Thomas More first coined the Latin term Utopia in 1516 to describe the fictional world of his novel where everything worked in a (sort of) perfect harmony. Almost 500 years later, it is obvious which recent fictional work of the best deserves comparison to More’s story; I am talking, of course, about Pokemon. Specifically, the world of Pokemon: Red Version for the Nintendo Gameboy.
Not convinced? Here are a few reasons why…
Both Loved Creating a New World View
By the time Pokemon reached the UK, it already had its own TV show, trading card game and cuddly toys – all of which were very successful. As a result it can be easy to forget that, when Satoshi Tajiri first came up with the Pokemon universe, it was literally unprecedented. Nintendo didn’t understand the concept and they didn’t expect Pokemon, a game based on Tajiri’s bug-catching hobby, to be very popular at all. However, the Game Boy was dying, soon to be put out of production, so they thought, why not?
And so the Pokemon universe was given the chance to exist – and it was beautiful. It is a world of non-violence (it was important to Sajiri that Pokemon never died or bled), where all health-centres are free, where a child can ride their bike into the unknown with guaranteed safety and where there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ Pokemon. This last idea was the most revolutionary. After all, you spend the whole game battling other Pokemon. Why else would you battle them if they weren’t ‘bad’? Sajiri explained that a rival Pokemon is just a Pokemon that was raised by another person. Just because it hurts your Pokemon, it doesn’t make it bad, because it could have been your Pokemon. This view, though not massively complicated, is quite a brave thing to wire into a game. Namely because it sounds way too fucking boring for any ten year old playing the game to give a shit about. And yet, it is there from your very first important decision. Three Pokemon sit on a table. One of them becomes your best friend, and one of them becomes your biggest rival. Is Blastoise ‘bad’? Maybe from your point of view, this time round, but reset the game and choose again. All of sudden, Venasaur is the ‘bad’ Pokemon.
And More’s Utopia? It too was somewhat unprecedented. He created a world where no-one locks their doors, where there is no extreme wealth and where the entire island can be circumnavigated in 500 miles. These features also exist in the world of Pokemon, and these feature’s also come from a world view that More seemed to create from nowhere. For almost 500 years people have been debating about why More even bothered to write Utopia. Kautsky wrote that the book was either a ‘Platonic Republic’ or an ‘idle fantasy’. Maybe, just like Pokemon, it was a bit of both. More’s island still had some problems (like how adultery meant that you were punished with enforced slavery) and the Pokemon universe isn’t completely innocent either (as PETA love to point out), but at both of their cores is an idea of a nice world where everyone gets along. The difficulty, as always, is fleshing out exactly what that means.
Both Loved Using Made up Words
Pokemon, as most people know, comes form the portmanteau combining pocket and monsters, but the 150 Pokemon themselves are also a wonderful gallimaufry of hotchpotch neologisms. Some had to be translated from Japanese to English (Popo became Pidgey because, in English, it sounds like pigeon) whilst some were fun, onomatopoeic creations. Pikachu, for example, came from what Sajiri believed to be the sound of electricity (‘pika’) and the sound a mouse makes (‘chu’). Most, if not all, fictional universes rely on invented terms, to create an invented world. However, Pokemon does all of this is on 125 kilobyte cartridge. That One Direction song on your Ipod takes up more than 30 times as space as the entirety of Pokemon: Red Version.
More, on other hand, used Latin and he did this, more or less, just to fuck with people’s heads. Utopia translates roughly as ‘no place’ but he made a point of noting that this could easily be confused with Eutopia which roughly translates as ‘good place’. Rather than clearing up this confusion, he continues to name the places around the island: Polyleritae (‘Muchnonsense’), Macarenses (‘Happiland’) and the river Anydrus (‘Nowater’).
More’s confusing-ass language suggested that while Utopia would be great in real life, it was also ‘no-place’ and pretty much unattainable as a result. Sajiri’s language suggested that the world of Pokemon was attainable (pigeons are just shit pidgey’s after all) but probably wouldn’t be great in real life.
The fantasy is much more fun, and it’s much more humane… because it’s fantasy.
Both Loved Friendly Rivalries
At the start of the game, you’re introduced to the world of Pokemon and Professor Oak’s grandson who has, so the game says, ‘been your rival since you were a boy’. Then in an act of game-design so ridiculously clumsy that even a child playing the game wouldn’t be able to help but grimace, Oak handily forgets his own grandson’s name so you can go ahead and name him yourself.
The rivalry makes the game more interesting, as he tends to take you by surprise and can be as challenging as gym leaders to defeat, but he’s not a bad person. He makes a few jokes here and there, but he doesn’t actually do anything particularly mean or malicious. Our natural tendency to call him ‘douche’ or ‘dick’ at the start of the game says more about us then it does about the world of Pokemon.
In Utopia, friendly rivalry comes in the form of religious understanding as More imagines a place where there are five different religions that are all tolerant of each other. Raphael, the lead character in the book, does try converting people to Christianity, but religious difference remains friendly. This may seem obvious to us now but, in the 16th Century, it was pretty revolutionary. In Pokemon, it too seems pretty revolutionary that your main ‘enemy’ in the game, is actually not that bad.
An important side note, however, is that although other religions are tolerated in Utopia the atheists are… not. There is no punishment or anything (once again, an extremely progressive idea considering the era he was writing in), but they are constantly bombarded with the idea that their non-religion is wrong and that they should change. Likewise, I should imagine that anyone living in the world of Pokemon who said that they didn’t like Pokemon would be treated in the same way. Remember the catchphrase? There’s no element of choice or ambiguity there; you’ve gotta’ catch them all.
Both Loved The Idea of Peacefully Overcoming ‘Evil’
Team Rocket are quickly identifiable as the largest criminal group in the game. However, it would be more accurate to say that the only criminal group in the game. In other words, according to Pokemon: Red Version, Team Rocket are the only bad people in the world.
And Team Rocket can be taken down, not with a war, not with sanctions or threats and not with any kind of blackmail. No, Team Rocket can be taken down with a series of Pokemon battles. You just need to walk up to them beat their Rattata (remembering that, as I previously mentioned, the Rattata are not bad and don’t bled or die) and return Silph Co., the Game Corner, or Mt. Moon back to the people. When Russell Brand spoke of a ‘peaceful revolution’, maybe this was what he was talking about. A place where the only terrorists, the only ‘evil people’, can be defeated by a ten year old with some motivation…
With Utopia, More imagines a world where war is a last resort, where enemies are captured rather than killed, where people are supported with aid rather than the slaughter of their enemies and, as a result, More sounds like a 500 year old John Lennon. The fact is, however, that More once again manages to express something far beyond his time. Kautsky was determined that if More were a Socialist living in the 19th Century then his ideas would have been a lot more (no pun intended) developed and accepted. In the same way, I would like to believe that if More were a gamer (or a ten year old) in the Mid-Nineties, then he would have found refuge in the neo-Utopian world of Pokemon. A world where you can travel everywhere and anywhere with your six best friends, a world where everybody is willing to talk to you so long as you are willing to press A near them, and a world where the only thing stopping you is thumb cramp or running out of batteries.