Philip Bunn argues for the game’s moral and communal value.
It’s not often that a new video game changes a culture practically overnight, but 2016 America has experienced such a game: Pokémon Go. Not only has this new “augmented reality” game become the most downloaded app for iPhones and Androids since its release, Tech Crunch reports that “it’s also breaking records when it comes to its ability to monetize and retain its users.” The number of daily active users continues to rise, and we are left to wonder why it is that this specific game has become such a cultural phenomenon. This is, I think, due to two things: the intrinsic moral value of Pokémon as a franchise and the uniquely social aspect of Pokémon Go.
Contrary to John Ehrett’s interpretation of the Pokémon franchise, the series contains both substantive moral messages and a repudiation of the “enshrinement of the late-modern acquisitive impulse as some sort of intrinsic good.”
The first place one naturally looks to find the message of the franchise is in the iconic Pokémon television show theme song, which begins with the phrase “I want to be the very best, like no one ever was.” Ehrett makes a strong claim when he suggests, “In franchise context, ‘best’ refers to ‘the one with the most and rarest Pokémon.’” In reality, the franchise suggests the exact opposite. One must interpret these lyrics in relation to the events of the show.
In the television show, the main protagonist is Ash, a ten-year-old Pokémon newbie who desires to become the best Pokémon trainer in the world. The entirety of the series to follow consists of a journey of exploration and discovery, answering the question “what does it mean to be ‘the very best’?” There are two possible answers: possessing the most and rarest Pokémon, or alternatively, having the best relationship with your Pokémon possible that enables you to defeat obstacles together as a team.
The show does not support the former answer. Rather, those in the Pokémon universe who believe that mere acquisition is the key to success are actually the villains, who seek to steal rare Pokémon in order to fast-track their route to greatness. By fighting these Pokémon thieves, the protagonists of the show affirm the value of the trainer’s relationship with their Pokémon over and against possession.
Ash’s growing success as a Pokémon trainer consists less in acquiring better Pokémon and more in learning about himself and strengthening his relationship with his Pokémon. It seems, then, that success as a Pokémon trainer is, contrary to Ehrett’s assertion, “achieved by developing one’s skills or personal character.” The franchise only seems conceptually threadbare if you remove slogans and catchphrases from their context in the Pokémon universe. In context, Pokémon actually affirms friendship and personal virtue over and against materialism.
Ehrett compares Pokémon to the Transformers franchise, but he fails to adequately answer why millennials feel such a nostalgic attachment to Pokémon and not to Transformers. The answer lies is what Ehrett denies: Pokémon has moral substance that Transformers lacks. This substance is the only adequate explanation for the enduring, nigh-universal appeal of the franchise. I am certainly not suggesting that Pokémon is a paragon of modern storytelling. However, I think the core moral aspects of the franchise are what make Pokémon so appealing. This has contributed directly to the success of Pokémon Go.
I do agree with Ehrett on one significant point: as the foundation of a community, Pokémon is remarkably shallow. The tendency of people to unite around Pokémon strikes me as what Kurt Vonnegut called a “granfalloon,” a term introduced in his book Cat’s Cradle. A granfalloon is an imitation of true community, built on something flimsy and circumstantial, like having a common alma mater, or perhaps a shared childhood experience of playing Pokémon.
These granfalloons are no true substitute for a rooted community, but in an increasingly rootless society, they serve a certain purpose: they give people a taste of what community could be like. As Patrick J. Deneen writes in his article “Folk Tales,” “These [granfalloons] inculcate a spirit of community and self-sacrifice, a kind of piecemeal and small-scale sense of belonging.” Pokémon Go is currently serving this purpose. Having been given a taste, perhaps people will crave the rooted community they currently lack and seek to actually fulfill the felt needs from which granfalloons spring.
In the past two weeks of playing Pokémon Go, I have met and conversed with more citizens of my small town than I have spoken to in the past three years of living here. Perhaps that’s a harsh indictment of my life pre-Pokémon Go, but nevertheless, the way I interact with people around me has changed in a substantial way. So yes, we are creating a granfalloon around Pokémon, but is that really a bad thing? I’m not discouraged by what I see in my neighborhood, my town, and the country at large. I’m encouraged by the fact that people who have perhaps never experienced a fulfilling community are currently experiencing a type of what communities founded on shared traditions could be like. Pokémon Go continues to grow because people are experiencing the joy of community, even on the small scale, and I find it beautiful.
Philip Bunn is a native of East Tennessee. He is a rising senior studying political philosophy at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. In his free time he enjoys smoking pipes, playing the ukulele, and buying too many books.