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Pokémon posits a post-scarcity utopian future

And there are lessons to learn from it

pokemon standing around in front of the city Image: GameFreak/Nintendo

What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.

In a way, the Pokémon video games are something of a science fiction thought experiment: What would a world similar to ours look like if it were filled with an ever-expanding menagerie of fantastical creatures with a wide variety of special powers?

The answer, given almost uniformly across eight generations of games, is better — even considering that the series relentlessly glorifies what is essentially cockfighting. (But Pokémon don’t die when they fight, they just faint, so it’s fine, you see?) It all comes down to one reason: those little pocket monsters are also renewable resources.

The economics and technology in Pokémon games are inextricably tied to Pokémon themselves, and it’s clear that the use of the critters as natural resources is key to the near-futuristic technology used by players and NPCs alike throughout the franchise. Just look at everything Pokémon do in the background in Pokémon Red and Blue, the first two games in the franchise’s first generation. Ground-type and rock-type Pokémon are used to dig caves and mine for gold nuggets and fossils. Water-type Pokémon are used for travel across bodies of water, and flying types are used for air travel from one town and city to the next. Electric Pokémon power the entire Kanto region from the electric plant. The list goes on.

In the most recent iterations of the games, Pokémon Sword and Shield, ground-type Pokémon continue their mining work in a number of mines across Galar. They also assist the region’s train conductors in keeping the railways running. And a full-on taxi service composed of Corviknights — massive flying and steel–type bird Pokémon that look like massive armored ravens — is available to shuttle the player back and forth between towns. No nasty fossil fuel waste here!

Corviknights in Pokémon Sword and Shield Image: Game Freak/The Pokémon Company

The result of this bounty of natural resources is threefold, manifesting in the preservation of both wildland and historical human settlements and a proliferation of cutting-edge integrated tech. The routes criss-crossing Kanto in Pokémon Red and Blue are footpaths and bike paths, without a car to be found — although there are, admittedly, a handful of motorcycles. All of these routes are bordered by stretches of wild grass, and caves filled with wild Pokémon are abundant. The region’s Viridian Forest is a lush woodland, while its Safari Zone is a vast nature preserve.

In Sword and Shield, the bucolic nature of the world is even more pronounced. A massive wild area makes up a huge portion of the map and is filled with gleaming fields, sparkling lakes, and rolling hills, and is cut in two by a rushing river. Many of the towns are thoughtfully built into the surrounding environments — Turffield is an agrarian community, Hulbury is a charming sea town, and Ballonlea is a forest hamlet like something out of a fairy tale. Like Kanto, Galar has plenty of cities in addition to sleepy villages, but those cities are, for the most part, charming and Old World, explicitly walkable and incorporating historical buildings into their urban design. They even have small businesses, some locally owned, in addition to the ubiquitous Poké Marts. This is a universe that preserves its culture and cherishes it, even as it advances.

And boy, is it advanced. Every Pokémon game has healing stations in each Pokémon Center, where Pokémon enclosed in Pokéballs can instantly be restored to full health. A PC system allows for nearly infinite storage of Pokémon, which can be accessed from any computer terminal across the game, and it’s synced to your Pokédex, a digital encyclopedia that automatically analyzes and catalogues any creatures you catch. Various personal computing technologies employed across different generations of games also allow the player to navigate the world via GPS, telecommunicate, and, in some versions of the game, even access Pokémon stored in the PC from the road. Sword and Shield also have the equivalent of a motorized bike, powered by — of course — a Pokémon. And as early as Red and Blue, cloning technology existed in the world of Pokémon along with teleportation, fossil resurrection technology, and even a device allowing the player to communicate with the dead.

It’s easy to imagine the uses of such futuristic technology in our own world. How much less expensive, and more accessible, would healthcare become if instant healing technology existed? Why would we need to pollute the earth with greenhouse gases if we could travel one place to the next via teleport? How nice would it be to be able to send a fresh-baked loaf of bread to your friend for their birthday without having to break quarantine? Hell, with all this tech, would we even need to be quarantining?

the pokemon gang hanging out and singing Image: GameFreak/Nintendo

This isn’t to argue that the world of Pokémon is without conflict: Each game has its villains — every story needs an opponent of one sort or another, and any natural resource can theoretically be used for ill gains — but for the most part those villains are simply Pokémon thieves whose dreams the player is there to ensure go up in smoke, whether they’re using fire-type Pokémon or not. (Although there’s the occasional classic take-over-the-world plot as well.) That’s not surprising; wherever there’s a natural resource, there’s always someone who wants to get their hands on it, one way or another.

The idyllic futurism of the Pokémon franchise doesn’t always leap out at a player upon a first glance. The world-building, like most good world-building, is immersive enough to be unobtrusive. It simply feels obvious that this world is effectively post-scarcity and its municipalities maintain a sense of self while simultaneously being completely interconnected. That’s what happens, after all, in a world where resources are abundant — and in which those resources are used resourcefully.

Admittedly, in our world, natural resources aren’t as easy to come by as they are in video games like these. If Pokémon weren’t capable of popping out little baby resources to replenish their stock, it’s likely that Kanto, Galar, and the other regions in this universe would have troubles of their own in terms of sustaining their societies. But there are still lessons to be learned here. People live with, and cherish, their Pokémon neighbors and pets, even if they’re just a little too keen on collecting and employing them to beat up on other people’s pets. They respect their resources, and the world from which they are derived. As a result, that world stays near-pristine and full of possibility.

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