Is Pokemon a Feminist Issue? Part 2 (Guest Post)

A collaboration by Elan Paulson (Fitbit Loser), Caroline Whippey (Girl Gamer), and Todd McIntyre (VR Game Designer)

For all the positive physical benefits of Pokemon Go, the game feeds into many negative social outcomes.

Most harmlessly, Pokemon Go reveals “the cheats” of the world. Just as one can use cheat codes to advance in a console game or shake a Fitbit for a few extra steps, Pokevision offers player advantage by showing where the Pokemon characters will appear. Players don’t even have to play themselves: some folks rent themselves out to do “the legwork” of capturing Pokemon.

This game also comes with a safety risk. Pokemon Go brings the hyper-focus of the inside gamer into the world, but the outside gamer seems no more aware of her world, as revealed by news stories capturing humorous Poke-blunders but also dangerous accidents.More concerning are the instances of players setting up Pokemon lures to lead folks to unsavoury places or to rob them.

Businesses, too, are capitalizing on Pokemon Go’s wayward wanderers. By setting lures outside of stores, store owners may physically bring Pokemon players to purchase their wares (a “Coke-emon” on a hot day, anyone?). Pokemon Go may push players outside, but the game can be used to pull them in particular directions that serve economic agendas.

Speaking of business, the gaming industry has had to “speed up” to keep its offerings new and fresh for its voracious customers. Yet, less than 20 years ago, video games weren’t released so quickly and people could enjoy them longer. Game play time, which used to be a selling point, is on a downwards trend. Pokemon Go’s hype is therefore inevitably temporary, and its fall in popularity may be as exponential as its rise. Meanwhile, in rural places where technology access continues to be an issue, Pokemon Go will be a cultural craze that never even happened.

Finally, it is the opinion of the authors that Pokemon Go reinforces rather than transgresses gender and sex norms. Pokemon Go may be more appealing to female players based on its visual design and casual gameplay. Studies tell us that (in general) female players don’t like violence, blood, and shooting. In Pokemon Go, the Pokemon don’t die but “faint” when they lose in a fight. Also, to their credit, Pokemon Go avatars are not subject to sexual dimorphism (huge visual differences between male and female avatars, such as hulking shoulders or large breasts).

However, unlike like other interactive games and simulated worlds like Dragon Age or Second Life, there are very limited avatar customizations, restricting flexibility and creativity for creating one’s own virtual identity. There is also the emergence of “Poke-porn,” capturing nude photos of one’s self, strategically covered by the digital Pokemon (Google for examples at your own peril).

Pokemon Go is also dramatically limited by its lack of narrative complexity and creativity. While you can capture literally all the Pokemon, there are always new exercise goals or new stories to invent and play through in open-ended physical role play like LARP and cosplay.

The final word on Pokemon Go as a fit and a feminist issue? At the moment, Pokemon is high on cool but low on user control and creativity. If you’re a Poke-sizer, get your fun and fitness on before you find yourself as uncool as last year’s Fitbit model. And, Pokemon Go players would be wise to “look up” occasionally, for lures (real and virtual) are always baited and set by someone who is fishing for something.