The Moral Vapidity of Pokémon

The first part in a dialogue on the cultural value of Pokémon Go.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard by now about Pokémon Go, the smash augmented reality game for mobile phones that has resurrected a decades-old entertainment franchise. The target demographic—early twenty-something millennials—is the same demographic that experienced Poké-mania in the late 1990s, making Pokémon Go (in the words of the New York Times) millennials’ first “nostalgia product.”

At the height of its popularity, the Pokémon series sparked a backlash among evangelicals, most of which focused on the fact that certain characters could “evolve” into stronger forms. Such surface-level critiques, however, badly missed the mark: Pokémon is simply too dumb to be offensive. Instead, I submit that the fundamental problem of the Pokémon series is rooted in its celebration of pure acquisition as some sort of intrinsic good.

This article is not a diatribe against moral failure in the series, but rather a critique of its intrinsic quality. I’m not arguing here that Pokémon Go is triggering the breakdown of Western civilization, but simply that the Pokémon franchise is artistically shoddy. Mediocrity isn’t moral wrongness. Additionally, I’m not suggesting that the rest of modern culture isn’t full of dumb things—far from it. That said, I’d contend that among hugely popular entertainment products, the Pokémon series is singularly intellectually worthless (and that, ironically, this vacuity reinforces its popularity).

The Pokémon franchise posits a world overrun with small semi-sentient creatures (the “pocket monsters”). Youths in this universe, including the protagonists of the series, often seek to become “Pokémon trainers”— wanderers who travel throughout the world, capture Pokémon using electronic devices, and pit them against one another in violent battles. All plotlines occur in the shadow of this overarching social dynamic.

Leaving aside the fact that the entire series premise is basically “Dogfighting for Teenyboppers,” the underpinnings of the Pokémon fad are a fascinating testament to the soullessness of modern consumerism. The franchise motto—“gotta catch ‘em all”—nicely summarizes this mindset: everyone over the age of 12 realizes that “catch” is just a euphemism for “buy,” as this delightful spoof makes clear. The goal of getting more stuff permeates this franchise on every level. For instance, in the world of Pokémon, science is valuable not because it reveals truths about the natural world or leads to the enhancement of human flourishing, but because it allows for the genetic engineering of bigger and better Pokémon.

In keeping with this somewhat cynical fixation on acquiring MORE MORE MORE, the central story arc of the franchise is a banal quest for self-actualization, as summed up in the first line of the (disturbingly catchy) theme song: I wanna be the very best, like no one ever was. In context, “best” refers to “the one with the most and rarest Pokémon.” It does not refer to any personal qualities of fortitude, intellect, or sportsmanship.

The song continues on in this same vein, bizarrely incorporating value-laden language into this hymn to self-aggrandizement. Pokémon, a heart so true; our courage will pull us through. None of this is conceptually coherent: what does it mean for a Pokémon to evince a “true heart” when their entire function is serving as totems for their captors? What does it mean for an individual to be “courageous” when the primary narrative conflict involves “capturing more and better Pokémon, and having them fight each other”? Even the much-decried “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” hinged on a conventional good-versus-evil premise.

The song’s conclusion is equally substanceless: arm in arm we’ll win the fight; it’s always been our dream. But in context, why is this “fight” to be the “best” worth fighting at all? Such a “fight” can’t be construed as anything remotely resembling a personal pursuit of excellence. In this universe, competitive success isn’t achieved by developing one’s skills or personal character, but simply by having bigger and stronger Pokémon in one’s arsenal. Friedrich Nietzsche would be ashamed by the inconsequentiality of it all: to prevail and become “the very best,” one need not become any sort of übermensch, but simply control a sufficient number of überpokémon.

Viewed in a certain light, the Pokémon series is the highest achievement of an advertising-choked marketplace: franchise architects have managed to generate intense affection for a storyline utterly stripped of any moral character or intellectual substance. The saga is similarly estranged from anything that might point to either the richness of its Japanese heritage or the transcultural virtues of actual heroism. Like the “Transformers” films, it aims at the lowest common denominators of entertainment: mindless consumption and violence. In light of this, I find it surprising that a franchise so conceptually threadbare evokes such a nostalgic response within my generation.

Of course, this leaves us with a sad question: have we splintered so severely that only something this frothy can build consensus? And that is a far less pleasant thought.

 

John Ehrett is a freelance journalist and a current J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. He holds a B.A. in Government from Patrick Henry College. Read more from John at http://www.conciliarpost.com and http://literaryanalysis.net.

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