Provincializing the Trainer Point of View in Pokémon Emerald

This essay begins to analyze the universe of Pokémon Emerald (2005) through the lens of political economy. In this view, we might understand modern societies as “single, complexly intertwined totalit[ies]” (Otani 2018: 4). We’ve given names to some of the elements that constitute such intertwined totalities—names like “morality,” “politics,” “law,” or “the economy.” Each of these is less a self-contained entity than a historically determined way of living and relating, a relation between or among different groups of beings. A political economy of a society would therefore closely examine that relationality, considering the intricate ways a society’s economic structure is entangled with its politics, laws, conceptions and practices of morality, etc. I want to see what analytical possibilities emerge from applying this way of thinking to the Pokémon universe. Because this kinda shit is fun for me.

As an outsized economic force within the universe, Pokémon labor can be a generative point of departure for a political economic analysis of Hoenn. From such a starting point, what could we discern about Hoenn’s social, political, and economic norms? And how might this help us interrogate the ethics of human–Pokémon relations in Hoenn and the broader Pokémon universe? I suggest in this essay that the trainer point of view into which we are invited as players obscures certain forms of (Pokémon) labor and production without which Hoenn’s economies could not exist as they do.[1] But if we provincialize that trainer point of view, if we understand it not as universal but as one of many possible points of view, then the centrality of Pokémon—not just as beings but as laborers—to Hoenn’s economies becomes painfully clear.

 

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As you work your way up the ranks of the Pokémon League, your character encounters people of all ages who claim a range of geographic and experiential backgrounds. But the more you interact with them, the more you discern a certain consistency across the ways they think and live. There seems to be very little activity in the Hoenn region that isn’t in some way connected to the capture and training of Pokémon. The most obvious example would, of course, be what you do—being a Pokémon trainer, one among many who’ve dedicated their lives to capturing Pokémon and battling them against each other. Importantly, trainers battle not just for glory, but for money. Every time you win a battle against another trainer, you’re awarded a sum of money that appears to be commensurate with the skill level of the defeated Pokémon as well as the personal resources of the defeated trainer. So training is not merely an intense hobby or a life calling—it’s a job that allows you to make a living. It is therefore a crucial part of Hoenn’s economic structure.

Then there are artisans, those folks who sell goods like Pokémon dolls, or secret base furniture, or homemade natural remedies for Pokémon. Other vendors sell items like Zinc and Calcium to help Pokémon develop according to specific trainer-determined metrics.[2] There are those who staff the Battle Tents, Pokémon Centers, PokéMarts, museum, and the Mauville Game Corner. There’s the couple who runs the Pokémon Daycare just outside Mauville. There are television reporters who cover Pokémon battles and contests, so there must also be a television company (or companies) paying them and broadcasting their work. And there are hordes of researchers, many employed by the Devon Corporation, who are hard at work on products and tools related to Pokémon training—like the device that resurrects dead Pokémon from fossils. Sure, folks sell goods and services not directly related to Pokémon training (like Rydel, who just sells bicycles, or the hot springs facility adjacent to the Pokémon Center in Verdanturf Town). But in general, most human labor in Hoenn revolves around Pokémon.

I take time to spell out what might seem obvious—the game is called Pokémon; of course the world revolves around Pokémon—because I think the ubiquity of Pokémon in this universe works to naturalize their exploitation. The creators of the Pokémon games have made a fascinating and complex world, but they invite us to see that world from a trainer’s point of view. From this perspective, there’s no need to really question the ethicality of training. But if we try to see the world from a Pokémon’s point of view, the ethical question immediately becomes not only visible but urgent. Imagine being a wild Pokémon, having to constantly contend with trainers who trespass in your habitat so that you will attack them, thus creating an opening for your own capture. Trainers don’t hide the fact that it’s easier to capture you if they paralyze, poison, or otherwise injure or incapacitate you. Once they do, you lose all agency over your own body. Not only must you now live inside a ball[3] instead of in the place where you were born or where you’d chosen to rest for a while, but now you’re forced to battle others of your kind for tens of hours so your body develops according to trainer-determined metrics. When you faint, a quick trip to the Pokémon Center revives you to be thrown right back into the field. And if you’re not fighting other Pokémon to the point of fainting, you’re battling them for ribbons in pageants. You don’t even get to decide the moves you’ll use.[4] Everything about your life is determined by the human who captured and now owns you.

But you don’t get to be a Pokémon in this game, only capture and train them. Your character is an aspiring Pokémon trainer, and your father, Norman, is a gym leader of some renown. From your very first fights, other characters make you aware of something special in the way you battle Pokémon. You appear to be exceptional as a young trainer, and pretty much everyone you meet knows that you’re destined for fame and success. In this world, people are considered great when they train Pokémon into elite fighters; this is a given, an unproblematized assumption of the game. The residents of Hoenn seem thrilled to share their world with Pokémon, and to watch the journeys of young trainers as they ascend the ranks of the Pokémon League.

And that’s just it: the focus is on the trainer’s journey and not the Pokémon’s. The ways trainers talk about themselves tends to obscure the labor that Pokémon perform on their behalf. Trainer talk emphasizes the role of humans in Pokémon battles, since human trainers are the ones deciding which moves a Pokémon will make, which Pokémon to pit against another, and which items will sway the battle in their favor or shape the development of their Pokémon in a desirable way. But it’s the Pokémon themselves who inflict and sustain damage. They are the ones who pass out, get paralyzed, burned, poisoned, and frozen. When humans do appear to consider a Pokémon’s feelings—for example, when your character is encouraged to give attention to your Pokémon’s nature—this is only to the extent that understanding those feelings will ensure positive outcomes for you, the trainer, in battles or contests. So, the dominant ways that Pokémon become discursivized across Hoenn de-emphasize or make almost invisible the physical labor of Pokémon in battle. This in turn allows the social position of the trainer to remain above political and ethical critique.

