Those were the days. Training up a super-squad of Pokémon on your Game Boy, draining enough AA’s to power a minor principality in the process. Of course, in the twenty-two years since Pokémon was first released, millions of gamers have discovered the charm of Nintendo’s monster franchise. And, as well as catching ‘em all (or generally failing to in my case), I think plenty of us gamers might have inadvertently learned a thing or two about real-life biology as well. Let me explain …
As most of you will probably know, all of the Pokémon games follow the same basic premise: 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 world is vast. It’s split into numerous virtual habitats (islands, forests, icy-mountains etc) and the games’ developers have designed these habitats to accurately reflect the tapestry of interconnected ecosystems found in the real world. A closer look reveals that they conform to biological laws including predator-prey dynamics (seal Pokémon can be found in low numbers amongst high densities of fish Pokémon) and even something known as niche theory; the idea that all plants and animals occupy a pretty specific set of environmental conditions (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, real-life 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. Some Pokémon life cycles also imitate those of real creatures, with the caterpillar-like Caterpie pupating as Metapod before emerging as the butterfly-like Butterfree and using Psybeam and whoop some butt. Okay, maybe that last little bit isn’t exactly true to real life.
Moving swiftly on, evolution is a key dynamic in Pokémon. However, Darwin’s famous theory has been heavily modified to suit the requirements of gaming timescales. Pokémon evolve at a certain level or under certain conditions (via trades, after exposure to evolutionary stones etc) and once this happens they permanently transform into a new species. As an example, 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 fossils and fossilisation, with the phenomenon being explained directly to players during several of the games’ storylines. However, unlike in real-life, any fossils discovered by the player can be resurrected into a living, previously extinct Pokémon. But even during this fictional process, there are strong nods towards natural history with resurrected Pokémon clearly based on actual prehistoric creatures including ammonites (Omanyte) and tyrannosaurs (Tyrantrum). If the player wishes, they can also visit the museums, labs and wildlife parks strewn throughout the games’ virtual worlds in order to explore Pokémon’s fictionalised biology further.
So, it seems the Pokémon games are awash with biological concepts and they 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. Personally, I actually think that Pokémon could be used to teach biology to youngsters. But why stop there? Could Horizon Zero Dawn be used to teach climate change? Could Hellblade be used to educate people about mental illness? Let me know what you think in the comments section or on Twitter!
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