Every Adventure Begins With a (Limited) Choice: The Restricted Options of Pokemon Go
People all over the world love the Pokémon franchise. Fans in Hong Kong launched a protest in late May over a name change in translation. A quick image search of Pokémon tattoos reveals a treasure trove of body ink. Many people have grown up with the franchise, cutting their gaming teeth on the joys of collecting them all, and when the ARG version was announced, those same people were understandably excited. But now that it’s launched? Too many of those same people have collectively sighed, accepting — again — that Nintendo (and Go partner Niantic) just don’t care too much about them.
Does that sound harsh, calling Nintendo out for not giving a shit about their fans? Maybe it does. But you know what’s worse? Taking years to even consider nonwhite avatars in Nintendo games.
Pokémon Go is not dependent on the identity of the player character. There’s not a narrative hinging on the player’s race or gender. So why can’t nonbinary, trans, or dark-skinned people with Black hair have a moment in the pocket monster sunlight? Don’t have a cisgender presentation? Too bad; choose one. Curly hair? Too bad; go with what’s offered and get over it. Dark skin? Damn, don’t you know lighter is better? Has society taught you nothing? Choose one of the options offered or nothing and accept the single hair option. One body type is available because apparently all trainers are super fit from all the walking that they do in their quest to catch them all.
Too often in games, we write these development choices off. We make excuses, saying, well, more would have cost money. Well, at least they have some darker-skinned avatars. Well, at least you have a gender choice. But let’s call it what it is: if you’re not a certain type of gamer, you don’t matter. You’re not the main target demographic, and companies like Nintendo would rather risk leaving you out (because, hey, you’re used to no one caring, right?) than alienating the kind of person who will say we’re calling for censorship when we ask Nintendo to remember that, sometimes, people who aren’t white/Japanese/cisgendered/thin/etc. would also like to step forward as Pokémon fans in an augmented world. Augmented reality? Let’s just augment all the minorities away. And it’s not going to change until we stop saying “well, at least you tried, sorta.” A skin tone slider is not racial selection. It’s privileging one type of person over the others, again.
Not good enough, and we’re not alone in thinking so. Though there are fans on social media celebrating some darker-skinned characters and the limited hair color selection, and we’re glad they’re happy and feel represented, for plenty of others, some just isn’t enough.