Let’s talk about why many of us don’t like popular culture in general, but especially Pokémon. I’ve been carrying the pro-game flag for a while now, and sometimes all this chatter manages to convince a parent or educator to start examining the topic more closely. What they find, unfortunately, can be disappointing if they have certain preconceptions. The most common complaint I receive from otherwise interested folks is that the Pokémon franchise, in particular, lacks substance. The characters are almost wholly devoid of personality. There is no complexity to their world. The human protagonists are even visually indistinct from one another. Fair enough. I propose that, with a bit of lateral thinking, you will be able to see that this was all by design.
Most video games with a story element have you take on the role of a colorful hero. It’s similar to the way novels ask us to identify with an established character. In Pokémon, the various narrative facets of the franchise see humans with names like ‘Red’ and ‘Gold,’ which doesn’t do much to distinguish them from one another. The original Japanese material sheds light on this. In the very first generation of games, the player character is named ‘Satoshi’ and his rival is named ‘Shigeru.’ Those are direct references to Satoshi Tajiri—the game’s socially challenged creator—and Shigeru Miyamoto—a game industry legend who created Super Mario and Tajiri’s mentor.
There are a few things going on here. The typical Western concept of rivalry carries more hostility than how Japanese culture tends to perceive it. For the Japanese, rivals have a complex, productive relationship. Consider the case of two samurai warlords, Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen. They fought vicious territorial battles for years, but were always cordial in their correspondence thanks to a healthy mutual respect. When the Takeda army was cut off from access to the ocean for an extended period, they grew desperate for salt. One day a caravan of needed supplies showed up courtesy of Uesugi. There was a note appended to the delivery, expressing that wars should be won through tactics and strength, not rice and salt. So what happens when a child plays Pokémon and internalizes that sort of relationship? The result can only be a positive one.
As for why the characters lack personality, this is intentional and useful. It would be cliché to point out that young people are impressionable, but that’s cliché because it’s true. Kids imbibe fantasy material, then use it to try out social roles, boundaries, and norms. Distinct and powerful characters provide a model for children to copy. Blank characters, however, do the opposite. The player character in a Pokémon game is intended as a clean canvas. He or she does not speak (or, in the newer releases, speaks minimally), does not have special visual traits, and overall just acts as a placeholder for the player. The game provides opportunities to choose your own adventure, but within a guided pathway that ensures you make the right moral choices out of necessity. That can be a more meaningful approach than having a set narrative in which the player is passive except for, say, blowing stuff up.
The same can be said for the less directly interactive products. The films and TV show star a character who never seems to learn his lesson. He looks just like all the other humans and is perpetually ten years old. The comics are a bit more violent and involved, but there is still nothing special about the protagonists. The idea is to place yourself in that position. The star of the show, Ash, meets with failure time and again. He makes poor choices on occasion (in an early episode he faces a stone-themed opponent with Pikachu, his electric Pokémon; never a good move). He has to deal with bullies and maintain friendships. The only thing extraordinary about him is the world in which he lives. By giving young viewers a vehicle to extend themselves into the world of Pokémon, these narrative aspects open up changes to speculate, if even subconsciously, on how they would engage the same situations. Unlike many animated features and comics geared toward young people, these don’t preach. Instead, we have an opportunity to pause it and discuss if the characters are making wise decisions. With some empathy and critical thinking, these conversations can be very productive.
Consider, too, that the pliability of characters and depth of story were designed, from the get-go, to be appealing for all age groups. Junichi Masuda, one of the Pokémon bigwigs since the beginning, has gone on record stating just that. In his words:
“When we developed [the original games] we weren’t explicitly targeting children. If you look at the animation, for instance, that was meant to appeal to kids with cute designs and so on. But if you look at the game and that design… it was intended to be a game that adults could also enjoy. In that regard, there’s not been any change in how we design the games.”
So the takeaway is that vanilla characters and open worlds can be a very good thing. When you play video games with your kids, encourage them to make up their own narratives. We are, after all, the storytelling animal. If play is how we learn, then telling stories is how we teach.