wonder and reality in Pokémon Go

pokemon go

I was a Pokéchild. I had a biscuit tin full of meticulously sorted trading cards and an undefeated Psychic deck built around Alakazam’s intensely frustrating Damage Swap power. My sister and I religiously watched each new episode of the animated series as it aired on Sky One at 8am every morning. The morning they surprised us with a double episode finale, we were late for school. When the Gameboy release eventually dropped in Ireland and I got my sweaty little paws on Pokémon Red, I spent a long and indolent summer trading and battling on the green with the kids in my neighbourhood. I played so much that I would go to bed with the infamously tinny Pokémon music still ringing in my ears. Back then, the world of Pokémon was colourless and rigidly two-dimensional, the gameplay repetitive and the storytelling lacklustre. But for all its flaws, the contents of that little red cartridge instilled in me a profound sense of wonder and curiosity.

Literally the most annoying power

I was eleven years old when the Pokémon craze swept through Ireland, which was also the average age of the protagonists in both the animated series and the games. I think, for many kids of my age, the near-universal appeal of the franchise didn’t come the collectability of the monsters nor the adrenaline of the battles (though these things were certainly factors). The beating heart of Pokémon was a world that said, “Hey kid, imagine if, instead of sitting at home and doing boring homework, you could be out travelling the world on an important mission with a loyal band of fantastic beast companions at your side?” It was an intoxicating proposition. When my Gameboy batteries were eventually confiscated and I was forced to go to sleep, I would indulge in detailed fantasies about what my life would be like if Pokémon were real.

Fast-forward to 2016 and suddenly the world of Pokémon is more real than that eleven year-old girl furiously tapping away at her Gameboy could ever have imagined. In 1999, the idea that almost everyone in Ireland would own a pocket-sized personal computer – one that could make video calls, respond to voice commands and surf the World Wide Web in full colour – was the stuff of science fiction. Now, my phone acts as a window to a parallel universe, an alternate world where vibrant monsters frolick in the streets. Pokémon Go creates a simultaneous sense of being privy to a magical secret and being part of a vast communal experience. The wonder is back and this time it’s on par with tumbling through the wardrobe into Narnia.

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link farm #9: variety bag

Twitch Plays Pokémon was basically the logical conclusion of the Internet.
Twitch Plays Pokémon was basically the logical conclusion of the Internet. source: kotaku

Hi everyone! The fields of the link farm have lain fallow for a while, but they shall be all the more fertile for it and a new crop of feminism shall grow strong and abundant in the furrows of this newly-ploughed metaphor.

That is to say, the draft email where I keep interesting links (Iol, what are bookmarks) has become nothing short of unwieldy, so here’s a bumper crop of stuff I read recently (or not so recently) that I found thought-provoking. All of it is articles. In no particular order:

The Twitching of Democracy Could Twitch Plays Pokémon hold the answer to reinvigorating our broken systems of democracy? I have no idea, but fortunately my friend Tadhg decided to grapple with that very question in his latest blog post.

Rage Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum Women in general, and feminists in particular, are often accused of overreacting or being excessively angry in response to relatively innocuous things. Kameron Hurley does a great job of explaining that a) seemingly isolated incidents are often “blown out of proportion” precisely because they are not isolated incidents and b) anger is actually a necessary tool for changing the status quo.

What, So I Can’t Even Act Like My Subordinate Coworkers Only Have Their Jobs Because They’re Hot Anymore? In case you are unfamiliar with Bad Advisor, she scours Internet advice columns for the most bizarre and clueless of questions and then responds with exactly what the Letter Writer wanted to hear. It’s all gold, but this is particularly on point. Warning: unprecedented levels of snark.

Should “potential fathers” have any say in abortion? A thorny issue, but this is why I love reading Aoife O’Riordan on reproductive rights; she brings a level on incisiveness and clarity that I would never arrive at on my own and her conclusions always center the needs of the pregnant person above all else. And as a fellow native of a country where abortion is illegal except in the most extenuating of circumstances, her insight is valuable to me on a personal and political level.

Bi-Erasure and The Diary of a Young Girl Anne Frank may not have identified as bisexual, but the fact that her diary was originally scrubbed of homoerotic material prior to publishing is symptomatic of a society that is still profoundly uncomfortable with fluid sexuality. Solomon Wong illustrates how this relates to modern bi-erasure and why young bi people need more mainstream narratives that acknowledge their existence.

Lupita Nyong'o as mohawked Storm is the best fancast ever. (source: Geek Outside)
Lupita Nyong’o as mohawked Storm is the best fancast ever. source: Geek Outsider

Bros before Rogues Nicholas DiSabatino asks if the X-Men franchise – despite reams of excellent source material – is getting steadily worse at portraying women as well-rounded characters… or indeed, portraying them at all. (Hint: Yes.)

Why Marketers Fear The Female Geek  Disruptive innovation is one of my favourite marketing concepts. It basically means ripping up the rule book and throwing all the data out the window in order to capture (or recapture) a brand new market through bold and original strategies. And this, argues Anjin Anhut, is exactly what videogame companies need to do if they want access to the wallets of the fifty percent of the population they’ve been systematically alienating for the past few decades.

