The phrase “cultural keystone species” was introduced in 2004 in a paper by Ann Garibaldi and Nancy Turner. The whole paper is available to read online, and its worth reading. The idea is similar to that of the ecological keystone species; a species which has a huge effect on its environment, so much so that removing it will destroy or completely change the environment. When wolves when extinct from Yellowstone, several species of plants and birds went extinct in the area as well. The wolves kept the elk population in check, and with them gone the elk obliterated the aspens. New trees moved in to fill the void, and as a result birds and insects that specifically depended on the aspen disappeared. Reintroducing the wolf has lead to the other species returning as well. The concept is sometimes criticized as being too reductionist or absolute, but as one of many tools it can be useful for helping people understand how an ecosystem works.
A cultural keystone takes the same idea of how a species influences the ecology of a region and applies it to how a species influences the anthropology of a region. Just as removing certain animals from an environment can render that environment unsustainable, the same can be said for cultures. The documentary People of a Feather shows a fascinating example of how the eider duck acts as a cultural keystone species for the people living in the Canadian arctic. The duck is not only a huge part of what people eat, it also provides the feathers used to make the clothing that makes survival in the arctic possible. Its connection to the culture is not just material either, it serves as the base for the mythology, symbolism, language and music of the culture. Removing the eider duck from those communities puts the entire culture into jeopardy because it cannot be easily replaced by any other species. This is what separates a cultural keystone species from a culturally important species. If you remove, say, apples from our culture then in time Eve would be said to have picked a different fruit and our expressions would warn against comparing oranges to some other non-citrus. In contrast, if you remove the ‘ie’ie vine from Samoa the people there can no longer make traditional fishing baskets, and every song and festival based around fishing with those baskets will be lost. In fact, at one point the vine was so endangered that there was only one person on the island who still knew how to make the basket. As the techniques and songs hadn’t been recorded, if he had died before work on restoring the vine had started, the basket fishing techniques and the songs associated with it would have been lost forever.
Using the model of the cultural keystone species, I want to return to my earlier idea of how a “Pokemon of the Oppressed” would look if it incorporated this idea, and also to see if there are any Pokemon that already serve as cultural keystones within the games themselves.
One of the most noticeable attractions greeting visitors to Violet City of the Johto Region (ie Pokemon Gold & Silver) is the Sprout Tower. This massive pagoda is the religious and spiritual center of the city. Legend states that the pagoda was originally built from the remains of a massive, 100′ tall Bellsprout pokemon. Bellsprouts are mobile pitcher plants who balance their disproportionately large heads on delicate, flexible stalks. The pagoda uses architectural techniques that in the real world are called jūkōzō, and features a flexible support in the center of the building which sways in the wind and protects the building from earthquakes. The tower is home to a sect of Buddhist monks who almost exclusively train Bellsprouts. They maintain that the Bellsprout’s balance and movement serve as a metaphor for the balance that must exist between all things. Bellsprouts serve as the basis for the unique architecture and mythology of the area, and as both the only Grass type Pokemon found there and the only Pokemon to possess its odd, swaying gait and ability to balance a heavy load on a thin body, it would be difficult to find another native species which could occupy the same cultural niche. Replace it, and everything changes.
Amazingly, that is about the only example of a cultural keystone Pokemon I can find. While there are many pokemon that feature in local legends (Santa’s workshop is run by Jynx and Stantler, Golduck are the inspiration for legends of kappa, etc) there are no examples of any of these being irreplaceable to a culture the same way the ‘ie’ie vine or eider ducks are. For example, in regions without Stantler, Santa’s sleigh is said to be pulled instead by Ponyta. If the Golduck was to suddenly disappear, a Pokemon like Lombre could easily fit the same cultural void. Despite the fact that the entire world’s economy and social institutions are based on Pokemon, the individual Pokemon don’t really matter as much to the culture of this world.
EXCEPT when we consider language. From our point of view, Pokemon are named by combining various real world words and concepts. Parasect combines “parasite” and “insect” while Bulbasaur combines “bulb” and “dinosaur” and so on and so on. But humans didn’t name the Pokemon in the Pokemon universe, they took the names from the Pokemon’s cries. Language in the Pokemon universe is the reverse of how they actually were designed in the real world sense. In this universe, bulbs and dinosaurs were named after Bulbasaurs. Those things in the sky look like Staryu? That’s where they get the word for star then. The Pokemon universe word “psychic” does not come from the Greek word “psyche” but from the fact that people named this concept after the Psyducks that utilized it. Hypnosis comes from Hypno, things are ghastly because they are reminiscent of the ghost Pokemon Ghastly, and Persian rugs are named after a magic cat rather than a real historical country!
Even the written language itself comes from Pokemon, with every letter of the English alphabet being modeled after one of the twenty-six forms of the Unown Pokemon. This happens in real world languages. Egyptian hieroglyphics use animals and plants to stand in for sounds and words. Later, modern letters and numbers in many languages evolved from simplified hieroglyphics. The ancient Chinese oracle bone script, which forms the basis of many Asian written languages, shows the pictorial origins of many Chinese characters. For example, the Chinese character “ma” began as a drawing of a horse, and today it is both used to write words relating to horses as well as represent the phonetic “ma” sound. By looking at what words in the Pokemon universe correspond to which Pokemon, we can get a glimpse into how the ancient people there considered and interacted with these varied species pre-pokeball. How telling is it that “psychic” is named for a Pokemon that isn’t even a psychic-type? That the idea of something being “far-fetched” comes from a wild duck that carries leeks? Which Pokemon became the inspiration for weapons (Spearow, Sharpedo), which became the inspiration for positive concepts (Tranquill, Luvdisc), which were used to describe the natural world (Abomasnow, Leafeon) and which became the inspiration for governments (Nidoqueen, Slowking) or even artistic and fashion movements (Gothitelle, Smeargle, Bouffalant). Some Pokemon names don’t seem to correspond to any words, or to words that would only exist in our own world (with no cats to say ‘meow’ Meowth has no meaning), which could indicate that they weren’t particularly important to the ancient people of the Pokemon world. How has this changed compared to the modern Pokemon world we see when we play these games?
Other than fun mental masturbation about Pokemon, what is this good for? In the real world, the relationship between people and various species explains where our ideas come from, and how they survive. These relationships also show how animals and plants that seem to be completely removed from us are actually vital to life as we know it. In the aforementioned example of the ‘ie’ie vine, the reason it almost disappeared, taking the culture with it, was directly linked to the near-extinction of the Samoan flying fox. While the flying fox was represented in Samoan culture and custom, it wasn’t especially important compared to any other species. Yet as the sole pollinator of the ‘ie’ie vine and many other plants its removal meant the collapse of both the environment and the culture linked to that environment.
Games are systems, experiences shaped in some way by rules or connections. As such, they are uniquely suited for conveying and exploring concepts such as ecology, culture and how they intersect. By highlighting how a series with no intention of exploring real world ecology or culture both fails and inadvertently succeeds in doing so, we can better see how our own games can do so as well. Whether our goal is to represent real world systems or to enrich our fictional worlds, there is value to be found in exploring concepts “outside” of games.