Pokémon are thus a labor force whose exploitation is naturalized by trainer talk. Thinking about Pokémon in this way provokes questions about other kinds of labor in Hoenn. For example, where do potions, escape ropes, Poké Balls, and all the other products central to the industry of Pokémon training come from? Trainers only see the finished products in pristine PokéMarts, but how did they get there? And who funds the Pokémon Centers so that their services are free for all trainers?

Because nothing comes from nothing, we have to assume that these products are being manufactured somewhere by some labor force. Because nothing comes from nothing, we have to assume that these products are made of materials and substances that at least partly come from natural sources. And because these products are identical across the region, sold in PokéMarts that look identical across the region, and sold to you by employees who all wear identical uniforms wherever you find them, we have to assume that some larger entity has funded and standardized the manufacture, distribution, and marketing of these products.

Enter the Devon Corporation. Devon is the only corporate entity you meet that is capable of mass-producing goods—they manufactured the PokéNav as well as the running shoes your mom gives you at the beginning of the game. We know that Devon funds a small army of professional researchers who create Pokémon-related products and devices. We also know that the head of the corporation has connections in the uppermost echelons of the Pokémon League. I speculate that Devon manufactures all the products sold in Poké Marts, including synthetic chemical products like X Defend and Super Potion. I also suspect that they fund the Pokémon League and Pokémon Centers. Based on these theories, it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that Devon has the means to source natural materials and substances from which to create their chemical products. Nor is it too far-fetched to imagine that they must have a labor force (that perhaps includes Pokémon[5]) capable of mass-producing these and other goods like Poké Balls, Go Goggles, etc. By funding or producing these Pokémon-related goods and services, I think it’s possible that Devon has magnificently capitalized on people’s desires to own and battle Pokémon. Speculation aside, though, what is certain is that these products are getting made somewhere, that that somewhere doesn’t seem terribly important to trainers, and that the immense PokéIndustry that has developed around owning and battling Pokémon is a powerful force that organizes social and economic life in Hoenn.

In Pokémon Emerald, the trainer point of view becomes a technique to both erase or neutralize Pokémon’s perspectives and disconnect Hoenn residents from the labors of harvesting, assembling, packaging, and distributing that bring consumer goods to retailers. But if we look closely enough, these absences become glaring. I’m merely teasing out what is already suggested by the richly imaginative world of the game; these things are there if we choose to see them. When we shift the perspective from which we engage with an idea, a person, a society, we begin to understand that what appeared natural or universal before is actually constructed, produced, and reproduced. This understanding makes new ways of being and relating possible that may not have occurred to us before. Within the trainer point of view, the dominant way that humans relate to Pokémon tends toward the patriarchal, in that it tends to privilege competitiveness, aggression, possessiveness, and individualism while devaluing care, compassion, cooperation, and gentleness. Once we understand that this is not natural—in the sense that it doesn’t have to be this way, that it is not inevitable—then a new and crucial question arises: what other ways could humans and Pokémon relate with each other?

 

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In future posts, I hope to keep exploring techniques of erasure and notions of value and ethics in Pokémon Emerald, contextualizing this within the longer history of the universe as well as in the history of its development in Japan. This is part of my broader concern with the pedagogical and political work of video and board games in U.S. society—from which points of view are we invited to experience these game worlds, and how do those points of view teach us to relate with human and other-than-human life in our world?

 

 

Work Cited

Otani, Teinosuke. 2018. A Guide to Marxian Political Economy: What Kind of a Social System is Capitalism? Cham, Switzerland: Springer International.

 

 

Notes

[1] I come to this conclusion not to discredit the Pokémon franchise, but as a testament to how immersive and complex the universe of the franchise is. I feel compelled to ask these questions of it.

[2] There’s no reason not to imagine that Pokémon—as sentient and sensitive beings—might prioritize areas of their own development other than those that their captors prioritize: hit points, power points, strength of attack and defense, and speed. These areas matter if you only view Pokémon as fighters or competitors. But what other things might Pokémon do with their time and energy—whether in relation to humans or left to their own devices—and how might those things impact Pokémon’s physical development?

[3] I’m very curious about the metaphysics of the Pokémon universe, especially the question of what exactly happens when a Pokémon enters and exits a Poké Ball. What happens to the Pokémon’s physical form? And what is life like inside a Poké Ball? I’m less familiar with the television series and other iterations of the Pokémon universe, so perhaps some kind and curious gamer might help me here? Do we get any glimpses of the interior of a Poké Ball anywhere across the franchise?

[4] Except in certain Battle Tent competitions.

[5] I suggest this for two reasons. First, the fact that trainers already obscure Pokémon labor in battle, choosing instead to take all the credit (not to mention the money) themselves, suggests that the humans of Hoenn might obscure Pokémon labor in other arenas, too. And given the questionable ethics of trainer expectations in battle, we have to consider the possibility that human expectations of Pokémon labor in arenas like resource extraction and mass production of consumer goods might not be terribly humane.

Second, at the very beginning of the game, you are moving into a new home in Littleroot Town when your mom takes the time to point out the helpfulness of the Pokémon moving your things for you. The Pokémon could’ve remained silent and unannounced in a corner of the screen, holding boxes. But you are made to notice this early example of Pokémon labor outside the battlefield or the contest hall. If they work as movers, what other kinds of work do they perform for the humans of Hoenn, and to what extent are they compensated for it?