Open Discussion Topic 2: Electric-Type Boogaloo

welcome to a This
another This
one of the Thing
another one of These Things. Yes. Two weeks ago I asked you all a dumb question and for some reason many of you saw fit to humour me with well-thought-out and reasoned answers to my dumb question, so I see no reason not to abuse this frankly outrageous goodwill by doing it again. Here is my second dumb question:

What do you think Pokémon is “about”?

And, by this, I mean not “it’s about fighting monsters who are your friends” but what it’s “about” in terms of themes and messages. There are a lot of one-word answers I think I could justify for this question: discovery, adventure, childhood, friendship, ambition, nature, hope.  I think probably most people would agree with all of those to some extent, but certainly wouldn’t place the same weight on each of them as I would, and would have their own additions to the list.  We probably also have different thoughts from Pokémon’s creators, and yet more different ideas on what Pokémon should be about. So… yeah, tell me what you think!

Be as broad or as restricted in the scope of your answer as you feel is appropriate: you may think that the themes of the Pokémon TV show (or individual series thereof) are different enough from the themes of the “core” games’ stories that it’s not worth trying to bring them together; you might even be a TCG player or a Masters player or, gods forbid, a Trozei! player who takes some personal meaning from your experiences with those games that has nothing to do with any of the stuff I usually talk about. Or you might be interested in trying to describe some fundamental theme that you think is present across all Pokémon media. I’m interested in the variety of answers that might be out there, is the point.

21 thoughts on “Open Discussion Topic 2: Electric-Type Boogaloo

  1. I don’t think Pokémon knows what it’s about anymore, aside from obtaining more solid gold Ferraris for The Pokémon Company’s top brass. The players don’t even have that to unify them, and thus threw a riot over the games finally deciding that they were starting to collapse under the weight of excessive hoarding.

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  2. I, personally, think that the series is meant to be (seeing as how it doesn’t always achieve it and sometimes outright fucks it up in new and interesting ways) that Hope Friendship and Kindness are the traits that deserve to give a person power, and that the only way to fail is to not try.

    In most of the games you are faced with the ever-increasing machinations of a Group Of Powerful Jerks (sometimes but not always a Team) who are using money and intimidation and sometimes outright extortion and Pokenapping to get their way. And we, a young person with a big heart and a team of beloved friends and an axe to grind with people acting like assholes, can walk right up to these people and say “Bitch I’m gonna clap your cheeks for being a dickhead” and actually DO it. And have that cheek clapping actually MEAN something.

    (It’s kinda hopepunk like that.)

    I do sometimes miss the days when it was just ‘you’re a kid, there’s some cool animals out there, go check ’em out and maybe accidentally kick some criminal asses’. There was something very pure and lovable about collecting cute animals just because you’re a kid and that’s what you do.

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  3. I feel like Pokémon is about escapism. You can pretend to be in a world where humans can be on more equal footing with each other and power is usually concentrated with the people who are the most good hearted. I wonder why there is such an appeal for the magical animal pets sort of thing- it says something about us as people, more than just that we like animals, but I don’t know what.

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  4. Pokemon is a series about punishment for deviating from the status quo.

    While I think this theme started accidentally, since Team Rocket were a bunch of criminals who do criminal things because it’s very much a small enough bad-guy narrative to fit on a GBA cart. The games have ever since then consistently framed their games, regions, and stories around bad people’s motives being the fact they don’t like the way the world works and often not actually for *that* bad reasons. Magma and Aqua have the foresight of a deaf bat but are still framed as doing what they do to increase habitats they see at risk. Plasma’s liberation is revealed to be a front but even before the curtain drops they’re presented as ominous, and disquieting because they threaten what we see as a natural order.

    The most sympathetically the series has ever attempted to portray delinquents and outsiders is Guzma, and Piers and Team Yell, and they’re never actually presented as being in the right. Sure it’s given a noble nod, but they are still confined to the “Team” nomenclature, grouping them in with ecological disaster artists and hypocritical megalomaniacs. All because they don’t want to play along with their society’s values, or just want to be happy in their home town rather than relocate because the magic Dynamax goo isn’t there.

    EVERYTHING is framed this way, not just the villains. The Tapus are capricious spirits who will gladly destroy your town if they don’t feel appreciated. Volkner’s mini arc is about how he’s being made miserable by the idea of leaving his perch and should be happy where he is. In Legends Arceus, god himself plucks you from the future in order to kick start this whole modern society thing because the current Galaxy Expedition Team are doing a crappy job at it. Giratina isn’t punished for actually doing anything evil, he’s punished for *not playing along*.

