Creatures, animism, weird catchy melodies, perhaps all my interests can be traced down to playing Pokémon in the 90s (admittedly, also in the 2000s). Endlessly. And when I wasn’t playing, I was filled with this special desire to return to that creaturely world. To be with these hybrid shapeshifters and build relationships with them — something a lot harder to do with wild creatures.
I never gave my relationship with Pokémon much thought until I started becoming aware of species extinctions and conservation issues. I encountered this article, titled:
Woah. It raises interesting points. Kids have no problem naming and cataloguing imaginary creatures in the game, yet can often hardly name any species in their ‘real world’ surroundings. What can conservationists learn from this game, in order to make people care more about the real creatures?
I’d like to look at it from a different angle. In order to make people care about real creatures, it’s perhaps not super productive to focus on the naming and cataloguing aspects ((boring) taxonomy!). What is arguably a lot more captivating, is to learn about them as persons: as active, aware, dynamic, sensing and responding agents. This is what’s Pokémon does. These imaginary creatures have personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and respond to other Pokémon, sometimes in surprising ways. Most of the time you can rely on them, but sometimes they have a mind of their own, as they dismiss your orders. Spend enough time with the game, and you really get to know them and their quirks.
Turns out that Pokémon has some deeper links with animist thinking. The (Japanese) game incorporates some aspects of Japanese folkloric creatures and monsters: the yōkai, supernatural beings, often featured in folktales, literature, woodblock prints and beyond. Both types of creatures are shapeshifters, hybrid or human-like, evocative. For mind-blowing comparisons between Pokémon and yōkai, please have a peek here.
Fungal hybrid of my imagination. Excerpt from If I grow up … who should I become? (2019)
Animist views and imaginations could be dismissed as anthropomorphic, yet the more we learn (scientifically) about other creatures, the more we uncover hidden aspects about the inner worlds and intelligence of, say, insects. The tiniest beings do things we usually only associate with humans. They can learn new tasks, make decisions, perform worse after sleep deprivation, and do many more things that make them a little more relatable. As ethologist Frans de Waal asks: are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? Nonhuman lives are richer in many ways than what we give them credit for. Bees and ants, for example, may dream during sleep. Anthropomorphisms are not necessarily bad. They can help us to relate and view others with a generous eye. For the shapeshifter-theme specifically, we can think about real-life examples of insect metamorphosis, or simply about personal transformations that happen literally and metaphorically, for humans and nonhumans alike. Nothing and no-one is ever truly static. Even a rock is in motion as it slowly erodes over millions of years. One entity causes another one to move. It is from this perspective that I’d like to consider the liveliness of creatures and even ‘inanimate objects’, and appreciate folklore themes where objects suddenly come to live, such as the Japanese Tsukumogami and Pokémon like Magnemite (a magnet creature) and Graveler (a rock/gravel creature).
Finally, it’s not just us humans that play games. Bumblebees can learn to play a ball game:
(Source: Queen Mary University of London (QMUL)
For more on shapeshifters in folklore and nature I recommend the book Becoming Animal (2010) by David Abram.