The Vegan Case Against Pokémon Is Surprisingly Compelling

PETA's bloody video-game parody is totally over the top, but the parallels between Pikachu and real-world animals aren't so easy to dismiss.
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In the Pokémon universe there's no such thing as PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but everyone seems to be vegetarian anyway. After all, how could you possibly eat a Pokémon? It would be like eating your hamster, or your best buddy from high school. People and Pokémon are best friends, and it even says so in the theme song. If you're looking for blood and killing, go play some other game.

Like, for instance, Pokémon: Red, White & Blue. This is not Nintendo's latest attempt to return to the ‘90s (that distinction goes to their new 3D release, Pokémon X and Y)—rather, it's an October 2013 parody released by PETA. Pokémon Red, White, & Blue is about as gory as the new Grand Theft Auto, though considerably cuter. It plays just like the Game Boy game of my youth—the player explores the map, fighting opponents using turn-based attacks—except its protagonist is a battered and bandaged Pikachu, fighting McDonald's and its carnivorous hordes. Just like in the real Nintendo games, the houses are cozy and the trees are fluffy. The main difference is that, with typical PETA subtlety, they're dripping in Pokéblood.

Pokémon Red, White, & Blue is actually one of 26 PETA games, many of which were built by the contract game designers This Is Pop. Among other things, PETA's games attack fur-wearers, lobster-eaters, and circuses. (Paradoxically, This Is Pop has also worked for McDonald’s and built games like Caligula, in which the player bloodily dismembers Roman bystanders in dubious defense of the empire.) PETA's original 2012 Pokémon parody was immensely popular, racking up 1.5 million plays on the day of release. And as the Pokémon franchise suggests, every massive success requires a mediocre sequel. That's how we arrived at Pokémon Red, White, & Blue.

Why are the world's best-known least-liked vegans, PETA, critiquing a vegetarian universe? It's because Pokémon Red, White, & Blue isn't trying to prevent you from broiling your Bulbasour or boiling up some Pikastew. It aims, rather, to critique the violence Pokémon are forced to inflict upon one another. PETA is comparing Pokémon battles (the central action in the Pokémon game and television series) to the violence that produces your Big Mac. Therefore, in between Pokébattles with Ronald McDonald and overweight patrons of his eating establishment, videos of animal mistreatment sneak onto your screen. Basically, whatever Pokémon Red, White, & Blue lacks in game play, which is to say most things, it makes up for with anti-meat propaganda. A recipe for success.

You know a game has failed when talking about it is more interesting than playing it, which is unfortunately the case here. But Pokémon Red, White, & Blue still has a lot to teach us.

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The case for scrutinizing ethics in video games usually goes like this: Games ask us to do things we'd never do in real life, like stealing nice cars or attacking innocent people. Most players will recognize that different rules apply in a given game than in actual human society. But of course, the rules and norms of real-life behavior aren't static—they change along with culture, which includes video games. Children raised as virtual assassins could behave more violently when they grow up. And even if they don't, they could more readily accept the violence or injustice in the world around them, because they've grown used to it in games.

Most of PETA's video-game complaints don't quite fit this critique. In 2009, PETA called on players of World of Warcraft to take a stand against the game's powerful seal hunters. That same year, they criticized the killing of guard dogs in Call of Duty—a game in which humans do their best to kill other humans. Ultimately these complaints were more about controversy than coherency of argument. Yes, they were examples of (virtual) animal abuse. But isolated cruelty makes a relatively small ethical blip within games about killing people. I say this as a vegan. By PETA's logic, we'd also have to campaign to save the aliens in Halo and the turtles in Mario. (Oh wait. PETA already made the anti-fur game Mario Kills Tanooki).

Yet the argument for scrutinizing violent video games actually applies uniquely well to Pokémon. Usually, Pokémon is defended along these lines: Compared to a game like Call of Duty, the real Pokémon series from Nintendo is tame and cozy. A Pokémon trainer treats his Pokémon affectionately, sometimes downright lovingly. Pokémon don't die, they just faint and are nursed back to health. The worst crime in the Pokémon universe, as evidenced by the villains of Team Rocket, is trafficking Pokémon that are stolen from their rightful owners. The people-Pokémon bond, then, is so important that even tampering with it is criminal. In short, the Pokémon universe is not a bloody place.

