruel—though he is, by the end of the game, beginning to wonder whether Ghetsis isn’t wrong, whether monsters and humans can’t live and work together in harmony.

So we have (1) Ghetsis, the hypocrite, cynically encouraging N’s idealistic belief that keeping pokémon is cruel for the double purpose of using N’s charisma to sway the masses to his point of view (which will further Ghetsis’s aims) and using N’s money.  At the same time he keeps N cloistered in N’s own castle.  There N spends his time, when he’s not obsessing over the problem of poké-cruelty, in a room full of toddler toys, obviously established by Ghetsis to retard the teenager’s growth.  Then we have (2) N, the idealist, naive enough that he never even begins to wonder about Ghetsis’s motives, but ever and again turns over in his mind the problem of pokémon.  The game ends with N giving us a solemn farewell and flying off on his dragon to think things over in solitude.  He has not, even now, grasped that Ghetsis was manipulating him.  And finally we have (3) Team Plasma, the masses, some of whom follow the Ghetsis model and some the N model:  brutal thugs and deceived idealists.  This is not a bad introductory account of politics, or a version of it anyway.

Now behind the politics, it seems to me, there is a psychology.  The members of team Plasma who know that the goal is world domination are plain meanies and thus, naturally, cruel to their pokémon.  But the members of Team Plasma who are themselves deceived, and who truly believe that pokémon should be released, are also probably cruel to their pokémon:  for that they believe the rhetoric suggests that they cannot imagine a loving relationship between humans and pokémon.  This provides a deeper link between the thugs and the idealists than that the latter are deceived into helping the former.  They are at their core the same:  at any rate, there is something the same in them;  thugs and idealists share a cold space in the heart.  And this substantially deepens the broad lesson the story tells about the dangers of idealism, bringing it down to the level of the individual.

But if I’m right so far—if I’m right that Plasma members are universally cruel to their pokémon —this lends support to Plasma’s founding idea: pokémon indeed should be released.  The game makes Plasma the bad guys, and does a great job of it.  For the first time in the Nintendo Poké World, we see why the bad guys are bad.  And of course we’re supposed to disdain Plasma’s central claim, and refuse to release our pokémon.  And yet Plasma’s very existence proves the claim right.

Which brings us finally to the gamemaker.  It seems to me that somebody, at some point, took a course in a political theory.  It doesn’t have to have been a very good course.  These aren’t sophisticated ideas.  But at any rate whoever it was kept thinking, and made an attempt to apply the results to the Poké World.  Clearly the purpose of the plot is to defend the entire Poké Enterprise:  to raise the question, which maybe bothers sensitive young gamesters, of whether it is okay to battle with these sweet creatures until they make one another faint, and to answer it with a resounding yes.  It is okay. Pokémon like it.  It’s Team Plasma who thinks it’s not okay.  And Team Plasma is bad.  So the question is solved.  Except, in light of what I’ve said about Plasma’s own cruelty, maybe Plasma is right.  And maybe the question is not solved.

On this basis, I would argue that the gamemaker enters the Poké World in the person of Lord N, obsessively considering the question of poké cruelty and oscillating between answers, embedding one answer within another, and so on.  And the purpose of the game is to consider the moral worth of the game.

But now, the final twist:  the gamemaker is being N in order to take our money.  And therefore he is also Ghetsis.  So at the top-most level, Ghetsis is N and N is Ghetsis.  And thinking about moral questions is a financial transaction.


4 thoughts on “Pokémon gets political

  1. A Harry Potter fan brought up the problem of SPEW in the books a few days ago. I always thought SPEW functioned as critique of both naive idealism as well as the internalized speciesism in “the good guys.” My friend argued that SPEW was only a critique of the former. The good guys can’t have racism–they wouldn’t be good.

    I disagree, and I’m also wondering where one finds a good critique of speciesism in children’s literature/media. Must the idealist also be insufferable? Is this a life lesson that needs to be taught?

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