Pokemon Battles in Context Part 2 – Those Of Us About To Faint Salute You

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Last time we looked at the origin of bloodsports, particularly cockfighting. Our species’ fascination with forcing other species to fight for our own amusement lead to the domestication of the chicken, and only after that to the development of the chicken into the egg and meat producing force it is today. In other words, if not for our obsession with watching other species fight, we wouldn’t have scrambled eggs today. It is easy to see how this dynamic could have played out in the fictional history of the Pokemon universe, and in how the people of that world saw their relationship to these creatures develop. However, cockfighting is just one of the bloodsports our species has historically been obsessed with.

While cockfighting often wrapped its cruelty in a veneer of spirituality or symbolism, other bloodsports did not. The Roman Empire was infamous for its circuses pitting various animals against each other. The Roman circus of 13 BC saw the slaughter of 600 African beasts, including everything from lions to ostriches. At other circuses, spectators would cheer as hundreds of bears were slain at once. At some point, probably as large exotic predators got harder and more expensive to find, dogs were conscripted. Dogs were a long-time partner of humanity, used for hunting and warfare, and that relationship may have protected them for a time. As the British fell to the Roman Empire, the Romans fought alongside a now extinct breed of dog called Molossus while the British used English Mastiffs. The Romans were impressed with the ferocity of their opponents’ hounds, and so began importing the conquered dogs for use in the Colosseum.

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The use of Pokemon in warfare is only mentioned in passing during the events of 2013’s Pokemon X and Y, where a nine foot tall homeless man is revealed to be the immortal king of the Kalos region. The former king’s story tells of a war between two countries fought with Pokemon, and the despair over losing his own Pokemon partner is what drives his quest for immortality. In the original Red and Blue series, none of this history is present, but we know that wars with Pokemon have taken place. Lt Surge, the gym leader of Vermillion City, is a former soldier. Specifically (and bafflingly in the larger context of the Pokemon world’s geography) Surge fought for the American Air Force in an unknown war, where he used Electric-type Pokemon to power his planes in emergencies. The idea of Pokemon battles not just being entertainment, but part of larger inter-societal conflicts could explain the appearance of Pokemon resembling man-made items. Not just bombs and machines like Voltorb or Magnemite, but even creatures like Blastoise with its cannons may be the result of specific breeding by humans. As the wars ended (every single Pokemon game takes place at a time of peace, prosperity and decadence), Pokemon warfare transitioned into civilian battles and entertainment.

While the Romans began breeding dogs for bloodsports, the trend continued even after the Empire fell. Roman dogs exported across Europe were bred for various “baiting” events. The most popular during the Middle Ages were bear and bull baiting, where trained dogs would be set loose against chained animals. The popularity of this practice became so widespread that the population of bears in Europe plummeted. Dogs were bred more and more specialized to better bait and torment certain animals, giving rise to many of the severely inbred and genetically malnourished breeds we have today. As sad as it is to think, the diversity of dog breeds, in particular the most degenerate ones, is directly related to our species’ fascination for gambling and bloodsports. This is the origin of everything from dachshunds bred to battle badgers to terriers bred to battle an arena full of starving rats.

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Rat-baiting in particular shows how thin the line can be between our love and hatred for a species. While the goal of rat-baiting was to watch the destruction of hated vermin, it also led to the popularity of rats as pets. Jack Black, famous rat-catcher of 19th century England, made a name for himself as a professional exterminator (he billed himself as “the Queen’s official rat-catcher” [ McCullough, Marie (May 10, 2015). “Sniffing out the dirty history of the common rat”. Philadelphia Inquirer. p B2]) but was also an accomplished rat-breeder. When he caught an unusually colored rat, Black would breed them to establish new color varieties that he would then sell as pets to “well-bred ladies” that kept the creatures in gilded cages. Black’s clientele included Beatrix Potter (who dedicated her book Samuel Whiskers to her pet rat) and Queen Victoria. This was the birth of the fancy rat, which today is a beloved pet of many.

Could the popularity of certain Pokemon as pets over fighters have influenced their evolution? Some Pokemon evolve into more fearsome-looking monsters, perfect for intimidating potential opponents, while others acquire physical traits more for show and decoration than for combat. Compare two otherwise very similar Pokemon such as the two Fire-types Vulpix and Growlithe. Both are Fire-type canines (and both can interbreed with each other), but while Growlithe is stocky and fierce Vulpix is slender and delicately coiffed. Growlithe has sharp eyes, a gruff bark, and is primarily seen working alongside police officers, sailors and other working class occupations. Vulpix has soft eyes, is quiet and less energetic, and is more often found alongside upper class owners and young women. These differences continue into their evolutions as well, with Growlithe becoming the fast galloping and fierce looking Arcanine and Vulpix the elegant and contemplative Ninetales. If the two canines share a common ancestor, could human influence and need have contributed to the creation of these distinct breeds?