But to a vegan, or to anyone who considers the treatment of animals to be an issue of morality, that's exactly the problem. In a basically friendly world, it's easy to ignore and even enjoy the real violence at play. The game's central goal is to harvest Pokémon who will win battles for you. Trainers trap Pokémon in the wild by attacking them with an arsenal of domesticated Pokémon. A freshly caught creature, once knocked unconscious, is sucked into a softball-sized Pokéball, which then shrinks to golf ball size and clicks conveniently into the trainer's belt. The next time the Pokémon wakes up, likely cramped and rather confused, it will be tossed into a Pokébattle and forced to fight its own kind. This sort of behavior would border on criminal in the real world.

Pokémon Red, White, & Blue reminds us that Pokébattles look like dogfights or cockfights, which are blood sports in which animals are forced to attack one another for entertainment and profit. Both are illegal in 50 states. The main difference between actual blood sports and Pokémon is the absence of blood, which is probably why PETA was so eager to reinsert it.

It gets worse. In almost every violent video game, players attack “bad guys” of some kind. (This doesn't necessarily make it justifiable, especially in war games where the “bad guys” are people, but it's a decent excuse when you're attacking aliens and monsters.) In this respect, Pokémon might even be worse than World of Warcraft or Call of Duty, because Pokémon trainers inflict suffering on the good guys. 

***

Pokémon’s origins are endearing enough. Satoshi Tajiri, founder of the Pokémon dynasty, really liked bugs. He collected them in the fields and forest of his hometown. “In Japan, a lot of kids like to go out and catch beetles by putting honey on a piece of tree bark,” he recalled in a 1999 interview with Time Magazine. “My idea was to put a stone under a tree, because they slept during the day and like sleeping under stones. So in the morning I'd go pick up the stone and find them. Tiny discoveries like that make me excited.”

The first Pokémon game, released in 1996, was a way to preserve these kinds of tiny discoveries. Preservation was all the more important as encounters with nature became more and more rare. “Every year they would cut down trees and the population of insects would decrease,” Tajiri went on. “The change was so dramatic. A fishing pond would become an arcade center.”

Tajiri isn't alone in his childhood obsession with insects, of course. The writer Anne Fadiman used to collect butterflies as a child. She read of explorers and taxonomists who crossed the world collecting specimens. There's an easy romance in that story: A naturalist sails all the way from England to some obscure Pacific island. There he stoops in the mud, lifting a shiny beetle carefully into a glass jar.

And the impulse to collect at least starts to explain our Pokémon problem. Fadiman looks back at her childhood self and shudders. “Taxonomy,” she writes, “is a form of imperialism ...Take a bird or flower from Patagonia or the South Seas ... rechristen it with a Latin binomial, and presto! It has become a tiny British colony.”

The taxonomical bible of the Pokéverse is the Pokédex, which lists the type and weight of every known Pokémon. And the Pokédex, like the encyclopedia or the Linnaean web of life, is ultimately about control. Every species fits cleanly into its own display case and placard. “To name was to assert dominion,” Fadiman continues. When Pokémon trainers talk about “catching them all,” they're talking about shrinking nature into knowable and controllable bits.

Ash Ketchum, protagonist of the Pokémon series, yells out with excitement as he catches his first Pokémon in the opening television episode. “Enjoy your last moment of freedom, Pidgey!” Ash exclaims. “You're mine!”

***

PETA's game sets out to complicate the simple cruelty of Pokémon, but ironically, it's the Pokémon universe that's more complex.

Pokémon Red, White, & Blue will ultimately die a gimmick because of the simplicity of its world. PETA wants to undermine the assumption that our childhood games and our eating habits are benign. They insist, rather graphically, that pixelated violence (like lunch at McDonald's) is violence too. With some reflection, a lot of people might agree. But in a blood-stained world with embedded videos of animal mistreatment, reflection is beside the point. In PETA's game, the difference between right and wrong is obvious and indisputable. There are vicious villains (McDonald's & Co.) and cute heroes (rebellious bloodied Pokémon), with nothing in between.

Ironically for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), a world this black-and-white doesn't really need ethics. The function of ethics, after all, is to help us deal with the complex and contradictory, and Pokémon Red, White, & Blue is neither. Because PETA doesn't give us the freedom to choose, its portrayal of the world ends up flat and dogmatic.

But the world of Pokémon—now there is a world that needs ethics. The relationship between people and Pokémon is an utter contradiction. Sometimes you cuddle them, and other times you cram them into a Pokéball and force them to fight until they faint.

This kind of moral contradiction matches our real world. We live with certain animals and fry others. We admire the beauty of butterflies by pinning them into black velvet display cases. Our values are constantly competing with our palate for pleasure and convenience.

Maybe the moral contradictions are the most important aspect of Pokémon, the aspect that can reconcile our grown-up and 10-year-old selves. Pokémon's contradictions help remind us of our own.

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Daniel A. Gross is a journalist based in Berlin.

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