Beginning life as a set of obscure games on a portable console in its twilight years, the Pokémon franchise has slowly become one of the biggest multimedia media properties in the world. Spawning 22 seasons of anime, more than 75 games, a Ryan Reynolds-starring live action romp, and more merchandise than you can shake a Sudowoodo at, 30 years later, Pokémon seems to be more popular than ever.
Now, with the mainline games approaching their eighth generation, some longtime trainers think the franchise might be growing stale. Why? Because, for older players, it’s a series with nothing to say.
Despite its globe conquering status, Game Freak has never really used the pedestal Pokémon sits atop to address any real-world issues or problems. And in fairness, no one really expected it to.
Yet it looks like this apolitical stance might be about to change. Despite the previous Pokémon RPG outings being family friendly escapades, the upcoming Pokémon Sword and Shield look to contain far more overtly political and social themes than anything we’ve seen in the series to date.
Recent trailers seem to allude to everything from the issues of athlete abuse to toxicity in fandoms. But is addressing modern social and political problems what the games need to entice their (increasingly aging) fanbase?
Pokémon’s Past Politics
Before we get to that though, lets look at how the series got here. Like all art, the previous Pokémon games don’t live in a vacuum, lightly incorporating social issues and ethical dilemmas into their jovial romps. As these RPGs were intended to appeal to kids, unsurprisingly, these ideas were presented in a way that they could appeal to anyone — regardless of their personal beliefs.
1999’s Red and Blue argue that anyone can become a champion through hard work, despite the hardships along the way — and that doing so is a worthwhile pursuit. Similarly, Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald directly tell the player that it’s wrong for humanity to try to dominate nature.
While all good messages, the themes in these games are so broad, and the villains so cartoonish, that it is near impossible to directly connect these ideas to events and issues in society today.
Later Pokémon games opted for a similarly vague approach, while daring to delve a little deeper into adult themes. Pokémon Black and White are a good example. These are the most meta titles in the franchise, asking whether capturing Pokémon and having them battle for sport is really the ethical thing to do.
As this premise is the cornerstone for the entire franchise, unsurprisingly, Black and White never directly answer these questions, leaving them there for the player to ponder. Or to just flash past your eyes while you hurriedly mash the ‘A’ button.
Let’s get Pokélitical
In a similar vein, the villainous team of Pokémon Sun and Moon, Team Skull, feel far more fleshed out than the pokevillians of old. This time, the evil group stopping the player consists of young people who feel disenfranchised and let down by society.
In fact, the team’s leader, Guzma, was directly wronged by the long-standing traditions of the Alola region, being prevented from holding the position of Trial Captain. While Guzma met all the criteria to fill the distinguished position, the Guardian Deities of the Alolan Islands refused to bestow the title to him, leaving Guzma purposeless and putting his one goal in life forever out of his reach.
Yet, as interesting as this attempt to flesh out the baddies is, these 60-hour games frustratingly never elaborate on these ideas or truly examine why this fictional society is failing so many people.
Despite taking a ‘gently, gently’ approach in the past, it’s clear that recent titles have been slowly starting to eke closer and closer towards more adult themes. Now, based on what we’ve seen in Pokémon Sword and Shield so far — it looks like Game Freak is taking this one step further.
Political Overtones in Pokémon Sword and Shield Trailers
Unlike with past games, the political and social themes present in the Pokémon Sword and Shield have direct real-world parallels. Team Yell, the villainous team bothering the Galar region, spend their days harassing and obstructing other trainers. Why? In order to help celebrity trainer Marnie more easily become the League Champion.
Despite their hearts being in the right place, Marnie does not appreciate Team Yell’s hooliganism, and apparently tells them to stop harassing other trainers on her behalf. This team and relationship are a clear parallel to the toxic behavior found in sports and digital celebrity fandoms today.
In Europe, football hooliganism, or organised fan riots against other teams or police because of the events of a game, is a concerning phenomenon tied to the sport. The savagery of these riots even led to Time Magazine profiling the history of this unique violence back in 2016. Fan communities taking over-the-top action on behalf of an internet celebrity or creator is also a fairly common occurrence nowadays.
Any significant criticism of celebrities like Taylor Swift or Felix ‘PewDiePie’ Kjellberg can lead to harassment from a portion of their fanbase, even if they disavow the behavior. Of course, harassment campaigns also made headlines last year when internet mobs forced Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran to delete her social media accounts, simply because they did not like the character she portrayed.
Similarly, members of the ongoing Gamergate harassment campaign continue to dox and badger marginalized people in the gaming community and industry. These similar and unsettling events show that it’s never been easier for people to harass others online and that many will do so without provocation.
