Pokemon is inescapable. Pikachu has become one of the most recognizable characters the world over, and is even speculated to be able to surpass the current king, Mickey Mouse.1 The franchise, initially starting out as an understated title on the original Game Boy, has grown to include seventeen feature films with one soon to release, an anime with over eight-hundred and fifty episodes, an expansive trading card game, and dozens of spinoff and main-line games. Very few franchises have seen the same kind of success that Pokemon has had, and none have seen it in the same amount of time. As a result of this sudden ubiquity many authors and theorists have speculated about how Pokemon has managed this and what it could mean for society. Most authors note the overt capitalism and consumerism of the Pokemon universe and marketing strategy, but few actually engage with the source material or culture surrounding it, and in fact get many of the basic ideas within the game wrong.23 While this is likely in part a result of academia only looking at Pokemon in the late 90s and early 2000s, most discussions of Pokemon still come back to similar themes of its marketing strategy and youthful appeal. Certainly consumerist aesthetics are a significant part of Pokemon’s overall entity, but the simple idea of catchin ’em all isn’t the only place that manifests. Pokemon’s success is embedded in it’s consumerist design, a design that permeates all areas of the core games and many of the peripheral properties, but the appeal doesn’t come from matter of fact consumption of content, rather it comes through the expressive act of that consumption.
Before getting into the function and culture surrounding the core games, it’s worth looking into some consumerist theory, in order to understand how Pokemon is functioning. In Mineo Hattori’s paper titled “Identity and Desire in Consumption”, Hattori goes into the idea of how consumption allows for the expression and creation of identity. Although not a new concept, the earliest manifestation of this idea likely goes to Marx, it’s one that has significant importance in modern day living, especially in America. Hattori identifies two common theories about expression through consumption and commodities. The first is that expression occurs within subcultures, where commodities are assigned values differentiated from the dominant culture. The other is that industry assigns value to commodities, then consumers borrow that identity through the act of consumption.4 Both of these ideas seem present within the Pokemon ur-structure, and we will see them manifested later. Hattori also gets into the idea of agency with respects to the consumer versus industry. He cites many young consumers as having the attitude that their choice of product is somehow representative of themselves, but also remarks that this idea of ‘choice’ could be an illusion given industry’s control over what their product symbolizes and societies control over how individuals relate to symbols.5 While not expanded upon in Hattori’s paper, the knowledge that participants consider themselves agents when consuming is important for considering the appeal of consumption. Although this in turn assumes that agency is fundamentally appealing, this is a fairly well supported concept and is in fact at that heart of many games’ design, as a result we can assume it safely.
From here we can establish another idea, hobbies are both consumerist and important in self-expression. We can assume this by applying the theory of subcultures. It is not uncommon to hear someone identify themselves with terms like ‘biker’, ‘gamer’, or ‘reader’. In all of these situations there is also an interaction with a set of commodities; you need to ride a bike to consider yourself a ‘biker’. While hobbies exist on a more conceptual plane than commodities, we can see them as an extension of the commodities they interact with. Additionally, we can look at hobbies as another important form of expression through commodities, as the application of a product is equally important as its symbology, if not more so.
Now we should be properly equipped to enter the literal world of Pokemon. While Pokemon’s more peripheral manifestations are all very important, here we will be primarily looking at the core game series. The primary story of the original Red and Blue Pokemon games involve a youth setting out on a journey to become Pokemon master of the Indigo League, a series mainstay held to to this day. On the this expedition the player character will catch wild Pokemon, solve puzzles, and battle rival trainers and gym leaders up to the Elite Four and Champion of the Pokemon league. In order to accomplish this the player character acquires Pokemon through various means, like trading or capturing wild Pokemon, and then trains them up to be capable of overcoming their adversary’s Pokemon. Trainers are capable of having up to six Pokemon with them, and any additional Pokemon gained are relegated to storage within the ‘box’.6 Once the Champion is conquered there is actually very little content available to the player, at least in Red and Blue, so players usually resort to battling or trading with friends and maxing out their teams’ levels.
