Unlike the Pokemon games before it, Pokémon Black/White almost explored something interesting: why we catch Pokemon, and whether or not keeping/battling with them is "okay." But before the games said anything meaningful or deep, they took the easy route and made Team Plasma — the group intent on "liberating" Pokémon and therefore the reason you're thinking about the ethics in the first place — out to be just some ecoterrorists.
Still, the premise got people like game developer Mattie Brice thinking — what were to happen if we seriously questioned the ethics in Pokémon? I mean, Pokémon battles are basically a blood sport — and that can be illegal, depending on where you're from (though it's not in some parts of Japan, where Pokémon originates.)
So Mattie did something unusual in the name of meaningfully exploring the subject: she started mentally subbing in slave for Pokémon and master for trainer, along with undertaking the famous "Nuzlocke Challenge." There are three rules in this challenge:
- You can only catch the first Pokemon you encounter in each area.
- When a Pokemon loses all its health, it's dead and must be released.
- All Pokemon must be nicknamed
The purpose is to create a Pokémon game with more emotional impact: you get attached to your Pokémon thanks to constant hardship and nicknaming.
She's chronicling the adventure over in a Tumblr called Pokémon Unchained — partially named after, yes, Django Unchained. As you might imagine, things get dark and immediately:
"In order to liberate slaves from foolish people, we will take their slaves!"
"Come on, what reason could possibly justify stealing slaves from people?"
"Someday, open your eyes to your own complicity."
~Team Plasma and Cheren
Stuck up ideologues trying to force their beliefs on us. This is our way of life, we're like it this way!
That demonstration was a laugh. Free the slaves? What would they do without us? It's a common fact that all masters and slaves are happier together, so really, we're doing the beasts a favour.
But why invoke slavery or all things in the first place? Looking at training in the games as enslavement is a subject we've touched upon before, but this is what she told me over chat:
"I read Pokemon Black/White as an allegory for antebellum US south. In a sense, a way to explore 'How did people rationalize slavery?' Well, in these games, they are rationalizing the enslavement and fighting of Pokémon, in a contemporary world where, at least in the US, dog fighting is illegal.
"The rhetoric in the game is extremely reminiscent of quotes you would find of people rationalizing slavery. I think I am now extra sensitive to that because I saw Django Unchained, and that's where the title of the project comes from. Basically, things like 'Well, slaves can't live on their own, they need us to take care of them.' 'It's a partnership, we help each other out. Blacks are good at doing physical work and whites are good at leading.' 'It's a biological fact that blacks like to be submissive and loyal.'
"Basically, that kind of stuff comes up in Pokemon Black/White and there are few counters for it in the game. It's like that mentality, especially of the player mindlessly capturing Pokemon for about 20 years, goes unchecked."
Intense stuff, albeit uncomfortable — slavery and Pokemon aren't things you'd normally pair together. This is partially because Nintendo goes through such lengths to reassure you that really, it's all OK because Pokémon love you and whatever, though.