Friday, October 12, 2012

PETA fights for the rights of Pokémon now, too.

I won't go into any depth here about my personal feelings about PETA.  Suffice it to say, I do care about animal welfare, but I don't necessarily agree with PETA's politics.  However, when I heard that they made a game that spoofed the very popular Pokémon series, I had to check it out.

Personally, I've always had a bit of a troubled relationship with the Pokémon series. I can definitely see the appeal of trying to discover and collect all the Pokémon, and the idea of leveling up those creatures to become stronger, more skilled fighters is a pretty traditional play mechanic found in most fantasy role-playing games. But the fact that the Pokémon themselves are treated more like objects than animals--that they were not creatures that you really cared for in themselves, but just means to an end as you strive to become a great Pokémon master--always disappointed me, especially since there were some great games out there that did a much better job of making me feel connected to the creature I was raising. (Anyone remember Tecmo's Monster Rancher?)

Of course, if you know something about the history behind the creation of the Pokémon series, the two-dimensionality of the Pokémon creatures makes a bit more sense. The creator, Satoshi Tajiri, was apparently an avid bug-collector as a child (bug-collecting itself is an interestingly popular activity in Japan). The Pokémon games were thus created as the embodiment of his love for entomology and out of a desire to get more children interested in the activity.

Now, if you think of the Pokémon as more like fascinating-but-brainless bugs than like a reasonably intelligent domesticated pet, the fact that the Pokémon don't really get to make much of a decision about their fate as your personal battle minions is a little less jarring (unless you are also a strong advocate for insects' rights). But the fact that Pokémon in the franchise are depicted as express feelings and demonstrate near-human intelligence makes it hard to reconcile the fact that trainers in the game are expected to treat them merely as fighting and breeding machines.

Given my own personal ambivalence about the Pokémon series, I found PETA's Pokémon: Black and Blue to be a welcome satire. This short little Flash game plays much like the official Pokémon games, except you are a Pokémon fighting for freedom against the humans who have been using you for their own ends. You confront various characters from the series and challenge them to let you live life outside of the confines of a Pokéball. As one might expect from a PETA production, the moralizing is undeniably heavy-handed, but even if you don't particularly enjoy the over-the-top efforts to demonize the human trainers in the game, I think the games is still an interesting exercise in forcing players to adopt the perspective of Pokémon themselves.

I've always loved the idea of using games to make players inhabit the perspective of an otherwise ignored or even unlikeable character, and I think role reversal is a really underutilized rhetorical technique in games.  Games typically make the player's character so unquestionably heroic, whether because they're the space marine who fights to save humanity, the scrappy survivor of the zombie-infested apocalypse, or the plumber rescuing the princess from a fire-breathing reptile, that it's easy to forget that every story has two sides. As the great character actor Stephen Tobolowsky has said about playing villains and other unsavory characters, "You never play anyone crazy, or evil. Everybody believes they're the hero of their own movie." And yet, rarely do games present us with the opportunity to see why our opponent's side may be just as heroic as our own.

In the case of Pokemon: Black and Blue, I think being able to play as a freedom-fighting Pokémon can enrich our experience of playing as a trainer in the official Pokémon games.  Sure, the official games are meant to be simple, innocent fun, but that's no reason for us ignore the games' underlying assumptions and to never question whether or not we're playing the part of the benevolent custodians of our Pokémon pets or cruelly exploitative slave-master. After all, without adding the Pokémon's own perspective, how can we tell which once we really are?  Although I think there's a lot of depth lacking in PETA's game, I don't think this game needs to be especially deep or ask many questions directly. Merely making us play as Pokémon with motives and desires all our own engenders the kind of empathy which makes our own questioning about the Pokémon's world come effortlessly. Thus the tremendous power of using role-reversal as a rhetorical device!

Regardless of where you stand on the ethics of Pokémon, I think PETA's Pokémon: Black and Blue is worth playing at least once. Give it a try and leave your thoughts in the comments.

No comments:

Post a Comment