    Pokemon is a series about punishment for deviating from the status quo.

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  5. Pokémon is inherently environmentalist, it is about working with nature, not against it, Pokémon bleed into every part of the culture, and about how balance is needed, every truly dangerous evil team has been a radicalist, magma & Aqua had noble intentions but nearly destroyed the region with rock and rain, Cyrus wanted to stop pain in the world, but went crazy and nearly killed EVERYONE to do it, Plasma had noble goals of bettering relations and breaking down the master servant relationship people have with Pokémon, but they also stole Pokémon, harmed children, and tried to freeze the entire region, Lysandre was a moron, Lusamine wanted to help the Ultra Beasts but because she was fucking bonkers her plan failed, Rose wanted to stop a power crisis from occurring, but he released the sfx rig of Doom, my point is that every problem has been caused by humanity trying to control the environment to their own ends, like you said in the last one of these “In Pokémon Nature Bites Back.”

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  6. I think all the Pokemon media is in an underlying sense about the power of friendship, at least texturally. The anime and manga are all very concerned with the power of friendship and the bond of trainers and Pokemon. The games were built from the start to heavily encourage trading with real life people. Every game since gen 3 has a figure who you pal around with that is explicitly your friend who you travel around and interact with amicably (including most of the side games) and every evil team seems to have no care for the bonds of trainer and Pokemon, with the exception of N who finds his worldview challenged because you and your pokemon have this bond of friendship. And the best piece of Pokemon media, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon Explorers of Sky, is at its core the story of life partners and how to deal with one’s exes and work family (more or less).

    Even in the hardest game mode of Nuzlocke, you must nickname your Pokemon because first and foremost, they are your friends. Maybe not every single game mechanic contributes to this feeling, but it’s what resonates to me and is what attracted me to it as a child.

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  7. I think the entire franchise, from mainline games to spin-offs, from trading cards to toys, from anime to manga, from teeth brushing apps to underwear (I don’t for sure *know* Pokemon underwear exists, but I can only assume some merchandise line has offered it at some point *and I don’t want to check*), it is all, in its entirety, about self expression and fulfillment. That’s a couple of vague phrases so let me try to explain what I mean and hope the abstract concept I’m trying to convey is properly received:

    Starting with the mainline games, already you’re likely to get too common answers for why people even play these dumb games that nobody will ever be Satisfied with. The first is battling (becoming a master) which is generally the goal of the adventure in each title. The second is collecting (Gotta Catch ‘Em All), the original tag line for the series, reason for your pokedex, and a big endgame goal. The latter also being the reason some people feel so strongly about dexit, but that’s a can of worms. Arguably, a couple more mainline goals can be brought up. Some might say thwarting evil, as every entry has an evil Team and doesn’t just let you battle and collect in peace. Others might say finding rare Pokemon – legends or, in more meta examples, shinies. Yet another, smaller group find their hours spent on regional activities like Pokemon Contests or Amie or whatever. Still others it is as simple as just raising their dream team and doing a little of everything with those specific 6 monsters. I’m sure that doesn’t encompass every reason people play these games, but they’re probably the biggest groups, and each one likely would have a different point of view on what the games are about simply because they play the games differently.

    The TCG honestly probably waters it down to being the best or collecting them all.

    Spin-off games range heavily on theming, from making friends to stopping evil to taking pictures to brewing coffee to winning a fictional feudal Japanese war with the help of magical monsters.

    How am I tying all this together, especially the merch?

    Self expression and fulfillment, as I previously stated. This applies in universe and out.

    In universe, people use Pokemon for pretty much everything to reach their goal of happiness and find their place in the world, and NPCs *constantly* use Pokemon for self expression. Many trainers specialize with either one type of Pokemon or one theme. Sometimes it’s related to their career (construction workers), sometimes it’s a hobby (hikers), and sometimes they really just like that one Pokemon (pokemanics). Pokemon are friends and partners but they’re also an aesthetic choice. Like real life people might have a cat, a dog, or a hermit crab as a pet, Pokemon people might have a psychic feline holding back destructive powers, a fire breathing hellhound, or a crustacean with a huge chunk of rock on its back. They use Pokemon both to complete their lives and just show their own interests. Even the villains tend to prefer certain Pokemon, which may or may not factor into their goals. In a world where the focus of the games can change greatly (maybe you’re just a photographer or a warlord), it’s just universal that people use Pokemon to complete their own lives and convey an image.

