As a kid growing up in the 1990’s I have dedicated an enormous amount of time to the Pokémon franchise. Playing the video games on both gameboy and Nintendo 64, watching the animated series, and collecting the playing cards have all amounted to a childhood spent absorbed in the Pokémon universe. It is a bizarre experience to reflect on my childhood, and the fictional world I was so enamored with, through a critical lense. I have heard many times as a young adult about how the world of pokemon is secretly terrifying. The Humor website Cracked.com has done a few videos on how Pokémon glorifies animal abuse. But reading through Revisiting Globalisation Through the Movie and Digital Games Industries by Aphra Kerr and Roddy Flynn had made me think of other ways in which Pokemon universe is troubling within the context of cultural imperialism.
Kerr and Flynn’s article discuss the worries of having powerful transnational corporations, with footholds around the world, produce massive amounts of culture for a world audience. While they approach the question of cultural imperialism very carefully they do acknowledge it as a risk to small scale, regional cultural production. If regional cultural is not allowed the opportunities and space to be created and exhibited it will not be able to compete with the powerful transnational producers of culture. The popularity and range of products of the Pokémon franchise in North America demonstrates how far Nintendo, a powerful player in international video game production, can reach its influence. What I find even more interesting, however, is how the Pokémon universe itself shows an extreme example of cultural uniformativity.
Everywhere in the Pokémon universe the culture of catching and training Pokémon dominates. So much so that the infrastructure of the society is built around this one activity. Each town that the player visits on his quest to become a Pokémon master has three main buildings that are there specifically to cater towards someone training Pokémon: the Pokémart, the écenter, and the Pokémon gym. The marts sell an inventory of pokéballs, healing potions, and other items that the player needs to catch and battle Pokémon. There are no stores that sell things people would need in their daily lives like groceries or clothes. The economy seems to be dominated completely by Pokémon. The next most important space is the Pokécenter.
This building epitomizes the concept of uniform culture’s effect on social services. They not only provide the exact same service from town to town (healing Pokémon) but each one employs an identical individual. All of whom are named “Nurse Joy.” The explanation for this is given in the animated series. They are all cousins. This seems to suggest that one family has the monopoly on the entire Pokémon health care system. In a world focused on having Pokémon fight each other until they pass out, the people who mend injured Pokémon back to health have a lot of power.
The last building, and the most important to the game play of the gameboy video games, are the Pokémon gyms. These gyms are in almost every town. Run by the gym leaders they represent benchmarks of Pokémon training skill. A player trains his Pokémon to an appropriate level and then confronts the gym leader. Once the player defeats the gym leader they are awarded a badge as proof of their accomplishment. This concept seems similar many other achievement game mechanics. However, within the Pokémon universe the gym badges take on a disturbing significance. The world is so dominated by the culture of Pokémon training that in order to move freely from one town to another the player needs all of the gym badges. If some are missing, the player can be denied access to certain areas of the map. The badges are also signifies of the players worth and stipulate the relationship the player has with their Pokémon. If a player does not have a high enough badge ranking, and their Pokémon’s level is too high, the Pokémon will not respect the trainer. This manifests itself as a refusal to take orders during a battle. The badge system is to entrenched, that the Pokémon will let itself be knocked out in battle simply to spite its master who they perceive as weak.
In the animated series and in the game the relationship between Pokémon and humans is shown to be trusting and respectful. The bond between Ash and Pikachu is a classic example of that “friendship” between Pokémon and their trainers. It is often shown to representative of the relationships that “good trainers” have with their Pokémon. But how true can this be when a Pokémon perceives their trainer as weak and therefore unworthy of respect simply because the trainer does not prove their worth with a badge?
The Pokémon gyms also have troubling implications of entertainment culture in the fictional universe. Not only is it the economy, health care system, and an apparently important system of valuing people that are structure around capturing these creatures, but all entertainment is as well. The animated series often depicts crowds of cheering fans at the Pokemon stadiums. There are few examples of other cultural productions. Any other potential cultural production is choked out. This obsession that the society has over the act of Pokemon training shows how uniform the cultural productions are of the Pokemon universe.
The Pokémon universe shows an interpretation of what it is like when the cultural production of a society is concentrated. It not only affects cultural entertainment, but other important structures within society. It also demonstrates how interpersonal relationships can be affected when they are constantly held in relation with one form of cultural production.