Pokémon is one of the most successful franchises in the world. Everyone is familiar with Pokémon Go, the catchy mobile game that turned people of all ages into fans. The franchise, across its iterations of anime, video games, and card games, depicts a utopian sci-fi universe with some surprisingly dark facets.
Imagine that you’re a child in the Pokémon world of Galar. Every pre-teen dreams of one thing: the day they bind a semi-sapient monster to their will and venture out into the wild to enslave other such creatures and pit them against each other in fights. Forget reading books or attending school; the best education is attained through directing psionic warfare, fiery explosions, and tidal waves. And who better to explore such things than children?
Being a Pokémon trainer is a noble pursuit. For one thing, you’ll be providing some much-needed stimulation to the world’s economy, all of which is based around assisting trainers in their endeavours. Almost every town has only a single shop which is dedicated to catching, maintaining, and bettering a trainer’s Pokémon. There are no grocery stores, few restaurants, and no government infrastructure whatsoever. What there are, though, are organisations like the Pokémon League, which hosts incredibly popular contests between ‘gym leaders’ and challengers in massive stadiums, complete with ritual chants from the audience. There is, after all, no more entertaining use for a stadium than to grow bizarre creatures to titanic size and then have them explode the world around them in ways that, somehow, never result in death. (Except when they do? It’s unclear. Death exists. We think. There’s a Pokémon Tower with graves in it).
Strange adults will be eager to help you on your journey. They approach children at random, offering them candy and expecting nothing in return.
In this world the best things in life can be plucked straight off the ground. Foragers can not only find nourishing berries with an astonishing variety of beneficial effects, but state of the art technology too. Need to educate your faithful Pokémon? Pick a random CD up from the dirt and inject new knowledge straight into its brain! Pokéballs too are scattered all over the world in countless varieties, rendering spacial limitations functionally meaningless. The awesome power to take a creature as large as a cruise ship and make it fit in a child’s pocket, instantly converting matter to energy, is just lying around for anyone who cares to take it.
Some technologies are less obvious, but no less vital and important to this world’s society. Infallible weather-detecting methods let any trainer know exactly what weather is happening anywhere in the region. Human cloning allows the employment of identical-looking people in roles such as nursing and policing, so as to better allow trainers to recognise them. Then there are the simple conveniences of life: pneumatic doors, powerful mobile phones, and indestructible fencing.
Perhaps the greatest thing about the Pokémon world, though, is the freedom enjoyed by its inhabitants. In all their travels throughout the world, a trainer will never come across someone stuck in a dead end job, labouring solely for the paycheck and hoping against hope some corrupt businessman won’t lay them off. Instead, people are free to do whatever they desire. Does an adult want to wander aimlessly around their house for months at a time while they wait for their child to visit? They can go for it. Does a young person want to change their career path and go from being a competitor in the Pokémon league to being a professor in the sciences? Easily done. Finally, do you want to be the very best, like no one ever was? Just traipse through the tall grass with your slavishly loyal pocket monsters, initiating battle after battle until your once-feeble companions are monstrosities of terrifying power, then take a tour across the country. Even a ten year-old can do it.
Of course, this type of criticism could be applied to any fictional world. Pick at Eastenders a little bit and you’ll start to wonder how the laundrette stays open with so few customers, or indeed, how some of the residents of Albert Square aren’t seriously ill, based on how much alcohol they consume. Watch any action movie at random and you’ll probably see at least one scene which should have left the protagonist grievously injured or just plain dead. To ask a fictional world to be a simulation of the real world is usually to intentionally miss the point of why the fiction was constructed in the first place.
What’s interesting about the world of Pokémon, though, is that a game series based around the core concept of forcing sentient beings to beat each other into unconsciousness for your entertainment takes place in such an otherwise utopian setting.
Galar is a vision of a world in which extraordinary technological advancement has left the natural world untouched. Enormous swathes of wild land are almost entirely unmarred, full of tall grasses from which creatures spring with incredible frequency to attack the completely-safe children wandering through them. Aside from the occasional mine (more exciting locales for those plucky kids to explore), there are few signs of industrial depredations – no quarries, no lumber yards, and only the occasional power plant.
Nature itself has proven to be incredibly resilient in this setting, which is full of thriving ecosystems despite constant danger from creatures that can breathe fire, explode, emit toxic materials, and initiate other natural disasters. It’s remarkable that grass exists, when you consider Charmander, the Pokémon with a permanent burning flame on the end of its tail.
Society in Galar appears to function as the sort of enlightened anarchy talked of by Gandhi as the highest form of human civilisation. There are no signs of a government or legal code, and despite the occasional appearance of a single police officer, no evidence of a penal system. Humans and Pokémon pursue whatever goals they like, frequently cooperating to accomplish tasks for the public benefit.
There are networks of criminals who choose to reject their more amiable neighbours to steal or promote some bizarre ideology. But there is a simple check on their behaviour – a culture of honour and respect that is inviolate among Pokémon trainers. Every trainer, from the League Champion to a lowly grunt of a criminal organisation, engages in Pokémon duels fairly, and respects the results of each match. Furthermore, a trainer who loses a fight and is thus rendered entirely defenseless is not at any risk from their opponent, but need only pay a small fee, proportionate to their wealth. Why bother with prisons or punishment when massive, nation-spanning criminal hierarchies simply give up and go away after losing a sanctioned competition?
Even material wealth is of very little importance – almost the only use of currency is purchasing materials to raise Pokémon. Food, shelter, and a wide array of technological bounty is available for everyone, for free. Post-money, ecologically sustainable, and self-governing: Pokémon’s world is arguably as complete a futuristic utopia as any in fiction.
And yet, this enlightened society is built on the belief that it is the highest form of love to trap a wild animal in a small prison and force it into battle on a regular basis.
There’s a creepy objectification inherent in confining powerful and intelligent beings in small spheres and carrying them around on one’s belt, like tools. Beyond the six Pokémon trainers are permitted to bring with them, they’re encouraged to acquire as many additional monsters as they want and digitally store them in electronic ‘box’ systems. The series’ oft-repeated catchphrase “Gotta catch ’em all” translates, in practice, to removing creatures from their natural habitat and filing them away, perhaps never to be let out again – and all for the sake of filling out an encyclopedia.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about the franchise is the way it wants to have its cake and eat it. It markets itself on the appealing cuteness of its creatures, emphasising the bond of love and loyalty between Pokémon and trainers. Your Pokémon are your friends, your pets, your partners – and the entire world revolves around making them participate in a kind of ritualised dog fighting, over and over again. Even the grimmest of dystopian writers might call that a bit dark.
However much we might nitpick the game world’s inconsistencies, though, Pokémon’s success as a brand is inarguable. The franchise has sold more than 340 million games and over 25 billion trading cards. The anime boasts more than a billion viewers across 124 countries, and 2019’s Pokémon Detective Pikachu took in excess of $430 million at the worldwide box office.
Perhaps even more impressively, the ubiquitous Pokémon Go may have had some genuine real-world benefits. Setting up a Gym or a Pokestop in an abandoned church, an underused library, or overlooked museum drives up foot traffic and encourages engagement; organisations such as Big Heritage in the UK have been keen to partner with the game’s developer, Niantic, Inc. in order to embrace these benefits. Concerned parents needn’t worry about their children hiding in their rooms playing games for hours – Pokémon Go players are out and about, battling, swapping monsters, and maybe visiting places they’ve never been before.
Pokémon appeals to our desire to collect, to compete, and to explore. Maybe, deep down, we all want both to befriend cute monsters and to pit them against each other in battle. However weird its gameworld may be when you stop to think about it, when you experience it, it works. How wonderful.