    And this bleeds into the real world. Players make competitive teams or complete the Pokedex for fulfillment, fans create fakemon or write overly analytic blogs fo fulfillment. And when it’s not fulfillment, it’s self expression. They train a team of their favorite Pokemon even if it’s not viable, maybe even sticking to one type or theme. They draw fakemon of their ideal Pokemon. They write blogs to let everyone know their opinions on designs, characters, themes. They shiny hunt because they love those Pokemon, they wear the apparel because they franchise is a part of them, they wear the underwear because – okay, hopefully you get it.

    I hope that’s not a cop out answer, and maybe I’m trying to be too broad, but I’ve just noticed such a wide lens of what people feel is important to Pokemon, is a main theme, and I think the fact that there isn’t a main theme IS the main theme. It’s meant to be fluid and offer something for everyone. The games are meant to have multiple goals for players to focus on, and they get to decide which goal is the important one. Different gens even focus on different goals.

    And if I could pick one more theme to add on, it’s relationships. Relationships between trainers and Pokemon, relationships between rivals, relationships between friends trading and batting… sorta wish I picked this answer first but I honestly think my other answers were more all encompassing of the franchise.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a franchise people so strongly express themselves through, and while the games are all over the place in their focus, in generally seems to be about people finding their place in the world. Whether that place is being a Pokemon Master, being a professor, or being a god that rewrites the fabric of reality. They’re all trying to find their place in the world (or create a world for their place) and the games really do seem to focus on that, which is likely why the protagonist and rivals are always children. As much as I dump on Hop (and as much as people dump on Tierno), these characters are good examples of that. It’s children trying to find what gives them fulfillment and how to best express themselves.

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  8. I think trying to boil Pokemon down to a core conceit is itself wrong at this point. The creators’ primary goal, whether they succeed or fail, is to make each generation unique and different in as many ways as they think they can get away with while still feeling like Pokemon. And especially as the games go on, what they consider necessary to the games feeling like Pokemon gets looser and looser. You can see it in the Rivals easily; the reason there are so few Jerk Rivals is cause they try to make them different every generation.
    Blue’s a Jerk, Silver’s a Criminal, Wally’s Timid, Barry’s Hasty, Cheren’s Calculating, Bianca’s Clumsy, Hugh’s Determined, Gen 6’s a Group, Hau’s Optimistic, Gladion’s Pessimistic, Hop’s Insecure, Bede’s Proud, Marnie’s Stoic

    Science, Tradition, Nature, Spirit, Balance, Decay, Bonds, Succession.

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  9. Responses are varied, as are my intuitions about this, and I think that might be by design. Pokémon’s the #1 biggest thing ever franchise in the world, and I suspect in order to get to that position, or because of that position, its themes, so to speak, are either weak/understated (eg environmentalism), inoffensive/broadly appealing (eg friendship) or easy to reinterpret in various ways according to individual preference (discovery, exploration) – which again makes for broad appeal (scores of customers who think the product is all about something deeply personal, encouraging customer loyalty and consolidating the franchise’s staying power… but I digress).
    What I really mean by this is that I have no clue what Pokémon is about, I just like monsters really. But for science and tax purposes, let the record show that I consider Pokémon’s central theme to be: “whatever, but, like, in a good way.”

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  10. You know, this really got me thinking. I have decided to take this question as “What is Pokémon about for me?”, because I felt like that’s something I never really thought about. And I am a fan of this franchise for over 20 years now, I was seven when the original Pokémon craze hit the Czech republic, where I live. ¨

    For me, Pokémon is about…. collecting. No wait, hear me out. I think that is what led to its success the most. There were 151 (not much later 251) of the lil bastards that every kid in the world could religiously remember the names of and beg their parents to keep buying merch, merch and more merch. I remember how many times I’ve begged mom to buy me gum packages with Pokémon sticker cards in them, because I was collecting them and was still missing a few.

    I also remember the TCG trading in school. World stock markets ain’t got nothing on a bunch of seven year olds bargaining over a Charizard card.

