The antidote to video game violence
Pokémon Go rewards friendship, sportsmanship, and cooperation
Not a week goes by without another news story about the risks posed by the breakout hit game Pokémon Go, which raked in $200 million in its first month of release. Earlier this month, a 20-year-old player was murdered in San Francisco, the latest in a string of muggings of distracted participants. The criminal brutality is ironic given that the Pokémon universe—which spans video games, anime episodes, card games, and McDonald’s Happy Meal toys—was designed as the antidote to video game violence.
Whether you’re shooting down hundreds of alien ships in Space Invaders or fireballing hundreds of turtle soldiers in Super Mario, the line between joyless murder-simulators like Grand Theft Auto and cheerful adventure games like Uncharted—both featuring hundreds of casualties at the hands of the player—has always been uncomfortably thin. Almost all games use the same vocabulary: fight, destroy, kill.
Until Pokémon. Introduced in 1996 in Japan (1998 in the United States) on Nintendo’s Game Boy platform, the games series flipped the script by subverting this violent inheritance. First rule: No one dies. Players fight, but only to befriend their opponents. Second rule: No sore losers. The game’s heroes are humble in victory and gracious in defeat. Third rule: Include everyone. Before diversity became a political totem, Pokémon was teaching its players that they “gotta catch ’em all”—the weak as well as the strong all belong on the same team.First rule: No one dies. Players fight, but only to befriend their opponents.
It’s little wonder that a game series that rewards friendship, sportsmanship, and cooperation would catch fire with kids and adults alike.
It is true that there are some questionable needles hidden in this virtuous haystack. For example, an entire category of Ghost monsters does not reflect the Christian view of the soul, including Chandelure, a ghostly chandelier that—according to the in-game flavor text—burns spirits. Saudi Arabia’s senior cleric in 2001 demanded a ban on Pokémon, according to a BBC report, because some Pokémon creatures featured stray crosses or patterns like the Star of David. But, in general, the game designers have steered clear of monsters that could raise religious concerns.
Contrast this with another popular Japanese video game property, the Shin Megami Tensei series and its two most popular spinoffs, the Devil Survivor and Persona series. These games share the same core game loop as Pokémon: Befriend enemies, play nicely, and cooperate. But the designers of Shin Megami Tensei indiscriminately plundered from world religions and mythologies to staff their monster crew. The result is that Isaiah’s angels and Revelation’s demons battle alongside Hindu deities, Greek gods, Egyptian half-men, Slovak spirits, and Celtic faeries. Like Belshazzar’s fatal feast, Christian images are just one cup among many.
This is a path Pokémon could have taken but didn’t. If the muggings persist, worried parents of Pokémon Go players will have one more rule to add to the usual list: Look both ways before crossing the street, don’t take candy from strangers, and don’t hunt Pokémon in isolated areas. But at least parents can be assured that, among a wasteland of blood-soaked games like Mortal Kombat and Gears of War, the Pokémon remains an oasis.
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