This is where most academics mess up when encountering Pokemon. Likely due to it’s prominence in American marketing, the infamous phrase “Gotta Catch ’em All!’ takes the forefront of researchers mind, and the actual reward loop for the game is missed. Authors like Leet and Allison assume that the game is incentivizing collection. While this might be the case for merchandise, this emphasis does not actually exist in the game world. Ever since the original titles, the Pokemon games can all be completed with the use of only a handful of Pokemon, sometimes only one. Beyond that, successful collection of many Pokemon only rewards a handful of items, and collecting all one-hundred and fifty-one only nets a simple congratulations. Even the release of two games is often misinterpreted as a ploy to get parents to buy two copies, and while that certainly happens, the original intention was to encourage interaction with groups of friends.7 Though this isn’t to say that collection isn’t a large part of the Pokemon games as a whole, it is important to realize that the games themselves do not focus singularly on that endeavor. Instead, what makes them effective is there ability to focus on many aspects simultaneously, like with the progression and collection that has been present since Red and Blue.
We’re finally where rubber meets pavement on what’s going on here. If we run with the idea set before us by many academics studying Pokemon and what the game seems to offer us itself, Pokemon are objects for collection and consumption. This means that Pokemon (‘mons from here on out) are themselves commodities existing inside the greater commodity of the Pokemon game/universe. It also means that ‘mons can be used for individual expression, and they certainly are. Singular ‘mons can be huge parts of many fans lives as we can see by individuals whose usernames are those of their favorite ‘mons, like the community organizer for Pokemon Online who goes by Weavile or the twitter personality Eevee. What’s particularly interesting is that many people pick a favorite ‘mon not only by visual design and flavor text, but also through their use in-game. The poster child for this phenomena is unmistakably Charizard, who, while definitely blessed with a great design, is one of the original three ‘mons you can start with, and has remained the single most popular ‘mon since the game’s release.
Another thing worth considering is the fact that players have agency in their chosen representations. Getting back to Hattori’s points, unlike in most situations of consumptive expression most, if not all, of the associations with any given ‘mon are ascribed by the player or player base. No single ‘mon is supposed to ‘be’ for any given player group, instead all ‘mons are offered equally and to all audiences. This message is even reinforced in the anime, the space where many of Pokemon’s more concrete messages are derived, as female characters will acquire more ‘masculine’ ‘mons, things with burly or intimidating designs like Dawn’s Mamoswine, and male characters will receive ‘feminine’ ‘mons, things with traditionally cute designs like Brock’s Vulpix.8 This puts all of the ‘mons symbology in the hands of the player, a theoretically unlikely situation given the two predominant theories Hattori discussed.
Beyond the consumerist expression of simply picking ‘mons to use in your party, Pokemon actually manages to double down on ways for players to express themselves. Like we discussed early, the original Pokemon games provided to base goals for the player, becoming the best battler and collecting everything. In every iteration since, the games have provided new means of interaction with your ‘mons. Generation 2 added breeding, 3 added contests and secret bases, 4 added online functionality etc. These have all created respective fandoms and hobbyists who primarily focus on various specific activities within the Pokemon games, although they often overlap. For instance, breeding and designing a perfect ‘mon can be an activity in and of itself, but then that ‘mon could in turn be used for competitive battling. It’s not hard to find examples of these distinct communities either, Pokemon breeding alone has it’s own massively popular facebook and Reddit pages.9 Sites like Smogon University and its battle simulator Pokemon Showdown draw thousands of users daily who are simply looking to engage with the Pokemon battle system.10 On top of providing a means of expression through activity, these avenues of gameplay further compound expression by creating sub-cultures, the other means by which consumers participant in consumption as the agent. The point of all this is to illustrate the many ways in which the Pokemon base games allow for expressive consumerism, as opposed to being a singular activity of rampant collection, and how that creates an multi-layered system of expression.
While I doubt that the initial, or even current, design philosophy of Pokemon focuses on the idea of identity creation and consumerist expression, it’s certainly a pervasive element found throughout the series. If we assume that situations where consumers have the agency in a consumption interaction are more likely to satisfy the consumer, the amount of agency that the games provide for prospective consumers is likely the reason for their staggering and enduring appeal, not the franchise’s overbearing message of collection.
1Tracey Lien, Polygon, http://www.polygon.com/pokemon/2014/8/21/6051183/pikachu-pokemon-mickey-mouse
2Simon Leet, “Pokemon Consumer Culture”, http://www.arts.cornell.edu/knight_institute/publicationsprizes/discoveries/discoveriesfall2002/07simonleet.pdf
3Anne Allison, “Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination”
4Mineo Hattori, “Identity and Desire in Consumption”, http://commissionedwriting.com/identity_and_desire.html Paragraph 4
5Hattori, Paragraph 7-13
6Satoshi Tajiri, Various Pokemon Games, Game Freak, Nintendo
8The Pokemon Anime, OLM, Inc., 4Kids Entertainment