There are many things that separate humans from other animals, though few of them are things we may expect. Tool use is not one of those things, as apes and crows invent new tools when needed. Self-awareness is not one of those things, as parrots give themselves unique names and cuttlefish are aware that their reflection is their own. Culture isn’t one of those things, as macaques, beavers and mongooses directly pass on knowledge that varies depending on the animal’s region and family. It isn’t language, as ground squirrels use surprisingly complex grammar when they communicate. Even art is arguably not unique to humanity, as degus build statues and structures when bored. Instead, the things that separate us from other animals tend to be more specific. We’re the only animal that wears pants. We’re the only animal that can travel to space. We’re also the only animal that forces other animals into competition for our own amusement, though perhaps that isn’t one of more praise-worthy unique attributes.
We’re certainly not the only animal capable of cruelty for amusement. Dolphins will torture young porpoises and manatees for no discernible reason other than the excitement of bloodshed. Our own closest relatives, the chimpanzee, have been recorded torturing small animals and almost everyone who grew up with a pet cat can recall watching them hunt and play with prey they have no intention of eating. What makes our cruelty unique is how we will remove ourselves from the direct conflict, and instead feel excitement vicariously through one or more animals we pit against each other.
The Pokemon games are often described as digital cockfighting, and certainly bare some resemblance to that and similar blood sports. Two creatures are places in an arena and forced to fight for the amusement of their trainers. It is this relationship to bloodsports that has been behind a lot of the controversies regarding Pokemon in the West (PETA still protests each new Pokemon game for promoting cruelty to animals, though as in everything PETA does it is largely for easy attention rather than a legitimate grievance with Nintendo). Even when the game’s creators explicitly wanted to avoid these connotations and create a game that did not contribute more “pointless violence” to the gaming community [Larimer, Time (1999-11-22). “The Ultimate Game Freak”], players from many different cultures see cockfighting reflected in the abstract monster combat.
As much as modern-day society may wish to distance our species from this act, forcing animals to violently fight is one of the oldest spectator sports in history. In particular, cockfighting, the practice of pitting two roosters (Gallus gallus domesticus) into bloody combat, dates back at least 6,000 years [Garrigus, W.P. (2007), “Poultry Farming”. Encyclopedia Britannica]. This fascination with fighting roosters actually defined our first relationship with the species. Archeologists believe that the chicken was domesticated first for cockfighting, with their meat and eggs being a useful by-product. This explains why cockfighting chickens most closely resemble their wild counterparts. The domestic chicken and its countless variations are human-made mutants, genetically engineered over thousands of years for traits that would make our entertainment also serve as dinner.
Any creature with a strong territorial instinct can be exploited into fighting for our species’ amusement. Other birds have been bred or had these instincts exploited in s similar manner. The Romans raised fighting quails and in 2009 a particularly rare underground ring of fighting song-birds was broken up in Connecticut. However, the explosive rise of the domestic chicken worldwide speaks to just how important this particular bird is to the sport, as well as how obsessed our species can get about games and gambling. It cannot be understated just how widespread cockfighting is, even in countries where it is currently illegal. In Europe, its origins lie in a religious institution from ancient Greece. In Athens it was a spiritual practice and a political symbol for improving “the seeds of valor in the minds of their youth” that would only later be “perverted” into a gambling pastime. [The London Encyclopedia, Volume 6 (1829) – page 113] In the Middle East, cockfighting also began as a religious institution, and the earliest artistic depictions of fighting roosters yet uncovered tend to be of Jewish and Christian origin.
Did the culture surrounding Pokemon battles begin the same way in that fictional universe? Kanto is one of many regions within the Pokemon world, and all of them share the same underlying culture of battling. While cockfighting “became” debased when it became used for gambling and spectacle rather than religious or political symbolism, the residents of the Kanto region still praise the social virtues of Pokemon battles and cling to the symbolism that justifies any violence. Children are expected to go on pilgrimages with their pet monsters, travelling from gym to gym and learning valuable life lessons through watching their creatures battle. The moral backbone of their society is so built around Pokemon symbolism that terrorist groups like Team Rocket, Team Flare and others find subverting or exploiting that symbolism to be the most effective means of attacking society. The original 151 Pokemon have value to humanity beyond battles, from food sources (Farfetch’d), to transportation (Lapras), to even space exploration and research (Porygon), but the primary purpose for domesticating each kind of Pokemon appears to have been battling. Every other use for Pokemon appears to be a by-product of that original desire humankind had to watch Pokemon compete.
Despite its storied history and appearance in cultures across the world, cockfighting is unquestionably a cruel sport. Fighting cocks inflict severe physical trauma on each other during a battle, and this is sometimes exacerbated by equipping them with metal spurs. Today, cockfighting is heavily regulated and illegal in many countries. The wild chicken, or red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus) is a shy animal, but can be territorial during mating season. This instinct was intentionally bred to be stronger in gamecocks, bordering on murderous. As noted above, the chickens we are most familiar with today were bred to be delicious mutants producing more meat and eggs, but the gamecock was bred for vitality and aggressiveness rather than physical changes. Gamecocks are bred to not only be more territorial, but to remain aggressive even when injured. This has led to the creation of roosters that will fight to the death, while most wild territorial battles simply end with the loser fleeing. Even female gamecocks (which in the wild do not battle for mates or territory at all) are more aggressive and willing to fight
To prepare them for combat, the bird’s wattle and comb are sliced off in order to remove potentially inviting targets for opponents to peck. Feathers are trimmed and removed to prevent the bird from overheating during strenuous battle. But these are artificial changes, not the result of breeding or evolution. No new species of chicken was created through centuries of cockfighting. However, as we will see in part 2, there ARE examples of animals whose form has changed because of their relationship to us. Our species’ strange combination of cruelty and empathy towards other species would create a culture in the West that gave rise to distinct breeds of certain species, one shaped by violence and exploitation, the other by affection and luxury. These relationships not only provide context for our own history, but may also indicate some interesting truths about the Pokemon universe.
Join us tomorrow for Pokemon Battles in Context Part 2: Those Of Us About To Faint Salute You!