Pokémon Black and White are the first installations in the fifth generation of the Pokémon franchise. Like their predecessors, they adhere to a formulaic pattern. The protagonist is a fatherless hero whose destiny is to capture legendary creatures, defeat an evil organization, become the Pokémon champion, and collect many different Pokémon friends. Yet, Pokémon Black and White also show some important distinctions between other games in the core Pokémon series. They have a much stronger plot than usual with anime cut scenes featuring major characters. More importantly, they are set in the world of Unova.
Unova, unlike the other Pokémon regions of Hoenn, Kanto, Johto, and Sinnoh, which are based off of islands in Japan, is designed to mimic the United States of America. Pokémon Black and White, therefore, present a unique cultural perspective. They are Eastern developed games that attempt to capture the heart of Western society. Pokémon Black and White are almost identical, and for the sake of discussion this paper will focus on Pokémon Black because it has more urban settings that each represents specific cities in the United States.
The Pokémon franchise is a haven for competitive players, a market “characterized by an adolescent male sensibility that transcends physical age and embraces highly stylized graphical violence, male fantasies of power and domination, hyper-sexualized, objectified depictions of women, and rampant racial stereotyping and discrimination” (Fron et al., 7). Despite this, Pokémon manages to maintain an overall gender neutral appeal.
One factor in this is that unlike many Western games in which women are often overtly sexualized and men presented as hyper-masculine, Pokémon Black is primarily targeted towards children of both genders and thus must approach sexuality in a different manner. In order to prevent alienating adolescents, and, more importantly, their parents, sex in Pokémon is sold subtly. This manifests via the perpetuation of attractive behavioral stereotypes and lookism.
Pokémon Black is an adherent of lookism in that all of the primary characters in the game are appealing. Everyone is objectified. Although some unimportant trainers may be overweight, all of the role models, from professors to gym leaders to companions, are young and beautiful. Despite this, they are usually dressed and proportioned far more conservatively than characters in comparable adult games. Some female individuals have shirt cut outs and short skirts and some male individuals are wearing nothing but spandex pants. Either example is rare and inoffensive enough that even the most hovering parents would not bat an eyelash because sex characteristics such as breasts are not over-emphasized.
Pokémon characters always embody some sort of archetype, such as the brilliant scientist or the elegant actress. This is another manner in which sexuality is suggested. Often these archetypes represent sexual fetishes. For example, three of the male gym leaders in Pokémon Black run a gym that strongly resembles a host club, a form of male escort service common in Japan. They are essentially prostitutes, but look to Americans and children like well-dressed men in suits in a nice restaurant. Another female gym leader is a rock star, who at face value is a simple musician, but battles in a seedy underground club.
There is even a degree of acceptance for homoeroticism hinted in Pokémon Black. N, who for a while behaves as the main antagonist and is critical to the plot of the game, is infamous for having very suggestive romantic undertones with the protagonist. Although love is never mentioned explicitly, N’s affection for the player character is very blatant. He goes as far to drag the player into a Ferris wheel on a starlit night and repeatedly refers to him or her as “the one”. N’s lines do not change whether the main character is female or male. Even in the companion manga for Pokémon Black and White in which Black is male and White is female, N’s relationship with Black is unusually close.
The mechanics of the Pokémon Black are generally gender neutral. There is a large variety of play styles. Once the rather easy main storyline has been completed, the player is free to pursue everything from dressing up Pokémon for shows to battling more difficult opponents to collecting every species to exploring the vast world space for secrets and Easter eggs. The game has appeal for both genders and does not try to force one into either mindset. This has a distinct effect on the player base. Even in the United States, where girls are less likely to own handheld consoles, the Pokémon game gender ratio is close to 1:1 (Quantcast 1) (Iwata 2010), as opposed to the country’s overall gaming gender percentages of 38% female and 62% male (Fron et al., 1).
Pokémon themselves have identical stats between genders. Pokémon Black exhibits only slight variations in appearance between Pokémon sexes which are almost always examples of sexual dimorphism present in real animal species. There are some earlier exceptions such as the Pokémon called Jynx that is clearly female with large breasts and big lips that originate from the first game of the franchise, but overall there is little difference in the treatment of male and female Pokémon.
Traditional gender roles are sometimes suggested in Pokémon Black. The female player character has a pink Pokedex and a user interface littered with heart shapes, which many players found offensive compared to the male player character’s more neutral red version (Kilborn 2011). Supporting characters also are frequent offenders. The most obvious example manifests in the form of the two companion characters, Cheren and Bianca. Cheren is a strong, confident, confident man who presents a very worthy rival for the protagonist. Bianca, on the other hand, is a bumbling incompetent girl who is constantly controlled by her patriarchal father. Even so, the male and female protagonists are treated with equal authority and many women hold positions of power in the world.
