Like many people, I like fiction. When reading a science fiction or fantasy novel, I am especially interested in worldbuilding (the process of constructing an imaginary world). What fantasy creatures live in some imaginary universe? How do they behave? How different species interact with each other? What kind of awesome technology or magic is there? What about the geography, the planet itself, the physical laws that govern the universe?
For me internal consistency is extremely important. For example, if some advanced technology or magic exists, I won’t like it when a protagonist gets the idiot ball and conveniently forgets to use their superpower in some scenario where it could have solved their problem much more easily compared to that arduous and lengthy trip to some distant volcano. I also like when writers think carefully about the full implications that would arise from some magical power, technology, protagonists cohabiting with some imaginary species of living beings, etc.
This time, I will discuss the Pokémon world and the relationships between people and Pokémon in it. For those unfamiliar with Pokémon (are there still any?), here’s the short explanation: Pokémon are animal-like fantasy creatures with supernatural powers. Some of the people who share the same planet with these creatures are Pokémon trainers. They forcefully capture these beings from their wild habitats and make them battle each other in the arena for sport. At first glance, the premise sounds like animal abuse. This makes Pokémon universe a perfect example for discussing the ethics of interspecies relationships in fantasy universes.
Unless you want to create a dystopian universe with villain protagonists, there are two mutually exclusive approaches to characterizing human-Pokémon interactions.
Option #1. Pokémon have human-level intelligence
Most Pokémon understand human speech fully and directly. Nonetheless, most Pokémon species cannot produce speech that would sound like any human language, because their vocal tracts are shaped differently. In general, people and Pokémon communicate with a sign language. Some Pokémon work as translators, who facilitate communication between humans and those Pokémon species that lack limbs making communication in generic sign language difficult for them. Or maybe there’s some technology that allows people and Pokémon to communicate. Or telepathy. Whatever, you can invent whatever you like.
Relationships between trainers and their Pokémon are similar to those between human athletes and their coaches/trainers. Trainers aren’t masters and Pokémon aren’t subordinates expected to obey every command. Trainers seek the most promising Pokémon to train and Pokémon look for the most suitable trainer. Agreements to cooperate are mutual; a trainer cannot just kidnap some Pokémon from their home. A Pokémon can leave their trainer at any point for any reason. Poké Ball usage is strictly limited by various laws. A trainer cannot put a Pokémon inside a Poké Ball without a signed contract that states for how long and under what conditions a Pokémon can be placed inside a ball.
Humans are vegans and do not eat Pokémon meat. Trainers cannot choose a mating partner for their Pokémon. Pokémon are not bread in ranches.
If Pokémon have human-level intelligence, they are essentially people, merely with differently shaped bodies. Thus they get all the human rights and must be treated as people in universe. Humans can be allowed to kill a Pokémon only for self defense.
Option #2. Pokémon are animals with superpowers
If Pokémon have animal-level intelligence, they are essentially animals. People can capture them from their homes in the wilderness, humans can own and trade them, and they can train them like a human would train a dog or a horse in the real world. People can breed and eat Pokémon, they can keep them as pets that aren’t treated as equals and given full autonomy.
Mixing and matching
If Pokémon have animal-level intelligence and they are treated better compared to how humans treat animals in the real world, that’s fine. Choosing not to eat animals does not make a fictional protagonist into a villain, in fact it can be a positive trait that showcases some protagonist’s empathy. But giving Pokémon human-level intelligence and treating them like animals creates a dystopian society and turns some protagonist, presumably a Pokémon trainer, into a villain protagonist. Then a story revolves around slavery. Of course, it is also possible to create a universe in which some Pokémon species are more intelligent than others. In such case it could be ethically permissible to eat Magikarp (a fish Pokémon, basically a carp that can jump really high) but not Alakazam (a humanoid psychic creature renowned for its high intelligence among Pokémon).
How do you justify Pokémon battling for sport?