    What I am saying is – Pokémon struck a goldmine. While before, kids were collecting hockey and football player cards and pogs (it was a Czech thing, don’t ask), Pokémon tapped into that itch. That need to collect things and have more of them – and exploited it as much as they could. Gotta catch’em all indeed.

    Sorry if that was a lil cynical or something, but I don’t think it was even meant that way. To this day, I am very much a completionist when it comes to video games. Gotta have all the collectibles available every time. Thanks, Pokémon.

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      1. Oh I am sorry, I thought it was kind of a Czech thing. I am not even sure how I got that impression to be honest. They were a massive craze in the late 90’s over here before Pokémon took over everything.

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        1. For what it’s worth, I don’t *think* pogs were ever a huge thing in New Zealand. I dunno, maybe I was slightly too young and just missed it? But I can only remember encountering them in American media.

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        2. They were a fad. No, they were the fad. Whenever somebody needs a quick example of a thing that was popular in the 90s that only people who were kids back then even remembers, more often than not they’ll mention Pogs.

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  11. I’d agree with the above commenters who argue something the lines of, “Pokemon isn’t about anything, it’s about everything (everywhere, all at once) that anyone wants it to be.” Maybe it started off as “adventure + friendship + bland moral messaging” but the calculus from the designers had to have changed once it became the global mega-phenomenon that it is.

    I’m a reluctantly avid player of Pokemon Go, and that spin-off game certainly fits “classic” Pokemon themes such as friendship and adventure. You can do much more in the game when you play with friends, and pre-pandemic you had to actually go outside and meet up with them to get the most out of it!

    Another theme that comes from the games and original TV show (but hasn’t been seen much in later seasons) is the “I wanna be the very best” ethos. Competitive battling is HUGE in the real world. In the anime universe, I don’t get the sense that it’s given as much focus, especially as other themes like environmental care and self-discovery get developed more. That said, I haven’t watched the show for over a decade now, so I might be way off the mark here.

    Now that I think about it, I want to say that the original English dub theme song captures every theme quite well: “I wanna be the very best” (Dominance). “To catch them… to train them is my cause” (Collection). “I will travel” (Adventure). “It’s you and me”; “You’re my best friend” (Friendship). “In a world we must defend”; “Our courage will pull us through” (Bland moral messaging). “Each Pokemon to understand”; “You teach me and I teach you” (Learning and science).

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  12. Something that has always stuck with me, though I can’t remember exactly where I heard it (I think it was in an interview with James Turner, but it’s none of the ones I have found when looking for it) is this idea: Pokemon is about the Love of Pets. This is obviously a bit of a simplistic, PR focused angle but I think expanding it to its natural conclusion gives a good sense of the overall messages of the Pokemon franchise, both intentional and not.

    Pokemon is really about the relationship between human society and Nature, with that concept of Nature and the Natural world taking on a more spiritual identity the way interpersonal relations do in Western, Judeo-Christian based societies (at least the ones I am familiar with). Where Pokemon can wrap up deities of time and space into its themes of the Natural World, a more American focused narrative would probably focus on concepts like “Love” and “Justice.” Someone smarter than me could probably talk about how to wrap up Shintoism into the picture, but I’ll leave that to an expert.

    While I echo the sentiments of “don’t change the status quo” from some other comments, I think a more specific call would be cautionary tales about messing with the Natural Order. Once we get past the “defeat the mafia” angle of the first two games, the antagonists are repeatedly defeated not just by the protagonist, but often just as much (if not moreso) by a counter-balancing force of nature failsafe to their greater ambitions. Rayquaza, Giritina (and the lake trio), Resiram/Zekrom, Xerneas/Yveltal, all these serve as natural opposition to the ambitions of the villains. I imagine Zygaurde also would have taken on a similar role in the theorhetical Pokemon Z, especially given his Pokedex text.

    A sort of cynical observation on this is that when it comes to issues of the environment, Pokemon sort of takes the stance that things will just sort themselves out as long as you are friendly and align yourselves with the Forces of Good. The sort of Solar Punk future Pokemon seems to have been aesthetically approaching seems to require no sacrifice, no change in behavior of the modern populace. It’s even a little concerning that the Bad Guy Plan of SWSH was “trying to solve an energy crisis too fast,” and the solution isn’t really to change anything other than “put nice people in charge of the exact same system.”

