9 Lingering Ethical Questions I Have that Remain Unaddressed by Pokémon Go

Are we really just forcing captive animals to fight for their lives for our own entertainment

Photo: Everett

Unless you’ve living under the proverbial rock, you’ve heard about Pokémon Go, the new “augmented reality” app that lets users play a version of the classic “monsters battle other monsters” video game and cultural phenomenon.

Unfortunately, the game does nothing to clear up the lingering ethical questions I’ve had about Pokémon since I first played the game – cough cough cough – years ago.

1. Are Pokémon sentient?

The “mirror test” is a measure of self-awareness developed by Gordon Gallup Jr. in 1970. Its basic concept is that we can gauge an animal’s self-awareness by whether or not it recognizes its own reflection in a mirror. Human children, for instance, tend to fail the test until they’re around 1.5 to 2 years old, while chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, dolphins, elephants and some species of birds have all passed.

Now, what confuses me about Pokémon is that their intelligence appears to vary by “type” or “species.” In the cartoon series, there’s a comically villainous Pokémon that works with the series’ villains, Team Rocket, and talks back and forth with them in English. (Pokémon characteristically are usually only able to say their own name, which is a whole other kettle of philosophical fish – how does an animal know its own name in our language? Do French Pokémon say their names differently, etc?) Pikachu, the series’ mascot if ever it had one, wasn’t confined to a Pokeball and could seemingly communicate with his “master,” Ash.

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So, are Pokémon animals with levels of self-awareness that we keep in cages until it’s time to release them and make them fight for our amusement and prestige?

Additionally, there are certain Pokémon that are “psychic” types, meaning they have assorted telekinetic powers. One assumes that these Pokémon are smarter than say, a bird Pokémon or one made out of rocks, but is that just speciesism? Shouldn’t telekinetic Pokémon be able to compel their master to set them free, or stage some kind of revolt at some point?

2. What about the ‘human’ Pokémon?

So, there are weirdly “human” Pokémon, like this guy above, Mr. Mime, and this horrible blackface nightmare, Jinx (I guess they changed its face color to be purple in another version, but still). Mr. Mime, at one point, was shown cleaning a room, and there are “fighting” type Pokémon that rely on things like throws and strikes, rather than typically “animalistic” attacks like scratching or, uh, breathing fire. If a Pokémon can be taught to cook and clean or understand rudimentary self-defense concepts, isn’t that proof of higher intelligence? Is having a Pokémon as an unpaid maid better or worse than having one as a fighter-slave?

3. What about that one Pokémon that just blows itself up?

One Pokémon, Voltorb, blows itself up. That’s it. That’s basically its chief skill. What is life like for a Voltorb? Does it remember every time it’s killed itself? Does it hurt every time? Does it have memories that aren’t just explosive death? It’s been established that Pokémon “breed:” Are there Voltorb parents out there morning the loss of their children every time one gets put into battle? Or is it like The Prestige where – SPOILER ALERT – there’s just a new Voltorb generated every time and the old one goes to some horrible purgatory? Does Hugh Jackman have to drown all the Voltorbs that regenerate?

4. What’s it like inside a Pokéball?

Some Pokémon are allowed outside their Pokéballs, for reasons I don’t fully understand. Sure, Pikachu is a cute electric mouse, but another trainer, Brock, had an enormous snake made out of rocks called Onix that he just let roam around free. Which forces the question, what is life inside a Pokéball like? Are the Pokémon fed? What about their waste? Are they put in some kind of stasis or suspended animation? Is that why some resist going in the ball? Because they know that they’ll just be put to sleep, only to wake up and be forced into battle against their will? What kind of a life for a living, possibly sentient creature is that?

5. What are the ghost Pokémon ghosts of?

There are “ghost” Pokémon. What are they the ghosts of? Who died? How many past lives must they remember and why are they so happy about it?

6. Whose idea was Cubone?

There’s a Pokémon called Cubone, and its life is absolutely the saddest freaking thing I’ve ever heard. Here’s Cubone’s backstory, via a different game Pokémon appear in, Super Smash Bros. Brawl: “A Lonely Pokémon. It wears its mother’s skull as a helmet – for this reason, no one has ever seen its face. It sometimes sees its departed mother’s face in the full moon, which causes it to grow sad and cry. The stains on the skull are tracks of its tears. When it cries, the skull shakes and emits a mournful sound.” That is some heavy stuff for a children’s video game. Is every Cubone an orphan? If so, who’s going around killing their mothers all the time? Their fathers? (Yikes.)

7. Why does no one give Psyduck aspirin?

Psyduck is a platypus that suffers from chronic migraines. “When its headache becomes too severe, it releases tension in the form of strong psychic powers the Pokémon is unable to recall these episodes.” So here’s an animal apparently born into a life of endless, literal psychic pain that just builds up until it lashes out telepathically in a fugue state? And we capitalize on that pain for battling purposes instead of giving it aspirin?

8. What about doping in the Pokémon community?
Is this not regulated? You gave your fire dragon supplements to make it stronger? But it only sometimes listens to you? And sir, your giant rock snake, is it on drugs as well?

9. Do we eat Pokémon?
Psyduck confit. Poached Magikarp. Tauros ribeye. I’d probably eat a Pikachu, if the meat didn’t still hold an electric charge. Would eating Mr. Mime constitute cannibalism? Why is it okay to hold them captive and make them fight but not eat them? (Just asking for a friend.)

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