So, recently I read this article from the New York Times Magazine about the growing evidence for a precipitous decline in global insect populations over the last couple of decades, a phenomenon that has gone largely unnoticed until quite recently (except as it pertains to a few species we care about, like honeybees) because insects are just so hard to count. Because the available data is still quite limited, it’s hard to draw detailed conclusions about what’s happening, how fast, and how we can stop it, though it seems like a good bet that global climate change and indiscriminate use of pesticides are probably both involved.
Now, to most well-informed people this is clearly part of the ongoing social, political and technological crisis around humanity’s relationship with the natural environment of our planet, and probably brings to mind any number of ecological catastrophes brought about by human agency, the debate over what kind of action is necessary to prevent or mitigate similar catastrophes in the future, and so on and so forth. But for me, as a lifelong Pokémon fan with an analytical bent and a more-than-passing interest in Pokémon’s origins, my mind went instead to the childhood hobby that Satoshi Tajiri dreamed of sharing with children who couldn’t experience it in an increasingly hyper-urbanised Japan: insect collecting. The people who collected the data that sounded the alarm to the scientific community, and allowed this article to be written, are people like Tajiri might have grown up to be, in another life: amateur collectors who, for the most part, aren’t professional scientists, but still do the hard work of science while receiving little of the glory, all for the love of bugs. They are real-world Pokédex compilers, whose contributions don’t depend on exhaustive formal education or sophisticated experiments, but on the foundational scientific skills of observation and curiosity. Their work is Pokémon’s spiritual heritage… and everything they study is slowly dying.
And I’m not sure if Pokémon has the capacity or even the desire to pass meaningful comment on it.
Pokémon has meaningful attitudes to movements and phenomena that exist in the real world; it’s hard for any work of fiction not to. Its stories, characters and worldbuilding tend to express perspectives that are, among other things, pro-science and technology, pro-environmentalism, pro-individuality, pro-internationalism and pro-moderation. Above all else, though, Pokémon is escapist, and it is all of those other things in an escapist way. Pokémon isn’t pro-science by focusing on positive portrayals of scientists and their values in the context of realistic stories about the struggles and wonders of research and discovery; it’s pro-science by showing a world where technology has achieved, and continues to achieve, miraculous things that uphold both societal order and personal freedoms. It isn’t pro-environmentalism by depicting realistic conflicts between the needs of industry and the needs of environmental protection and coming down on the side of the latter; it’s pro-environmentalism by depicting an idealistic vision of humans as responsible stewards of the natural world who live in harmony with their animal friends and solve environmental problems efficiently with advanced technology (at most, as in Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby, it depicts human progress and environmental purity embodied as mystical god-beasts who must be tamed by the Power of Friendship in order to restore a cosmic balance between the two). In short, Pokémon presents a world, arguably an optimistic projection of the near future, in which the biggest problems of the real world have already been solved, apparently with relatively little sacrifice, and in ways that seem largely agreeable to people who share elements of the creators’ basic worldview. Stories about failure, responsibility, consequence, lamentation and sacrifice are largely beyond it.
Which is fine.
There’s nothing wrong with escapist fantasy; sometimes the chance to leave the real world behind, to disengage from the stress of huge social problems that individuals can do little about, is what people need to maintain their mental balance. Escapism is a perfectly legitimate literary mode that’s been around for thousands of years. And if I’m going to be totally honest about this, my feelings on the subject are indelibly coloured by my own desire to have Pokémon grow up with me, pursuing steadily more complex themes and pushing the boundaries of what games can make people think and feel. Game Freak’s creative team didn’t sign up for this; they’re here to make games, primarily for kids, about cute magical creatures that will help you go on adventures if you make friends with them, not esoteric allegorical morality tales about modern humanity’s failure to live up to its self-appointed role as caretaker of the natural world. They certainly aren’t here to tell stories that cater to a gay millennial Kiwi classicist’s vague but growing anxieties about the social responsibilities of fiction and media.
But having said all that… maybe now is not the time for escapism. We are facing a world where Pokémon’s optimism about the near future is gradually beginning to seem less and less justified, where the dazzling variety of life that is Pokémon’s heart and soul may become less a reflection of reality, and more a mournful echo. When Tajiri created what would become Pokémon, he did so in a spirit of joy and sharing, wanting children who grew up in cities to experience the natural environments that were retreating from Japan’s urban centres. It was all still there; environmental alarms were being sounded in the 80s and 90s but consensus generally agreed that prompt action could prevent the situation from ever becoming truly desperate. Today, even the most optimistic projections look bad. Every year more and more species join the graveyard of extinction, and even if we perfect the kind of technology that allows humans of the Pokémon world to resurrect fossil species, an ecosystem is greater than the sum of its parts – restoring a web of relationships between dozens of species is long, difficult, complicated work. Someday, the world that Pokémon tries to share and celebrate might no longer exist at all.
I want a Pokémon game that explores this (or a movie; now that Detective Pikachu is establishing live action Pokémon films as a thing, maybe the west will be willing to take Pokémon movies seriously and we can have ones that aren’t just flashy promotions for event-exclusive legendary Pokémon) – a game that understands that sometimes we lose, and sometimes what we lose is unrecoverable. The popularity of Nuzlocke gameplay, I think, suggests that there’s an inkling of that desire in Pokémon’s fanbase, although I’m less interested in the rules themselves than in a story and theme that would complement the high stakes and bleakness implied by those rules. How would it feel to play a Pokémon game in which we witness the tragedy of extinction? The disappearance, forever, of species, habitats, ecosystems, wonders of nature? To have the chance to stop it – sometimes, if we work for it, if we’re lucky – but know that some failures are inevitable? Every choice has cost and consequence: we, and our Pokémon, are scarred by what we experience; the communities our Pokémon leave behind are diminished by their absence; criminals we fail to pursue will continue to exploit Pokémon until they are brought to justice; fragile habitats erode under the dual pressures of climate change and urbanisation; every defeat drains a little more joy and colour out of the world forever. That’s so deeply not what Pokémon is, but who else would tell that story better? Pokémon doesn’t just have the hundreds of species, it’s put them centre stage from the very beginning and made them beloved, and it has always cared about their place in the natural world, as well as humanity’s. This kind of story is something I think the world might need, and it’s Pokémon’s story to tell – because of what Pokémon is, and why it exists, and what it has done for us already. The pieces are all there, but I don’t know if the will exists to set them in place.
Do creators have a responsibility to work to change the world? Does influential fiction have a responsibility to be activist, if not through a direct call to action, at least by confronting its audience with novel ways of thinking about real issues? Has Pokémon already done that work by sharing Satoshi Tajiri’s passion with children who grew up to care about the things I care about? Will life imitate art, if art can speak with genuine emotion? I don’t know the answers to those questions; I don’t think anyone does. I just write a Pokémon blog. Maybe that makes this story my responsibility.