At age six, Professor Oak introduced me to this crazy world where adorable electric rats can fight sentient piles of toxic sludge while forgetting his own grandson’s name. Seventeen years later, I still power on one of the first three generations of Pokémon, pack up some potions, and proceed to kick Gary’s snobby ass all over again. Somehow, as of 2016, this franchise is 20 years old, and it seems to only be getting bigger.
So why is this series so addicting and why does it have so much staying power? What is it about a game about a bunch of ten year olds using local wildlife for gladiatorial combat that makes children and grown men alike giddy? My guess is that the mechanics tap into several powerful intrinsic human motivators that build our emotional attachment in the game world. While things like character design, music and more all contribute to the total package, it’s how we insert our own desires, motivations and feelings into the game that makes it so gratifying.
The first humans were probably obsessive collectors of things they actually needed- silly things like food or firewood. Eventually when they were less worried about not starving to death they moved onto things like rocks, art and Pez dispensers. Somewhere along the line the physical need to collect subsided, but the psychological pleasure of doing it didn’t. People collect for different reasons: for personal satisfaction, to show off, for eventual profit and more. Starting with the original 150, Pokemon offered players a digital world where players could do exactly all those things. You could build a collection of all the fire types in the game, collect every single Pokémon that exists, or capture 264 different Rattata. Go wild.
Having a finite number of Pokémon in the game to capture and the assurance that the game is designed for you to be able to actually do it makes it much more reasonable. With things like stamps, you may not even know how many stamps even exist in the world, and there may literally not be any more of that obscure kitten stamp from 1965 left in the world. If that’s the case, you can never “finish” stamp collecting. Knowledge of a visible end makes your quest seem much more actionable and possible, even if new games keep extending that number.
Of course, if collecting everything was easy, it wouldn’t be fun would it? By making certain Pokemon incredibly rare or requiring very specifics conditions to acquire, the game would make the process a journey. If you wanted that Dragonite, you had to suffer through 55 levels of raising Dratini and Dragonair. Looks like you have to trade your prized Pinsir to that douche Danny across the street because he’s the only kid who has an Alakazam. Need a Chansey? Good luck- you get a 1% chance of find one during each random encounter and then you have to actually capture it instead of scaring it away. Every piece in your collection gets a story, though some stories are definitely way cooler than “I threw a ball at a thing.”
With pride you look over your collected kingdom, pulled together through your blood, sweat and possibly extortion. And you never forget the time you caught your 150th Pokemon to finish your Pokedex: Seeing Vileplume to this day still makes me weirdly emotional.
Of course this isn’t a brittle art collection or anything that you can do nothing but look at- Your carefully curated army of adorable fire breathing lizards and man-sized bugs can also be used to stomp your friends and enemies. Not only do you get to put your collection on display in the real world, but you get to prove yours is the best. While the combat generally amounts to a more complex version of rock-paper-scissors, the craziness comes from the sheer amounts of ways you can prepare before a match.
Even when there were just 150 them, each Pokémon had unique stats, types and moves to use, and you got to choose six for your team. I’m not good at math, but that’s approximately a bajillion options. You can win using a balanced team consisting of types that cover each other’s weaknesses, use status inducing moves or blunt force trauma your way to victory with a team of the stupidest looking but powerful monsters. How good do you feel when all your hard work pays off? How fun is it to trash talk your friends after team “Six Geodudes” completes a clean sweep for the win?
We like the idea that we had an active part in our own success, and Pokémon takes this this concept and runs with it, rewarding players who take the time invest in their teams, doing the painstaking adjustments and tweaks before, during and after battle. We like things that make us feel like winners, doubly so when we feel like smart winners.
While other games let you express your style by choosing silly hats for your in-game avatar, Pokémon lets your silly hats wear their own silly hats and then engage in combat to the death. There’s a level of personal ownership involved in Pokémon you just can’t approach with other games. Sometimes you just get attached to things. That Pidgey you caught on the first route of the game? It was your first catch, your first new friend. And so you train it, watch it take down wild Pokemon, gym leaders, the Elite Four and even your real life friends. You watch it evolve into a Pidgeotto, then a Pidgeot. That cute little bird thing is now your badass battle partner. You chose it, trained it yourself, made the investment in this Pidgey above all the others in the world and now it’s a killing machine. How freaking cool is that? Maybe other Pokemon are more objectively powerful but you don’t care because Pidgeot is your bro.
Hey, you chose them. Artist credit: http://www.omocat-shop.com/
So yeah, things like a long running anime series, card game and gigantic marketing machine behind it help, but that’s not all that makes Pokemon popular. At the core of it, the game mechanics almost force us to love our army of adorable killer animals/plants/machines/poisonous-rabbit-dinosaurs and therefore the game that contains them.
Peter is a communications professional in Chicago. His love for food is terrifying, as is his appetite for Pokemon, which has made successful interactions with humans difficult. He also fails to do anything of value on twitter at https://twitter.com/PDU720
Title image found at: https://www.walldevil.com: If you know the original artist please let me know!