The Ethics of Pokémon Training

When you get a title like that, you know there’s some serious sh*t gonna go down.

So, I’m writing this because of a question that turned up in my ask box a couple of weeks ago, which I will reproduce here:

“You’ve touched on the moralistic complaints about the Pokemon franchise before (your post on Torchic, Combusken and Blaziken). I’m on a similar ground to you, seeing teamwork etc being more of what Pokemon is about, but you can’t ignore the fact that violence and animal abuse seem to be essential in fostering that partnership between trainer and Pokemon, can you? Teamwork it may be, but the Pokemon take 100% of the physical side of things. Would you consider doing a post on this issue?”

This is, as it happens, a particularly good time to be talking about this.

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has just gotten a lot of attention in the Pokémon community for producing a short online video game, Pokémon Black and Blue, in which Pokémon free themselves from their cruel and sadistic trainers and start a rebellion with the intention of showing humanity a better way.  I urge readers to take a look at the page and the game for themselves, however the gist of it is as follows: Pokémon trainers are horrible people who keep their Pokémon trapped in Pokéballs most of the time, keeping them from getting exercise, and let them out only to have them beat each other bloody, and provide them with medical care only so they can send them back into the arena more quickly.  PETA has gotten a lot of flak for this, as they do for a lot of their stunts; from what I can tell, even the people who are theoretically on their side often think they’re insane.  Naturally, jumping on the bandwagon and attacking them would be too easy.  As always, I like to think I can outline a more nuanced view of the matter.  Here goes nothing.

I’m actually not convinced any of this is meant seriously.  I think the game itself was clearly made by someone who has more than a passing familiarity with Pokémon Black and White – in fact, I half suspect it was made by a fan with a black sense of humour.  I strongly doubt anyone at PETA actually believes that Pokémon is a genuine threat to their cause; it’s more likely that the game is a tool for sparking controversy and drawing attention to PETA than a real attempt to damage Pokémon.  I think there is something of a risk that going after Pokémon like this will risk trivialising the very real abuses they spend most of their time trying to tackle; however, I also think that attacking not just real instances of animal abuse in the world but also the cultural phenomena that appear to tolerate those abuses (in, I must again emphasise, what seems to me like a fairly tongue-in-cheek way) is actually a quite insightful strategy.  They’re probably not going to make any Pokémon fans change their mind about the franchise (they certainly haven’t changed mine), and I think they must know that, but they are going to make people react to what they’re doing, and in the course of that reaction people will be made to think about what makes real animal abuse different from Pokémon battling.  This, of course, means that people are thinking about animal abuse and why it’s horrible, which is exactly what PETA wants you to do, so the moment we even start having this conversation, the game has done its job.  Since I actually quite like what they seem to be doing here, I’m going to go along with it and discuss some of these ideas myself.

First of all, I wish to acknowledge one very important fact: they have a point.  Pokémon is a game about capturing wild animals, stuffing them into tiny balls, keeping them in there most of the time, and letting them out mainly so they can fight other animals, often for the amusement of spectators.  You can argue – and I’m going to – that this is a very simplistic reading of the ideas in the franchise, but bear in mind that it’s actually not the absence of good, wholesome ideas in Pokémon that’s the problem.  It’s very easy to point out the themes of partnership, discovery, charity, heroism and all the rest that we see everywhere in the Pokémon franchise; this is exactly what you see hordes of fans doing whenever PETA’s recent stunt is discussed.  The problem is that this doesn’t actually address their complaint at all.  It’s not the absence of good, wholesome ideas in Pokémon that they’re objecting to – it’s the way those family-friendly themes are mixed up and bound together with a premise that potentially has a lot of morally repugnant implications.  To quote the game’s website, “the difference between real life and this fictional world full of organized animal fighting is that Pokémon games paint rosy pictures of things that are actually horrible.”  Of course cockfighting is okay – after all, it’s no different to Pokémon training, and Pokémon don’t seem to mind… right?  That train of thought probably sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me, but people believe and do ridiculous things every day.  Can you imagine that train of thought passing through the head of someone who already endorses cockfighting anyway?  How about an eight-year-old kid who’s never heard of cockfighting before and doesn’t know whether it’s supposed to be good or bad?  Frankly… I can.  For most people Pokémon is only going to be one of a hundred different influences pushing and pulling in different directions, but it’s still there, pushing very subtly in a direction the creators never intended.  So, again, yes: I actually do think PETA have a legitimate point here.

How, then, do we avoid this problem?  Don’t even try to, says I: tackle it head on.

