Pokemon at the Hammer

October 23, 2013

When do you get too old for something? When should you stop indulging in seemingly pointless media? Is any media really pointless? These are questions that I often ask myself as I prepare for the panel discussion on Pokemon, to be held at the Hammer Museum on Saturday the 26th at 1:00pm.

Pokemon was created by Japanese game designer Satoshi Tajiri and released onto the Gameboy in 1996. In the world of Pokemon, young children set out on a journey to catch and harness the power of a vast array of super powered animals and then train these monsters for friendly battles with other "trainers" like themselves. Players can also trade and battle Pokemon with other players in real life through various modes of system connectivity. Satoshi Tajiri was an avid hiker and bug collector as a child, and many of the places he spent time in as a kid were developed as he grew up. Pokemon was Tajiri's attempt to recapture that spirit of adventure he had as a child which he felt no longer existed in this modern world. With this knowledge, Pokemon can seem like a fairly bittersweet affair. But many gamers would probably agree that Satoshi Tajiri did indeed manage to bottle up no small amount of wondrous adventure into those tiny gameboy cartridges. After it's video game release, Pokemon went on to infect literally every form of media. Trading cards, TV, movies, comics, and everything in between.

It's important to note that the Pokemon themselves can never die- they only faint once they've taken too much damage in combat. Also, once Pokemon are captured, they become joyfully submissive to their trainers as long as their trainers have achieved a certain measure of training accomplishments. In this way, Tajiri created a very topsy turvy world. Anyone who has worked hands on with wildlife knows that most wild animals won't do what they're told! In a way, Pokemon represents a hyper idealized representation of man's relationship with nature. In creating a fantasy world with a completely different set of natural laws to suit his desires, in many ways Tajiri (and by extension Pokemon character designer Ken Sugimori) is the Henry Darger of the video game world. In contrast, My friend Austin Walker, whose currently getting his PHD in game studies at the University of Western Ontario, writes...

"Pokemon is super interesting-and straight up I am so excited for X/Y (I can even play as a trainer of color!!!)). There's no denying that Pokemon originated as--and is often reduced to--pure consumerism: an endless cycle of new, novel, and merchandisable material! But... It can be (and often is) so much more.

At its best, Pokemon is a platform for thinking about our relationship with the non-human (and about the non-human in absence of a relationship of us all together.) It asks again and again, "how can humans have ethical relationships with animals?" Where does a "partnership" end, leading to oppression or exploitation? Is there any "putting the genie back in the bottle," returning things to a more "natural" state (Probably not, for many reasons.)

It's best not to forget that Pokemon is at its base a game about animals being forced to viciously fight each other. This can be off putting, but in some ways it's simply truthful. The continents of Pokemon all add up to a world like ours. A world of anthropocentrism, outrageous human exploitation of natural resources. One driven by an engine of competition for competition's sake. This honesty is Pokemon's greatest strength.

Pokemon could've been a game where there are "good" and "bad" creatures. Where players collected heroic "pokemon" and then fought evil creatures with them. Instead, everything is on the same plane--they're all just animals in a world. Instead, some Pokemon are used for gross misdeeds, others are mistreated by terrible trainers, and some enter into rewarding partnerships.

Pokemon could've been a simple fairy tale, but instead its an analogue for our world, with many of its problems. By foregrounding these problems, Pokemon elevates itself from diversionary status. By recognizing that our world is built on the mistreatment of some, by the elevation of some over others, and often on recurring violence, Pokemon is able to say "Yeah, things are bad in major ways, how do we do our best given that?" There's something really utopian about that."

For me, one of the most exciting things about Pokemon is the community and identity building possibilities it creates for it's players. It's position in pop culture, it's nearly endless catalogue of characters, and of course the trading and battling turn the experience of Pokemon into an incredibly social one. I myself have formed several Pokemon leagues with pretty excting results- most exceptionally the Calarts Art School Pokemon league I formed while in college.

That's why I invite any fellow trainers who may be coming to this panel to of course bring their 3DS/DS hand helds and cards to this event so we can all trade and battle with one another. We may even form a new league of new trainers! In many ways, this networking may be a more significant part of the event then the discussion itself! But come on out! I'm looking forward to seeing many of my fellow trainers there! -- Johnnie JungleGuts


Established in 2011, KCHUNG is a creative hub of artists, musicians, philosophers, and tinkerers broadcasting live on1630AM from a studio above a pho restaurant in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. The radio station currently airs 74 live, original shows each month, including reports on wildlife conservation, on-air meditation, gestures of an economic and performative nature, as well as music. While in residence at the Hammer through the end of the year, KCHUNG presents the station’s regular programing on-site as well as new programs developed for the museum. Visitors can look forward to projects such as audio tours composed by KCHUNG and remixes of past Hammer programs.