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It is also worth noting that all of the “non-Legendary Pokemon” are genetically related. While not every Pokemon can breed with each other, all of them can breed with at least one other species. Genetically speaking, all Pokemon not only have a common ancestor, but are closely related and belong to the same genus (if not the same species). Regardless of whether or not a particular Pokemon looks like a bug, a bird, a dragon, a robot, or even a plant, they are all actually the same kind of organism. This is because Pokemon are a group of “ring species” or connected series of genetic populations. As the ancestral Pokemon migrated across the world, they evolved and mutated, leading to different kinds of Pokemon, but they were still closely enough related to interbreed. But as the populations continued to move and mutate, there became species that could interbreed with some species along this ring, but not the ones furthest away from them. For example, both a Cubone and a Poliwhirl can breed with a Squirtle, implying a genetic link, but neither Pokemon species can breed with each other. Even “fossil” Pokemon can breed with modern day relatives, showing how little genetic change their has been for the genus. The Pokemon clade is essentially made up of many different ring species, and a nerd with more time on their hands than I could theoretically use the different “egg groups” to determine a rough idea of which Pokemon species appeared first in the fossil record.

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But back to reality. What was it about dog fighting that made it so popular? Unlike cockfighting, there was no long cultural tradition or symbolism. A number of sociologists suggested that dog fighting was attractive to men as a way of asserting masculinity and achievement in a world of class immobility. Despite the pretensions of capitalism and the industrial revolution, people born into the working class tend to remain there. Dog breeding was a past time that all classes took part in, and while a working class man couldn’t expect to raise his status through labor, he could experience that feeling vicariously through a dog that competed. Dog fighting represented the “ideal” meritocracy, because the amount of money you threw at breeding and training didn’t matter. It wasn’t always vicarious either, the owner of a winning dog could easily earn more money than a successful armed robber or drug dealer [Gibson, Hannah. “Overview of Dog Fighting”. Animal Legal and Historical Center. Michigan State University College of Law. Retrieved 19 November 2013]. The dogs, of course, were neglected and abused their whole lives, but to the humans of either class seeking the thrill and status that wasn’t a concern. While dog fighting has become increasingly illegal throughout the 20th century, it is still a common underground activity, largely for the same symbolic reasons.

It is possible that in the Kanto region, class has a hand in the culture of Pokemon battles. Both Red and Blue (or Ash and Gary depending on your naming convention of choice) are two kids from a rural, podunk town. Blue, being the grandson of the famous local scholar, has some social status but neither are particularly wealthy. As the game goes on, they visit larger cities and fight the socially powerful. In fact, the Gym Leaders and Elite Four are both an interesting combination of classes. You have working class trainers like Brock, whose comparatively tanned skin suggests he spent a lot of time working outside, alongside the culturally elite Erika, who wears traditional kimonos, partakes in activities such as flower-arranging and has a weak constitution from a life devoid of physical labor. You have gym leaders who are miners, teachers, entomologists and underground artists just as socially powerful as gym leaders who are wealthy business men, fashion designers, politicians, movie stars and start-up entrepreneurs. In the world of Pokemon, anyone can use battles as a way of improving their social and economic class. It doesn’t matter how much money Erika, Giovanni or the snobby rich trainers of Pokemon X and Y have, because the poorest kid can wander into the woods, catch the first Rattata they see, and train it into a champion. In fact, within the canon of Pokemon, every single champion that emerges victoriously starts out in the smallest, poorest town. Pokemon is the meritocratic dream of every Victorian-era dog-fighter without the intense cruelty.

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That lack of implied cruelty is a key component to understanding Pokemon. In their digital form, Pokemon battles are largely bloodless conflicts, closer to Tom and Jerry than traditional cock-fighting or rat-baiting. A Pokemon may be blasted by fiery explosions, frozen by beams of ice, suplexed, karate chopped, strangled, bitten, whipped, poisoned or electrocuted, but they will always bounce back with a Wil E. Coyote-esque constitution. The worst fate that can befall a Pokemon is that they will “faint,” a condition that is easily remedied by a trip to a Pokemon Center. This abstraction from real violence was a deliberate choice by designer Satoshi Tajiri. Despite the nature of the game being based around training beasts for combat, Tajiri did not want to contribute more “pointless violence” to the gaming community.

From our perspective in the West, Tajiri’s goal may seem naive or even hypocritical. We’ve seen how the history of violent bloodsports is marked by cruelty and exploitation, and cock-fighting and dog-baiting traditions exist in Japan as well. But there is another spectator sport in the East that involves animals. One that does not have the same violence and focuses on bloodless competition. These sports originated in China, and spread throughout many other Asian countries, but are completely absent from Western cultures. It is this missing cultural touchstone that explains how Pokemon can balance its thematic connection to some of our species’ most egregious with its explicit themes of friendship and cooperation.

Join us next time for Part 3 – Its Just Not Cricket!

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One Response to Pokemon Battles in Context Part 2 – Those Of Us About To Faint Salute You

  1. Pingback: Pokemon Battles in Context Part 3 – That’s Just Not Cricket | Video Games of the Oppressed

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