Now this is where worldbuilding gets tough. In the real world, cockfights, dogfighting, or bullfighting are utterly horrifying. How do you justify Pokémon battles without creating a dystopian society and turning humans into villains?
If Pokémon have human-level intelligence, it is simple enough. Just like a human can consent to getting beaten up in the boxing ring, an intelligent being of some different species could also choose to participate in fights for the sake of sport. In fact, just because Pokémon are intelligent doesn’t mean that they need to be creatures with essentially human brains placed into differently shaped bodies. Pokémon could have a different set of morals, different social structures, different values, different lifestyles, and you could come up with some kind of Pokémon cultural norms that encourage fighting as a sport.
If Pokémon have animal-level intelligence, then how do you justify trainers making their pets fight against each other? Actually, I can think of two potential excuses.
(1) Pokémon possess strong instincts that urge them to fight against each other. Fighting is essential for proper development of a young Pokémon. In fact, if trainers forbid their Pokémon from fighting, they get nervous, anxious, easily agitated, after a while their mental health deteriorates, they can even lose appetite and become apathetic towards their surroundings. Only a few species of Pokémon, many of those being commonly kept as household pets by non-trainers, can thrive without fighting on a regular basis during specific life-stages.
(2) Pokémon are dangerous. A Charizard (a fire-breathing lizard/dragon) can burn a human alive in a couple of seconds. A Pikachu (an electric mouse) can kill half a dozen people with a single electric shock. Daily life is hard and dangerous for people who share the planet with Pokémon. Bullets fired from a gun might kill a Rattata (a purple rat), but they are useless for protection against stronger Pokémon that have tough hides, psychic abilities, and many other defense adaptations.
Most people live in cities with defensive walls that separate human settlements from the wilderness that’s inhabited by these dangerous beasts. Nonetheless, flying Pokémon can just fly over any wall. Burrowing Pokémon can dig under it. The only way how humans can protect themselves from getting killed by wild Pokémon is by capturing and training some Pokémon as their bodyguards. Trainer battles in the arena exist, because this way people can train their captive Pokémon to obey commands and fight against other Pokémon on demand. Fighting skills and obedience to orders during battles are honed in captive Pokémon so that they could protect humans from wild Pokémon that could otherwise kill them.
To make the fighting less brutal and more palatable for fans who bother to think about ethics, you can also establish that Pokémon do not get seriously injured in these fights. They are fantasy species, thus you can make them less sensitive to pain and give their bodies regenerative abilities that allow enhanced healing. Or maybe human technology and medicine has advanced so far that any Pokémon injuries can be easily healed.
Avoiding the Stockholm syndrome
The Stockholm syndrome occurs when hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors or abusers and develop an emotional connection with them during some period of captivity or abuse.
If Pokémon have human-level intelligence, trainers simply cannot catch them. Period. In the Pokémon anime (which portrays Pokémon as rather intelligent beings) there have been plenty of cases in which a trainer captured some Pokémon that didn’t want to be caught. Basically, then kidnapped an intelligent being from their home and family. At first the Pokémon was disobedient and unruly but after a while they became friends with their new trainer and started obeying their trainer’s orders. Anime portrayed such cases as heartwarming—both trainer and their Pokémon found a close friend. In reality, those were just sickening cases of the Stockholm syndrome kicking in.
In my case, I can read books or watch movies or play video games that feature murder, kidnapping, slavery, rape, domestic abuse, etc. horrors as long as these actions are portrayed realistically as the horrors they are. But what utterly sickens me as a viewer are instances of these horrors being portrayed positively. Romance novels in which domestic abuse is portrayed as beautiful (example: Fifty Shades). Romance novels that portray kidnapping and rape as romantic. Or media that portray kidnapping and enslavement of intelligent beings as “friendship.”