    To be fair though, I think a lot of that is sort of unintentional framing mostly related to the fact that the Pokemon franchise is made by people who live in Society. Because the main message of Pokemon is “you should form emotional attachment to our commercial property” lol. When the game says stuff like “Truly skilled trainers should try to win with their favorites” or claim you won by Loving Your Pokemon, that’s not advice on how to beat the game. There are Pokemon that are distinctly better at completing the main objectives of the game, and the game does not really penalize you for mistreating your Pokemon within the systems it establishes. The point is to get you to form essentially a parasocial relationship with Pokemon to continue cross-commercial investment in the franchise. Like this interview with James Turner that I WAS able to find (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJk3wrvL6To) states, every Pokemon needs to look like it can be your friend. And my take is that’s because that idea of friendship/attachment is the core driver of the franchise’s cultural relevance and an overt goal of the narrative framing.

    See, I brought it back to the first paragraph after all. And you doubted me.

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  13. For me, Pokemon has always been an unrealistically optimistic franchise about an unrealistically optimistic world. Nothing goes wrong in this setting because nothing is allowed to go wrong. Pokemon, by virtue of being a children’s series, can never seriously tackle its themes of war, oppression, or whatever the writers dredge up for the next installments. So this optimism is more an unavoidable side-effect of being a franchise made for children and profit. Like in real life there are criminals, corrupt politicians and businessmen, megacorporations and societal inequality, but Pokemon can’t cover these topics in real detail because then it would no longer be telling a children’s story. So they are easily defeated and good prevails.

    As artificial as this optimism is, there’s a part of me that can’t get enough of it. Call it nostalgia for a time I didn’t know Pokemon was a corporate brand product and didn’t recognize how bland and inoffensive the stories really were. But the idea of a world set Twenty Minutes into the Future, where healing is free and item storage is nigh-infinite and the world is safe enough for kids to just venture out there and befriend ghosts and psychics and sentient keys just appeals to me. A world where technology and nature exist in unique harmony: pokemon evolve to eliminate natural toxins, they can generate electricity for power plants, etc etc. There’s enough issues hinted at that it’s clearly not a utopian setting, but it’s still leagues better than the world we live in. Unabashed escapism but sometimes we need a bit of that, right?

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  14. There’s a lot of takes here, many of which I agree with and disagree with, but honestly I think that only mainly relates to what Pokemon is now rather than what it’s become. Game Freak was once a very small company, even having their own hand-drawn amateur gaming magazine back in their humble beginnings, that just happened to get really lucky by striking gold. The original creator, Satoshi Tajiri, doesn’t even have a prominent role in the company anymore, though when you look at his inspiration for the creation of the franchise, I think you’ll get a really good look at its DNA. As a kid Satoshi, like a lot of Japanese youth in his generation, loved collecting bugs, which they treated a lot like Pokemon, such as collecting, trading, and yes, making them fight. This was back when there was a lot more natural forested areas in Tokyo that kids could explore at their leisure (interestingly enough, it was the exploration of these forests that also inspired Shigeru Miyamoto’s creation of the Zelda franchise, which is why I often consider the two series to have similar DNA), but of course as he grew up there was more and more industrial development in those areas, and this pass time became less and less common, so he figured he could give modern kids a way to have a similar experience in a modern way. Knowing this, a lot of things established early in the franchise make a lot of sense. Why there’s a bug type, why bug catchers are such a prominent trainer class, Shigeru even said the development of the game boy’s link cable was inspired by this, as he imagined tiny bugs crawling between the game boys on the cable. But of course, it wasn’t just bugs, they filled it with all kinds of things they loved as kids like cool kaijus, RPG monsters inspired by Dragon Quest, folkloric creatures. They framed the story around their experience growing up as kids, you start off in more rural and forested areas, then you slowly start getting into more industrialized places as you progress through the games. So, at its core, Pokemon is about the joy of childhood wonder and connection with nature in an ever-changing world. But of course as it got bigger, and Satoshi left higher management after generation 2, and the series gained worldwide success, arguably moreso than any franchise on the planet, they of course had to broaden their horizons. On the more cynical side this means it’s pretty much about continuing to encourage people to have a parasocial relationship with these fictional creatures they churn out 100 of about every three years, on the more artistic side it’s… basically about life, humanity’s relationship with the natural world, and a theoretical world where things may be more ideal if humanity and nature’s relationship had a bit more equal and understandable footing. In a way, it’s kind of an escape, but also an exploration of a world with a different set of values and concerns.

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