The biology of Pokémon

Those were the days: training up a super-squad of Pokémon on your Game Boy Classic, draining enough AA’s to power a minor principality in the process. Of course, in the sixteen years since Pokémon was first released, numerous generations of players have discovered the charm of Nintendo’s monster franchise (there’s been a staggering twenty-one games excluding spin-offs since its inception). And so, with Pokémon’s ability to influence so massive, I thought a discussion on how biological concepts are communicated through the games was in order.

As anyone still reading will probably know, all the Pokémon games follow the same basic storyline; a central character (controlled by the player) travels through a fantasy world capturing and battling Pokémon in order to level-up and achieve master ranking. Now, the influence of the real outdoors throughout this fantasy region is vast: it’s split into numerous virtual habitats (deserts, forests, icy-mountains etc) and the game’s developers have designed these habitats to accurately reflect the tapestry of interconnected ecosystems found in the real world. A closer look reveals they conform to established biological laws including predator-prey dynamics (seal Pokémon can be found in low numbers amongst high numbers of fish Pokémon) and even niche theory (you won’t find a sun-loving grass-type Pokémon in a dark cave).

Pokémon are physically adapted to the specific environments they live in too, often reflecting the plants and creatures that inhabit parallel, existent habitats. For example, Sandslash boast large claws used for digging in the arid, sandy environments they can be captured in, similar to those of many rodents. Pokémon life cycles also imitate those of real creatures, with the caterpillar-like Caterpie pupating as Metapod before emerging as the butterfly-like Butterfree.

Evolution is a key dynamic in Pokémon, although the Darwinian Model has been heavily modified to suit the requirements of gaming time scales. Pokémon evolve at a certain level or under certain conditions (trade, exposure to evolutionary stones etc) and once this happens they permanently transform into a new species. At level twenty, the feeble fish Pokémon, Magikarp evolves into the ferocious Gyarados representing a transition up the food chain under the apparent selection pressure of fighting (Magikarp must gain experience points through battling in order to reach level twenty and transform).

The game also gives attention to the phenomenon of fossilisation, with the concept being explained directly to players within the games’ central narrative. However, unlike real life, any fossils discovered by the player can be ‘resurrected’ into living, previously extinct Pokémon. But even during this far-fetched process, there are strong nods towards natural history with resurrected Pokémon clearly based on actual prehistoric creatures including ammonites (Omanyte) and pterodactyls (Aerodactyl). If the player wishes, they can also visit the museums, labs and wildlife parks strewn throughout the game’s virtual worlds in order to explore Pokémon’s fictionalised biology further.

So, it seems the Pokémon games are awash with biological concepts, and might even have taught a few biological principles to some of the millions of people who’ve made the fine decision of purchasing a copy. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments section at the bottom.

FYI

Jack Croxall

Jack Croxall is a science/literature writer and author living in Nottinghamshire. He tweets via @JackCroxall and you can visit his author blog by clicking the 'Website' link below.

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