The Night I Kissed A Rapist In this simple personal account, Jan DeVry explores her firsthand experience of discovering that a rapist can be a well-liked, charismatic man with whom you have strong chemistry.

Seeming Female: Gender in Digital Space So at this point we all know that Fake Geek Girl is largely a myth, the fever dream of an adult nerd with a subconscious desire to punish all women for that one time a hot girl ignored him at summer camp. But the always excellent Foz Meadows posits an interesting theory: what if she does exist? What if she exists and what if she is a literal invention of male gamers? “What if the respective myths of the Fake Geek Girl and Fake Gamer Girl are actively being perpetuated, not through the whore-user predations of evil ladies, but because a cynical, sexist subset of male geeks are using stereotypical, strawman portrayals of women to manipulate their peers?” It sounds far-fetched, but the numbers add up and the performance of gender in digital spaces is a strange and elusive beast.

link farm #7: oh yeah, pop culture!

Someone recently reminded me that this blog is supposed to be about pop culture as well as feminism and I was like CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. So have some cartoons and videogames with a healthy side of gender analysis, hand picked from the lush gardens of the Internet by an overworked intern who needs to do some yoga or something.

Above, Errant Signal breaks down the idiotic assertion that reviewers who critique videogames in a social and cultural context are failing to be “objective” or imposing their “agenda” on an otherwise apolitical medium.

On Videogame Reviews (essay) And on that note, if Errant Signal breaks down the myth of the objective reviewer, Tevis Thompson ANNIHILATES it in this brilliant essay. What starts off as a review of the much-lauded Bioshock Infinite expands into something much broader and deeper. Even if you haven’t played Bioshock Infinite (I haven’t), this is mandatory reading if you give even a cursory shit about gaming culture, or even more generally about the nature of reviewing. It’s 8000 articulate, passionate, probing words and not a single one of them is wasted. Go read. (Also, I seriously got a little misty over Saving Zelda in work the other day.)

So What If It’s Satire? (article) I’ve been reading a lot of good stuff on D.A. White recently, but particularly enjoyed this post about the nature of satire. It’s a word that gets thrown around an awful lot, and to a downright alarming degree directly after someone suggests that a piece of media might be offensive. Using videogames, comics and of course A Modest Proposal as a point of reference, White explains why “offensive” and “funny” are not actually defining features of satire as a form.

The strange prudishness of Channel 4’s Sex Box (article) I don’t fully agree with Martin Robbins’ assessment of Sex Box, but he does manage to articulate a lot of the niggling problems I had with the first episode. I think the show has potential overall, but seriously, this: “Weirder still, given the obvious focus on diversity, was that it seemed each mate had to be paired with someone who looked the same – black with black, white with white, disabled with disabled, gay with gay, old with old – as if God had told Noah to run a sex cruise.

Why I’m Not Supporting Disney’s Frozen (article) Oh, Disney. It always seems to be one step forward, two steps back with you guys. This post by The Feminist Fangirl delves into source material for FrozenThe Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson, an “epic, melancholy, emotionally complex, and fantastically feminist” fairytale and then explains how Disney decided to just fuck all that out the window – stripping it of all its unique elements and decimating its diverse cast of female characters – in favour of serving up another bland offering of “feisty princess surrounded by male helpers.” Sigh Disney. Just sigh.

Disney, Frozen and the (un)Importance of Prettiness (article) And as if that wasn’t disappointing enough, when it was pointed out that the character design for Frozen‘s Anna looks remarkable to Tangled‘s Rapunzel, the head animator decided to set us straight by explaining that “historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, because they have to go through these range of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty…” Yeah. I mean, if “pretty” exclusively means “impossibly huge eyes and almost non-existent nose and mouth”, I can see why that might be a problem.

Adventure Time also gets points for nuanced portrayals of female friendship! source: nkq0rs
Adventure Time also gets points for nuanced portrayals of female friendship! source: nkq0rs

Is BMO from Adventure Time Expressive of Feminism? (video) This guy is awesome because he interprets the character of BMO (a sentient videogame console) as an embodiment of the deconstructed gender binary, and therefore expressive of the ideals of third wave feminism. He also gives a very succinct explanation of the broad differences between first, second and third wave feminism. Also, he uses uses the French language (which I am currently trying to relearn) to make a point. It would be quite difficult for me to like this video more.

Pokémorality: Black and White (article) This article is not about feminism, but is in fact a SHAMELESS PLUG. This is an essay I wrote about Pokémon Black and White, originally published on a now-defunct videogame analysis site. I found it the other day and discovered I’m surprisingly fond of it, so now I’m giving it a home on Massive Hassle.

pokémorality: black & white

Villains who actually kind of have a point are always more interesting than your garden-variety megalomaniac.
Villains who actually kind of have a point are nearly always more interesting than your garden-variety megalomaniac.