If Pokémon have animal-level intelligence, their ability to consent to things becomes rather limited. After all, when a human adopts a dog from an animal shelter, we won’t call that “kidnapping” even though a dog didn’t consent to being taken somewhere else. Nor can we talk about the Stockholm syndrome when after a while this dog becomes best friends with their new owner.
But even if Pokémon are animals, you still need some justification for capturing them and taking them away from their wild habitats. “Got to catch them all” is a flimsy justification if afterwards a trainer plans to just discard their unwanted Pokémon. Capturing wild Pokémon for scientific research? OK fine, that could be reasonable if scientists treat caught Pokémon ethically and don’t harm wild populations. Acquiring bodyguards that can protect humanity from wild Pokémon attacks? OK, fine with me. Or maybe humans have damaged natural ecosystems thus causing a population explosion among some Pokémon species. Or maybe some Pokémon are an invasive species that disturbs the ecosystem.
Thinking about interspecies relations in fictional universes
It’s interesting how authors commonly fail to carefully consider how different species will (fail to) get along in their fictional universes. In the case of Pokémon, people who own the franchise seem to be intentionally vague and contradictory about how intelligent these creatures are and how exactly trainers treat them. In the anime, Pokémon are generally portrayed as possessing human-level intelligence (yet they are still treated as animals by the human protagonists in various contexts). Meanwhile, the games sometimes suggest that at least some species have animal-level intelligence. For example, games state about Houndour (a fire-breathing dog) that, “It is smart enough to hunt in packs. It uses a variety of cries for communicating with others.” If being able to hunt in packs is called “smart,” it sounds like Houndour are just dogs with superpowers.
Why am I writing about this now? Well, to begin with, I am the generation that grew up with Pokémon anime and games. I loved Pokémon as a kid. And then at some point I started wondering about the ethics of the whole premise. Humans kidnap wild animals from their homes and force them to fight against each other? Wait a minute… It’s fascinating how a kid can fail to notice some glaring ethical issues in their favorite game.
But the main reason why I am discussing Pokémon right now is because the same issue pops up in fiction everywhere. Those stories in which a group of brave heroes go on a journey to kill a dragon? Wait a minute, what justification do they have for slaying a dragon? Oh, they want to kill a dragon just because its skin is very valuable in-universe. What a great reason for killing animals! The author has unintentionally created villain protagonists. Those stories in which human protagonists kill demons or some kind of supernatural monsters just because they are a different species? Where’s the in-universe justification that a peaceful cohabitation with these creatures is absolutely impossible? Those stories in which some creatures (trolls, goblins, etc.) are abused by people just because they are ugly and don’t feel like kissing protagonists’ boots?
In fictional universes authors generally include humans as one of the species and have a human protagonist. Why? Go figure. (OK, actually there are some storytelling reasons.) In such cases, there are two questions that an author must answer: (1) how do people in general treat other species in this universe; (2) how do protagonists treat other species in this universe. I separate these two questions, because it is possible to create a dystopian fictional universe in which most humans are genocidal bigots but protagonists disagree with such attitudes and try to protect members of other species instead.
To give an example, in the Harry Potter universe there are countless species of various fantasy creatures, and wizards tend to treat them pretty terribly. What does this say about the wizard society? Nothing good.
By the way, writers commonly justify bigotry towards other species by indicating that there have been wars in the past and members of this species have killed humans before. Simultaneously, they also fail to establish that the war wasn’t caused by human greed and that these other creatures weren’t merely trying to defend their homes.
Bigotry, genocides, discrimination, slavery, and speciesism in fictional universes are interesting topics to ponder about. The kind of fantasy universes writers create are a fascinating mirror that displays a reflection of the kind of bigoted attitudes humans have in real life.
Also, in case among my readers there is anybody who enjoys rational fiction, there exists a Pokémon fanfic that tries to portray the Pokémon world in a way that is logically consistent. They have created a world in which Pokémon are dangerous animals with superpowers and cause human deaths on a regular basis.