Sports and Toxicity
Pokémon Sword and Shield will also revolve around the concept of competition and, for the first time in the games, directly compares Pokémon battling to a professional sport. Major battles take place in large stadiums in front of audiences and Gym Leaders wear uniforms bearing the logos of the companies sponsoring them.
Furthermore, the person in charge of the Galar region Pokemon League, Chairman Rose, has all the makings of a significant Pokémon villain thanks to his posh clothes, distinctive appearance, and his secretary underling. Collectively, this gives the impression that the next Pokémon games are going to address issues relating to athlete abuse and exploitation.
For many impoverished people around the world, success in an athletic field seems like one of the most direct routes to improving their social and economic situation, and athletic organizers can easily exploit this desire. In the United States, college sports are a billion-dollar industry with those at the top making millions, but college athletes are not allowed to profit off of these events or merchandise bearing their name or likeness.
In professional sports, the link between concussions sustained in American Football and deteriorating health is more evident than ever before. This leads many to wonder if the NFL is essentially pressuring athletes into sacrificing their longterm health so that the franchise and team owners can profit off of them.
Pokémon’s capacity to make this parallel is even hinted at in the Detective Pikachu movie. In this film, a villainous corporation develops various drugs, including the the Pokémon steroid R, to make these monsters more powerful and useful to their many schemes. However, these treatments also cause lasting harm to Pokémon, like making Greninja that are overtly hostile to strangers and Torterra that are so large that they cannot live a normal life.
It’s easy to see how Sword and Shield could push these ideas even further and tie them to sports teams and organisations taking advantage of their athletes in Sword and Shield.
The B Word
Of course the elephant — or maybe Donphan — in the room is that Sword and Shield’s Galar region is heavily based on the United Kingdom, which currently faces a number of political and social issues. Brexit, or the UK attempting to leave the European Union, is criticized as the nation sacrificing much of its economy to have more control over immigration and heavily scrutinise which kinds of people can become citizens.
This clashes heavily with Pokémon’s longstanding themes of community and betrays the brand’s longstanding international appeal and inclusion efforts. The nation also faces myriad social issues, including the protection of support networks for trans and gender questioning persons and how to deal with wealth disparity and gentrification. You know, the usual lighthearted Pokemon stuff.
In basing the Galar region so heavily on the United Kingdom, the games inherit the good with the bad and it’s possible these controversial topics will also be referenced (subtly) within Pokémon Sword and Shield.
Toxicity in fandoms and the responsibility organizations have towards their athletes are multifaceted issues that are clearly not going away anytime soon. It’s bizarre but pretty incredible that Game Freak would choose to feature these relevant problems in Pokémon Sword and Shield so heavily.
It’s clear that the next Pokémon games will address these societal problems to some capacity, but it raises the question of whether featuring these themes in Pokémon games is the right move.
Is This a Good Direction For Pokémon?
While it’s great to see the Pokémon series mature, Game Freak will only hurt the Pokémon brand if it uses relevant political issues as a backdrop, and does not fully explore them. At best, it’s lazy for a game to center on topical societal problems without offering any resolution to them within its narrative, or give greater insight into these problems. At worst, this can come off as a company trying to profit off of real-world controversies without taking responsibility for the messages presented in their media.
Not to mention that it would be disappointing if Game Freak once again left such compelling ideas unexplored in a Pokémon game.
However, if Game Freak does dig into these issues and offer a definitive stance on them, then this could be precisely what the franchise needs to feel relevant again. More definitive and divisive themes could be an excellent way for the franchise to evolve and appeal to older Pokémon fans.
Even if the issues had to be kept in generalities to fit the mold of a children’s game, examining them in a gentle way might even do a bit of good in our world.
To date, it’s hard not to see the series as a force for positivity in the world. The Pokémon franchise has encouraged fans to be kind, and it would be wonderful if Game Freak finally applied these core values to more relevant issues in the world.
In the end, though, it’s Game Freak’s decision on what kind of subject matter appears in its flagship franchise and how it handles it. Its track record suggests that it may not give these themes the fully fledged exploration that many older fans would love to see.
However, the unusual relevancy of athlete abuse and toxicity in fandoms suggests that it isn’t afraid to incorporate real issues into these games, and maybe even take the franchise in a bold new direction.
There’s no doubt that Pokémon Sword and Shield will be charming and enjoyable adventures — regardless of whether they have anything to say or not. But imagine if as well as bringing a smile to your face, they actually made you think, too.