The titles of Pokémon Black and Pokémon White are somewhat ironic in that they are the first members of the Pokémon franchise to address the issue of race. All of the previous Pokémon games feature islands of Japan, a nation with a homogeneous population (Bestor 2010). Thus, all of the characters are Japanese. Unova represents the United States, a much more diverse region. As a result, the characters Iris, Marshall, Lenora, and Clay were born. Clay represents an almost offensive characterization of the south. He is a gruff cowboy with a heavy accent who tends to act through force before he thinks. Iris, Marshall, and Lenora, are the first major Pokémon characters with African descent. Their behavior is indistinguishable from other Japanese stereotype based characters to the point that Iris even dons a kimono.
The last unique defining trait of Pokémon Black is that it was designed to appeal to an older audience without losing its existing audience (Iwata 2010). This was accomplished by adding a more in-depth plot and by scaling up the age of the characters. The protagonist of Black is a whopping six years older than any other Pokémon protagonist. The storyline halfheartedly plays with the morality behind Pokémon, for the first time questioning the ethics behind capturing wild creatures and forcing them to battle each other. Other in game features such as the Poke Radar augmented reality game, new mechanics to help competitive min-maxing, and the fact that the game was available in kanji, an alphabet generally used by educated adults, in addition to katakana, a simplified alphabet for younger students, in Japan, focus the game more towards university players.
All of these traits of Pokémon Black and White were shaped by the culture of Japan as much as they were shaped by the developers. Those designing Pokémon Black designed the game with a global audience in mind, and thus opted to handle politically charged topics such as the first representation of African Americans with minimal potential for controversy. Iris, Lenora, and Marshall are essentially just Japanese characters with darker skin. The game barely acknowledges the sex of the player character. Yet, Japanese values still leaked through. Iris, Lenora, and Marshall, are merely “token” in that they are the only characters that could be interpreted as non-Caucasian or non-Asian and have no defining characteristics of their race. Bionca is a needy woman who needs help to accomplish anything; Cheren is a driven and strong role model.
However, most of the issues with representation in Pokémon originate from the culture of the audience in the United States rather than the producer. In most nations, Pokémon has equal gender distribution among players. Even so, competitive Pokémon is an overwhelmingly male eSport. This can be attributed to the fact that competitive Pokémon has features that appeal to the “hardcore gamer”, such as competition, number crunching, and combat. In the United States, it is unusual for a female to be considered a gamer at all, much less a “hardcore gamer” (Fron et al., 1). Women are not barred from competitive play and the game actively encourages them to learn about it. Pokémon itself has an androgynous mindset – it has a focus on age, not gender. It is the cultural expectation that girls not participate in male gaming that raises their barrier of entry into competition.
Culture also has influences over gender representation even outside of gameplay mechanics. For example, when surveyed, people often assume gender for otherwise gender neutral Pokémon. Many viewers consider Jigglypuffs to be female because they sing and draw, while Machokes are considered male because of their buff physique, even though both species can be either sex (Pokémon Connect 2012). This effect is so pervasive that it can cause two cultures to diverge on game elements. In the United States, the Pokémon Ninetails is often assumed to be female because it is sleek, lithe, and usually described as beautiful. In Japan, Ninetails is associated with the kyuubi, a fox from folklore that is distinctly male. Race is not excluded from this effect. The Pokémon called Jynx caused outrage in the United States because she was perceived as a racist depiction of African Americans due to her dark face, but she is actually a depiction of ganguro, a fashion style in Japan.
Ultimately representation in games is a direct result not just of the biases of the producers but of the cultures they exist in. Because of this, it is possible that even the characteristics of female oriented game mechanics (exploration, collection) and male oriented game mechanics (combat, competition) may be contrived.
Bestor, Theodore. “Asian Topics.” Contemporary Japan: Japanese Society – Homogeneity. Columbia University. Web. 12 Mar 2013. <http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/at/contemp_japan/cjp_society_01.html>.
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Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (aka Ludica) (2007). “A Game Of Ones Own: Towards a New Gendered Poetics of Game Space.” In Proceedings, Digital Arts & Culture 2007, Perth, Australia, September 2007. <http://lcc.gatech.edu/~cpearce3/PearcePubs/LudicaDAC07.pdf>.
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