And the Harry Potter books make it pretty clear that wizarding society is rather like Western society in general when it comes to the treatment of anyone seen as “other.” In fact, the consequences of wizarding society’s treatment of house elves and goblins in particular is a plot point. (Maybe the mer-folk, too?)
We wouldn’t let our kids watch the Pokemon tv show when they were little because of the cockfighting analogy. Other shows like Digimon were more about befriending the creatures rather than enslaving them, so we allowed those.
Andreas Avester says
I have only read the first few harry Potter books many years ago (and now that Rowling has revealed herself as a transphobe I will definitely not read these books now), so I am no expert on that fictional universe. That being said, I think I remember that in Potter universe giants and centaurs were also somewhat hostile towards wizards, and I felt that due to wizards’ extreme bigotry and prejudice, wizards had rightfully earned the contempt of every other intelligent creature with whom their shared the planet.
Yet the reader was supposed to sympathize and identify with wizards and feel sorry for their problems.
Hi there! I have nearly zero knowledge about Pokémon at the moment of reading. I never felt even an inkling to look into what it is about.
Andreas Avester says
I can see how that’s reasonable.
As for me, nobody limited what I could watch or what video games I could play. Heck, I had googled for porn long before I was 18. I don’t think that questionable media actually influenced me negatively. For example, by the time I was maybe 9 or so, I loved Pokemon. But that didn’t cause me to think that animal fights in the real world could be a good thing. As I got older, I realized that there were horrible premises hidden everywhere in kid’s books and cartoons. And I had these realizations about a lot of media I had consumed as a kid. For example, I read The Horse and His Boy as a kid and years later I figured out that the whole thing was bigoted crap.
Granted, not exposing kids to questionable media in the first place is probably better than letting them watch/read anything so that years later they can spend their time contemplating all the horrible premises and messages that they unknowingly consumed as young children.
But there were fights in Digimon with these creatures getting hurt and even dying. Moreover, in this show the villain of the season usually wanted to destroy the world.
This just got me thinking. In kid’s shows villains routinely want to destroy the planet and kill everybody. Just how did humanity got to the idea that shows about attempted genocides are what children need?
Andreas Avester says
Pokemon is the top one highest grossing media franchise of all time worldwide with the total revenue estimates at $100 billion and it is based on a highly questionable premise that revolves around either slavery of intelligent beings or humans forcing their animal-like pets to fight against each other (which interpretation you pick depends on how intelligent these beings are). Fun, no? Just how did humanity get there!
Tabby Lavalamp says
When you get past the bright presentation, the Pokemon world is very much a dystopian hellscape where they’re not aware they’re living in one for all the reasons you pointed out. It’s also very much not Earth where the people aren’t humans, they’re humanoid. They don’t die to fire or electrocution, and can be sent flying through the clouds and don’t die either to the force that can do that or to the landing. Parents also send their minor children off to wander from town to town with nothing but a backpack and a Pokemon imprisoned in a ball.
Well, I think there’s a third possibility : nobody ever thought it through, and it just grew with the franchise. As a family we very much love Pokémon. The older kid can tell you everything about minor issues with some of the games that she never played, and one of the things we do have fun with is pointing out those logical inconsistencies.
Like the fact that you live in the same tiny village as the professor and he needs to ask your name, or the fact that the Pokedex calls some Pokémon a “racoon Pokémon” in a world where raccoons don’t exist.
Pokémon themselves eat each other, which is, well, like our world, really, where one small rodent’s death can break your heart, but you just shrug at the dead mouse in the garden.
The world building in Pokémon is simply shoddy, but still fun, mostly because it doesn’t take itself serious and doesn’t pretend to be some moral tale, unlike Harry Potter. I think I need to write a longer post about that particularly bad world building one day.
But funny that we should have two Pokémon posts in a day.
Andreas Avester says
Cool. That’s a great thing for a kid to learn.
