The world of Pokemon is designed to be as close to the imagined ideal world of an 11-year old child as possible. There is no school, work, chores or responsibilities of any kind. Parents and authority figures are easily accessible when needed, but safely out of the player’s hair otherwise. Nearly every living thing or inanimate object can be bent to the player’s will. The world is open and full of secrets, and the player is rewarded simply for being them and learning about the world as opposed to having accomplished anything specifically. Not to forget the near endless supply of adorable and cool monsters that exist only for the player’s amusement.
Outside of that context the world of Pokemon does tend to get a bit dark. Why are dangerous monsters roaming the world? Where is the adult supervision? How does the economy function? If every 11-year old is tossed out into the woods to collect monsters instead of going to school, can Ash do basic long division? Does he even know what WWII was? Are Pokemon sapient? Some Pokemon can use tools and speak English, and they can all interbreed implying a common species. Do people eat Pokemon, or are they all vegetarians? Wait, some Pokemon are vegetables…
Much internet humor and commentary has been made from taking the Pokemon world out of the context of “how can we sell this franchise to as many generic kids with a Gameboys as possible?” and putting it into the context of the “real world”. The most interesting recent example is from Mattie Brice’s Pokemon Unchained. She is currently blogging her playthrough of Pokemon Black/White on tumblr while replacing every instance of “Pokemon” with “slave” and “trainer” with “master”. What’s most fascinating about this exercise is that doing so turns pretty much all the protagonists into horrible people and casts the villains as heroic revolutionaries.
“I’ll fight for all masters who love their slaves, and for all slaves who believe in their masters!” – Alder, a heroic member of the Elite Four, which is the closest thing, any Pokemon game has to a government.
“How about if all people get to decide for themselves how to relate to slaves?”
“Are you saying I should allow people to think whatever they want and treat slaves however they want, no matter whether the slaves suffer? I refuse to tolerate the existence of a world like that!” – A conversation between Professor Juniper, the kindly mentor figure and N, the antagonist.
“Team Plasma’s ideal… Separating people and slaves… It’s exactly the same as not having slaves in this world at all. That bunch is a waste of oxygen” – Cheren, your childhood best friend
Mattie Brice’s goal is to look at Pokemon Black/White as an allegory for antebellum US south and use it as a lesson in how people rationalize slavery. As she stated in a Kotaku interview about the project: “The rhetoric in the game is extremely reminiscent of quotes you would find of people rationalizing slavery… things like ‘Well slaves can’t live on their own, they need us to take care of them.’ ‘It’s a partnership, we help each other out.’ ‘Blacks are good at doing physical work and whites are good at leading.’ ‘It’s a biological fact that blacks like to be submissive and loyal.’ Basically, that kind of stuff comes up in Pokemon Black/White and there are few counters for it in the game. It’s like that mentality, especially of the player mindlessly capturing Pokemon for about 20 years, goes unchecked.”
By taking the Pokemon world out of the original context and into a new context, Brice is able to communicate aspects of US race relations to her audience, including some who might not otherwise have considered it. Pokemon is not only a possible allegory for slavery, but for environmental racism as well. How do the people living in the Pokemon world think about the children of privileged families miles away stomping across their land and grabbing every animal and plant in sight? Pokemon create water, weather, fire, sunlight, fertile soil and nearly everything else a community needs. There are legendary Pokemon, unique monsters that are responsible for maintaining world order in some way. You can even capture the Pokemon that created and maintains the universe itself. How is the ecosystem affected by a kid from the suburbs walking in and taking the source of an ocean’s current, the source of a volcano’s heat, or even God itself for a pet?
Discussing pokemon in either of these contexts exploits the fact that the game is just trying to reassure the player (and in most cases, the player’s game-buying parents) that the digital blood sport is alright because Pokemon really love you and don’t mind fighting, because competition makes them strong and they need you to be their friend and help them get strong! The game itself is not advocating slavery or imperialism, but that intent is irrelevant in terms of its use as a message. By subverting the context of the game and the expectations of the player, it is possible to make the player aware of privilege and oppression and empower them to confront it within their own context.
But so far this can only be done through fan works or fan meta-gaming. Nintendo is not going to change the basic story or game play of Pokemon, and it is highly doubtful that the upcoming Pokemon X/Y will stray from the “visit each gym, fight a vaguely evil team, catch all the monsters” approach. But would it be possible to communicate deeper themes about social justice or conservation using the basic Pokemon template?
The first way to do so would require almost no change in the standard formula. The player would still be an entitled little kid out catching monsters instead of learning to read and treating the world as their personal toy chest. What makes this version different is that how you collect Pokemon affects the world. Collect too many rare species of Pokemon and they become extinct in an area, changing the ecology. That super rare Absol you caught might be the only thing keeping the population of Woobats from exploding. Catch too many grass pokemon who drain toxins from the soil and you might find poison and pollution types have taken over the area. Catching a legendary has even more repercussions. Capture Kyogre, the pokemon who controls the world’s oceans, and you may make travel between two cities impossible, shattering families. Capture Zapdos and another city might lose its only source of power. Do you ignore the fate of others so that you can have the best, most powerful toys?
The second way would be to put the player in control of the “enemy”. In the actual games, Pokemon-liberation Teams like Team Plasma always end up being regarded as hypocrites who only want to prevent people from having Pokemon so that they can control them. What if the player was seeing it from the other side? Perhaps the next “evil” Team would be led by lower-class civilians tired of the children of privilege robbing their land of its natural (and sapient) resources. Instead of capturing Pokemon, you have to actually partner with them. Making poor decisions may lead to Pokemon deciding to leave you. You would still lead “your” Pokemon to victory over the various Gyms and Elite Four, but in order to dismantle those institutions rather than prove yourself to them.
The third way, of course, would be to put the player in the shoes of the actual Pokemon. Instead of the standard “collect them all and battle” formula, the player would be asked to complete various missions. These missions would range from protecting Pokemon to dismantling and sabotaging human schemes. Your selection of Pokemon for each mission would not be based on who you had captured, but instead based on what Pokemon were naturally available in the region the mission takes place. Try to stop kids from poaching in Viridian Forest and your potential team would be various Bug-types. When you try to blow up the Silph Co hydro-electric dam and stop it from pumping warm fresh water into the oceans and destroying the habitat of ice Pokemon, your team may consist of Water and Rock types.
Even without the valuable, and unobtainable, Pokemon license these kinds of games could be made. There is no shortage of unabashed Pokemon-rip off games available on every console or computer possible today. The basic formula and themes of Pokemon are accepted as default by much of pop culture. Even with a “new” world full of non-copyright infringing monsters, it would be possible to subvert the narrative and shock the player out of complacency.