The basic premise of the Pokémon franchise is really quite morally ambiguous.  That’s part of the reason I find it so interesting, and part of the reason I write for this blog at all.  In general Game Freak likes to avoid touching on the moral ambiguities, but when they do it creates some of the most fascinating stuff the franchise has to offer.  This is exactly why I’ve always felt that Black and White leave all the previous games in the dust as far as storytelling goes – the idea of Pokémon liberation trumpeted by Team Plasma (whom many people see as a pastiche of PETA) is potentially a perfectly noble goal.  Black and White, for the first time, actually acknowledge that there is something slightly fishy about the basic assumptions on which the series operates.  Maybe Pokémon shouldn’t be forced to battle – are we really so sure this is right?  Many of the characters in the game are indeed won over by Team Plasma’s questioning of the established order, and even the Castelia Gym Leader, Burgh, admits that they might be onto something.  The problem is that the debate eventually winds up being very one-sided.  The Team Plasma grunts you meet are brutal, unthinking zealots.  Their leader, Ghetsis, is cynically manipulating his followers to achieve his aims of conquest.  Even N, the undoubtedly benevolent spiritual leader of Team Plasma, turns out to have been deliberately raised in the company of Pokémon who had been hurt by humans in order to influence his worldview, which begins to collapse once he sees what real Pokémon trainers are like.  What about the Pokémon N was raised with?  What about the people in this world who really do mistreat Pokémon horribly, like Team Rocket, such a major fixture of earlier games?  What about Team Aqua, Team Magma, and Team Galactic, who tried to destroy the world by enslaving Pokémon?  N is presented as naïve, his worldview as noble but warped… but would he really seem that way with Team Rocket on the scene?  I think the best path for Pokémon to take from here is to look at what Black and White have done and improve on it: find ways to highlight the moral ambiguities instead of whitewashing everything, and explain through their storytelling “this is good, and this is bad, and here’s why.”

What’s my take on the ethics of Pokémon training, then?  Well, if you’ve read a lot of my anime commentaries, you’re probably aware that I think there are a lot of unwritten and unspoken rules connected with Pokémon training, a code of conduct that regulates the way trainers and Pokémon relate to each other.  Although explicit references to this code are few, I believe that most characters in the franchise do implicitly follow it.  The first and probably the most important point to discuss is what it means to “capture” a Pokémon.  The anime rarely presents capturing a Pokémon as requiring a trainer to beat it into submission; often, particularly in the later series, it’s more a question of winning a Pokémon’s respect.  Furthermore, when the villains capture Pokémon, they rarely use Pokéballs.  When they do, no-one seems to mind.  When they try to capture Pokémon in other ways – even wild Pokémon, who should in theory be fair game – all the law-abiding characters are outraged.  I think what this implies is that the process of battling a wild Pokémon and capturing it in a Pokéball is in fact about convincing it that you are worthy of being its trainer.  This, in fact, is the reason knocking out a Pokémon in the games renders it impossible to capture: if you’ve beaten it completely unconscious, you’ve deprived it of the opportunity to test your skills and perseverance to its satisfaction.  Capturing a Pokémon under such circumstances would be an unforgivable transgression of the rules that govern interaction between humans and Pokémon.  Capturing Pokémon without Pokéballs – by physically restraining them, for instance – likewise violates the somewhat ritualised process of capture.  So, now that we’ve established that Pokémon have to permit trainers to catch them, why would they even want to?  The obvious reason is that they become more powerful under human training, but this is an oversimplification of the issue.  Gaining “levels” represents a Pokémon gaining a greater understanding of its own innate powers, coming closer to becoming an ideal paragon of its species.  This is most noticeable in species that experience evolution, of course (which, incidentally, I believe to be closely connected to the removal of psychological blocks and the achievement of a more advanced state of mind) but all Pokémon have unique abilities which even they may not fully understand by instinct alone.  At the same time, travelling with humans forces Pokémon to learn a wider range of skills and use their abilities for a wider range of purposes than they ever would in the wild.  As a result, they develop greater versatility and creativity than their wild counterparts.  They may even gain skills of leadership and cooperation as a result of working together with Pokémon of other species (if you watch the anime episode Bulbasaur the Ambassador you’ll see exactly what I mean).

But what good does all this serve, beyond making them better able to serve humans and fight in human tournaments?  Simple.  I don’t think Pokémon are ever necessarily supposed to spend their entire lives with humans once caught.  Many may decide later to stay with their humans forever, but I believe most Pokémon initially join trainers with the assumption that, like Ash’s Butterfree and so many of his other Pokémon, they will eventually leave, either returning to the wild to use their newfound powers there, joining other trainers to explore their abilities from a different perspective, or even assimilating completely into human society in one way or another, like Squirtle eventually did.  Pokémon, in short, should not be viewed as passive tools to be used and discarded by trainers.  They are independent, thinking beings who may partner with humans, temporarily or permanently, in order to further the goals of both, in accordance with an unspoken but well-established and very complex code of honour that dictates the actions and conduct of both sides.

Yes, I did just try to completely change the way you view every aspect of Pokémon training from the ground up.

Damn, it feels good to have my honours dissertation finished.

One thought on “The Ethics of Pokémon Training

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