Or my own favorite: how comes that Route 1 has low level Pokémon, Route 2 has a bit stronger Pokémon, and so on. What happens with a kid who lives in the other side of the region and must start their journey from a city or town surrounded by high level Pokémon? Also, why are routes named in order starting with some tiny town and follow the path your in-game character must take in their journey?
I actually disagree about this one. In the real world, the word “raccoon” refers to the genus Procyon. This genus includes species like Procyon cancrivorus, Procyon lotor, Procyon pygmaeus. It would be weird if I were to say “how can humans know what a “racoon” is when in reality there are only the unique species like ‘South American raccoon’ or ‘common raccoon’ or ‘pygmy raccoon’?”
It is perfectly possible for humans in the Pokémon world to know what a mouse is when they have loads of different mice Pokémon species (Pikachu, Marill, and so on). Note: I actually have no clue how many raccoon Pokémon species they have so far given how a bunch of new species are added every few years. But if they have at least two different raccoon Pokémon species, then it makes sense for the scientists (taxonomists) who live in said fantasy world to decide to classify both as “raccoon” based on shared characteristics or ancestry.
Andreas Avester says
As a child, I didn’t pay attention to internal consistency and logic in my favorite cartoons/anime/games.
But then at some point I started enjoying media critically. In fact, my brain got to the point that I couldn’t turn off its attempts to analyze everything. I once tried reading the Bible, and I gave up after 10 pages, because after every sentence my brain just screamed at me, “Wait! Stop! Pause. This part doesn’t make sense. That is inconsistent. This is incorrect.”
I can enjoy a story that is totally surreal and has little pretense of any rationality. A story about a protagonist facing bizarre or surrealistic predicaments, sometimes even with an incomprehensible plot? Yeah, sure, I can enjoy that. Kafka was interesting to read. A parody? Fine with me. Candide, ou l’Optimisme was OK. Or I can enjoy a story that is meant to be purely comedic and for fun. When something is so surreal that it was clearly never meant to be taken seriously, the part of my brain that checks for consistency and things making sense just shuts off.
But when some story partially attempts to make sense yet fails at it miserably, then my brain just keeps screaming at me, “Wait, stop, pause, let’s analyze all the problems with what I just saw/read.” That’s when I lose the willing suspension of disbelief and stop enjoying a story.
Of course, no fictional story ever gets everything 100% plausible and consistent. I won’t lose the willing suspension of disbelief each time I spot some minor inconsistency. But major issues like implied abuse of other species by the supposedly nice protagonists, those will bother me.
By the way, while reading Atlas Shrugged, among all the countless flaws that were present in this book, the one that nagged me the most was lack of logical consistency. I just couldn’t bear the fact that each time a single engineer quit their job, there was nobody else just as competent to take their former position and replace them. On one hand, the book pretended to have a realistic setting. One the other hand, in a country with millions of people there were only a few dozen competent and well-educated engineers. My brain just screamed all the time that either some society lacks scientific knowledge and advanced technology at all or there must be thousands of engineers.
In my case, logical consistency is what differentiates between media that I could enjoy only as a child versus media that I can still enjoy. A story/game about going on an adventure with a friendly pet? Yep, I can still enjoy that. Cartoon/anime/manga/webcomic format? Sure, I can enjoy looking at drawn media. Cartoonish art style. Still fine with me. Yet nowadays I want it to be either at least somewhat logical or outright surreal. (A year ago I stumbled upon a rational fiction fanfic story set in the Pokémon world, and I loved it. It was nice that this author put some thought into human-Pokémon relationships and didn’t give me a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that there is some hidden slavery/animal abuse present in the story.)
Ian King says
The thing is, Pokemon is a statistical machine with a thin veneer of narrative painted on over the top. The answer to any question about those games is a point of game design, not world building.