(This article was originally published on a now-defunct videogame analysis site, and has been backdated to reflect this. Also, spoilers for Pokémon Black and White)

When I was twelve years old, Red and Blue hit the playground and I spent hours of my young life shuffling through the tall grass, leaving piles of unconscious Pidgeys in my wake. Today, I do this in airports with a new generation of ubiquitous pest Pokémon whose names I cannot remember.

The real-life implications of my diligent training seem grim; I descend on an idyllic patch of grass full of local wildlife, and systematically beat, burn or electrocute them into submission. I will capture some of these Pokémon, but most will never get the privilege of training with me and massacring their wild counterparts for hours on end. Most of the little monsters end up rotting on my PC in suspended animation. But honestly, would it really be better to release them into the wild, so they can continue to be knocked unconscious on a daily basis by aspiring trainers?

This seems like a dire fate for any animal, but one of the crucial aspects of this universe is that Pokémon are not animals. They are considerably more sentient than animals, which implies they have agency. The franchise has used this to counter comparisons between Pokémon battles and, say, cock-fighting. Pokémon are our friends, we are reassured again and again. Pokémon have a choice and Pokémon like to fight! Battles are not an arena where dumb animals are enslaved and tormented into violence, but a beautiful collaboration between trainer and monster to achieve greatness as defined by the parameters of the fictional universe they inhabit.

The core tenet of any fictional universe is that the rules are different. Drawing real-world parallels is an interesting exercise, but usually a superfluous one when it comes to enjoying a game for what it is. If Professor Oak says Pokémon are my friends, it must be true. I did not at twelve years old (and still do not in my twenties) need any more justification to be able to enjoy Pokémon. I can buy into the straightforward premise of a happy world where cute monsters fight other cute monsters, no one really gets hurt and everyone is friends.

In light of this, it seems like a counter-intuitive choice to introduce a moral grey area in the obtusely-titled Black and White.

The bad guys in all previous Pokémon games followed the model of the anime; single-minded villains with hordes of dumb cronies and megalomaniac tendencies. The mission was innately satisfying in its simplicity: you must stop the bad people from taking Pokémon away from good people, because the good people are friends with Pokémon and the bad people are mean. In Pokémon Black and White, Team Plasma have more complex motives. Lord “N”, their mysterious young figurehead, is obsessed with the idea of separating Pokémon from humans permanently. The objective of Team Plasma throughout most of the game is to free all Pokémon from perceived slavery, to save them and to help them become “perfect.”

The most obvious layer of confusion is that Team Plasma are using Pokémon to battle as a means to this end. It must be obliquely assumed that there is literally no other way to incite conflict in the Pokémon universe, since we can hardly have poor Bulbasaur trying to deflect bullets with Vine Whip. At one point, after defeat, Lord N even acknowledges his hypocrisy: “Tsk! Why? Is it impossible for me to win while feeling bad about being a Trainer?”  However, most of his rhetoric is consistent: Pokémon must be liberated from the service of humans. The existence of this character challenges the ethics of the Pokémon world.

I talk to everyone I meet in the world of Pokémon. As a result, I am resigned to skimming through a significant amount of filler dialogue before I find that elusive TM or Rare Candy. Thus, I am in a position to assure you that the chat that you will experience in Black and White is nothing short of cloying. Every second person will tell you how much they love Pokémon, how much your Pokémon love you, how Pokémon and people need each other, to grow together in peace and harmony with all the Pokémon hugging and singing and dancing. This is the entirety of the argument that is supposed to motivate the player to battle fiercely and unequivocally for the propagation of the current world order. I am aware that these games are marketed at twelve year olds. I feel immovably certain that my twelve year old self, strategy guide clutched in sweaty palm, would have been mortally offended by the puerile drivel offered by these games as an argument for keeping Pokémon confined to their balls.

N has a valid point. In fact, he gives voice to the single most common criticism of the concept of Pokémon, one that has been levelled at the franchise since its inception. For the first time, these criticisms have not only been acknowledged by the games, but incorporated as a keystone of the narrative. This had the potential to take the Pokémon universe in an excitingly unprecedented direction. The problem is that the moral question is presented to the player at the outset, and then promptly drowned under a tirade of cheerily vague assertions of friendship and love. We are introduced to a grey area and then told to ignore it. N is revealed to be yet another megalomaniac with daddy issues and no one learns anything.

The potential for moral ambiguity in Black and White was so huge that it was disappointing to realise that this game was not going to act as a debate. Instead, the question is clumsily shoehorned into the existing Pokémon formula and then quickly dismissed before anyone can get too uncomfortable. The introduction of a Team fighting for the freedom of Pokémon could have been a genius stroke, but half-hearted execution has firmly relegated Plasma to the hall of entirely unmemorable Pokémon villains. As a member of the older generation of Pokémon fans – and one who snored her way through Diamond and Pearl – this wasted potential ultimately ruined the game for me. For a brief tantalising moment, I thought I was dealing with a darker story and a moral grey area. Instead, Black and White managed to firmly live up to its name.