How the Pokémon Franchise Portrays Academia

Saturday, 27 February 2021 4-minute read

The core drive in the mainline Pokémon videogames is acquiring knowledge. This idea is so central to the mechanics as well as the story that it underlies both the main quest of whatever world-threatening catastrophe the protagonist is trying to avert, and also the subsequent challenge of competing in the league championship. Thematically, this could not be more obvious than at the very start, as the game opens with a professor who is named after a tree talking to you about the magical creatures that inhabit the world, and how they’ve dedicated their lives to researching whatever new gimmick this generation of the game introduces. The same professor usually presides over the awards ceremony in the hall of fame after the players win the championship. And then you are tasked with collecting data on all the creatures in the game by traversing the world and catching them; you are rewarded for completing this task with a ‘diploma’. This theme is stated explicitly in the fourth generation games, in which the protagonist and their friends are referred to by the Professor as his ‘research assistants’. In that regard, some aspects of the Pokémon games paint a rather quirky picture of academia.

One of the most interesting aspects of the mainline RPGs is how they rely on knowledge as the most valuable resource as each game’s main story line features more than 200 creatures, each with their special abilities, elemental types, weaknesses, and strengths. This is especially salient when a player approaches this game for the first time, when unfamiliar with all of the creatures. The game relies on a player’s ability to make inferences based on subtle clues throughout the game, to guess at the type and weaknesses of various Pokémon based on their appearance, colour palette, the abilities they use, and, most importantly, the puns in their name. It rewards spotting the right patterns and piecing together information in order to develop a strategy.

Whatever else the story needs you to do, whether it is dismantling the mafia, dismantling the mafia again, averting climate catastrophe, preventing the creators of space and time from destroying all of the universe, et cetera, (the stakes of the plot escalated every generation), the story keeps reiterating that the protagonist’s modus operandi is to acquire knowledge about Pokémon and befriend them. What makes encounters with the final bosses especially challenging is that they usually have rare and unique Pokémon in their teams, which makes their tactics and abilities unpredictable, and needs a lot of improvising and flexibility to adapt. This is why knowledge remains one of the most valuable assets in the game.

But then again, while the games are all about acquiring knowledge, they also reflect some peculiar quirks about the economy through which this knowledge is produced: the protagonist ultimately collects all the data, only for it to be published without their name attached to it. In fact, the completes the professor’s research for them and does not get credited for this, highlighting the hierarchical nature of research as a workplace, and the exploitative relationships that sometimes emerge. Moreover, the protagonists are never given any resources or support, and they need to fund their travels and adventures through the side-hustle of gambling on animal fighting. The morality of the setting is perverse, as creatures are made to compete in magical dogfighting, and it is probably best not to go into this too deeply.

I know I really enjoyed playing these games when I was younger. There were subtleties in the game design and some rather intriguing representations of academia and research which I found rather funny. While for me these were fun videogames I enjoyed playing, I do know of someone, a friend of a classmate from when I was a Masters student, who was inspired by the games to become an entomologist. While I may not have been inspired by these games to such a degree, I nevertheless did find them thought-provoking. The most important thing about these games is that the protagonist ‘researcher’ is never a passive observer of their world: they always try to use their knowledge of Pokémon, strategies, or ancient lore to stop whatever terrible evil plot the villainous organisation is orchestrating. Even some of the background characters, like the professors, or in some cases the champions, are portrayed as zoologists, archaeologists, or other kinds of researchers who actively use knowledge for the good of others. And while, at the end of the day, these games are hardly profound or complex in their view of the world, they nevertheless pose some rather sophisticated questions through their game design about the value of knowledge, both as an asset to the player in the game but also as a resource within the world itself.