That said, there are a lot of intriguing throwaway elements in Pokemon that make for entertaining speculation. Some people have suggested that the Pokemon world only makes sense in terms of post-apocalypse. There seems to have been a massive war at some point in the past, all records of which have been destroyed, and the Pokemon seem to be remnants of that event. I like to assume they are pseudo-biological weapons designed to obey human commands. After the world was shattered by war, the Pokemon were loosed by intention or accident to find whatever ecological niches they could. They must all have the same biological basis, or they wouldn’t be able to interbreed.
I was going to recommend DaystarEld’s fanfic, but the longer I read the post I was sure that it could not have possibly escaped your attention. When each chapter comes out at the beginning of each month he posts a discussion thread on Reddit in r/rational and there is a lot of great author-reader interaction. Half the fun of keeping up with the story is there.
I’ve heard some people like to play Go using Pokémon minifigurines as game pieces, or something like that.
@ ^ lumipuma : Thought it was some sort of phone game with things virtually present if you went to the right spots? Based on an old cartoon (manga / anime variety) kids TV series.
Must admit its something I personally didn’t get into and don’t know much at all about. Of course, there is google and wikipedia to help :
Tangential but then there’s also the way fictional aliens and droids are treated in Star Wars as this youtube clip nicely notes :
Of course, Star Wars also had slavery notably with Anakin Skywalker (later Darth Vader – do I really need a spoiler warning for that one! 😉 ) originating a sone of many slaves that the Jedi seemed happy enough to overlook and not free. Admittedly they were outside the Republic and Jedi jurisdiction but still.
Plus I think the Buffyverse which had a few interesting takes if I recall towards the end..
This is an interestng issue and set of questions raised here and how authors answer (or ignore) it does say quite a lot about them too..
That doesn’t convince me as it doesn’t feel natural. If there’s only one species in a family, we generally don’t have a common name for the family that is pretty different from the name of the species. “A zigzagoon is a racoon Pokemon” doesn’t make sense if “what is a racoon” has just the same answer as “what is a zigzagoon”?
Yeah, when the plotholes are big enough to sink entire cities in it, I lose the fun. I always joke with the kids that Ash must have the biggest case of PTSD, given all the times he (nearly) died.
Andreas Avester says
Ian King @#11
That’s an interesting interpretation. I hadn’t heard about that.
But this only gives us a follow-up question: assuming humans have created sentient weapons sometime long ago in the past, does the current generation of people have a right to abuse these creatures given how they seem to be sentient and capable of feeling pain? When you have “pseudo-biological weapons designed to obey human commands,” is it ethical to give them orders that cause them pain?
Andreas Avester says
I wasn’t aware that such a discussion thread exists; I’ll have to check it out. (I found Pokemon: The Origin of Species two years ago, since then I have been periodically catching up with new chapters.)
Also tangential but saw an excellrnt meme a week or so ago where a knight asked a King why he should slay a Dragon & the King responded with something like : “Because it hoards gold and steals from the people and ruins their land and lives..” at which point the Knight drew his sword and advanerd agaist the King. Or something like that. Wish I could recall exactly where and what saw with that, sorry, but was along those lines i.e. clearly implied the Dragon = the King and aristocracy..
Andreas Avester says
If you say that so far there’s only one species of Pokémon based on a raccoon, I’ll have to take your word for it. Given how there are now something like 1000 different Pokémon species, I have lost track of them all.
Then an excuse I can offer would be that in the Pokémon world there could be some other region(s) that so far haven’t been featured in the existing games, and in these region(s) there could be some other native Pokémon species that are somewhat similar to Zigzagoon thus earning the whole group/genus the label “raccoon.”
The other possible excuse I can come up with would be that according to taxonomists of the Pokemon world “Zigzagoon” is the common/colloquial name and “raccoon” is the scientific name for this creature (or vice versa).
But yes, once there is just one species of raccoon-based Pokemon, justifying the whole thing gets tricky and you’d have to invent some excuse that no longer relies on known facts about the fictional universe.