Pokémon : A Study In Stockholm Syndrome

There are now 719 known Pokémon, spanning 6 regions and occupying all manner of terrain – from dark caves, to the bottom of the ocean.

Together, they combine to form an expansive and interconnected ecosystem, and are fully capable of coexisting in the wild. However, due to human intervention, many have been taken from their natural habitats and forced to do battle at the mercy of their new “trainers.” It’s a practice that’s gone on for decades now, and has become socially acceptable because — outside of a few bad eggs (Team Rocket, et al.), — most trainers present the illusion that they and their Pokémon are a team – engaged in a two-way mutually beneficial relationship.

But this is a lie. Pokémon are held in pokéballs against their will and forced to risk their lives in battle to advance their trainer’s status and – not to mention expand his wallet. But despite this barbaric practice, many Pokémon seem to genuinely like their trainers. In the medical community, this phenomenon is known as Stockholm Syndrome; or perhaps it’s more appropriate to use its less-popular moniker: capture-bonding.

Stockholm Syndrome is “the psychological tendency of a hostage to bond with, identify with, or sympathize with his or her captor.” In some instances, the hostage may even defend their captors and ignore the danger of their situation.

Stockholm Syndrome usually develops when the hostage, or captured Pokémon in this case, incorrectly identifies a lack of abuse from their captor as a sign of affection. For example, when a trainer gets his first Pokémon, he’s likely to lose a lot of battles – roughing it up in the process. But as the player’s journey continues, his Pokémon levels up and doesn’t lose so often, and so the trainer’s enslaved pet can spend more time frolicking in the woods instead of getting body-slammed. Thus the creature attributes the fewer beatings it receives as an act of kindness or generosity on part of its trainer, instead of recognizing its own growing strength and value as an independent entity.

Consider Pokémon Yellow:

At the beginning of your journey you try to capture a Pikachu in a pokéball, which he flatly refuses. So instead, you drag him behind you. When you try to talk to him, he gives you the cold shoulder. You bring him all across the continent, toughing him up through battle. Provided that you give him lots of potions and don’t place him into storage, he begins to like you. A lot.

By the end of the game, Pikachu’s affection for you is clear. He loves you. This innocent creature, whom you’ve kidnapped and trapped into a life of violence, now considers you his best friend. Clearly all the mega-punches and fire-blasts to the head knocked something loose. The only explanation is that he has suffered psychological trauma which cannot be reversed. In all respects, Pikachu should hate you. But you’ve created a mental prison for him which he cannot escape. By not allowing him to evolve, you limit his strength and independence, ensuring that he is completely reliant on you for his care, which plants the seeds of an imbalanced affectionate relationship.

According to the FBI, roughly 8% of hostages develop SHS. So, if there are 719 total Pokémon, then roughly 1 out of every 12 Pokémon caught are likely to develop the affliction. Those are the rough statistics; but in reality, the figure is much higher than this. We’re talking about a global, wide-spread practice of enslavement that, because of influential groups such as the Pokémon League and the Gyms, has gained a strong foothold of social acceptance. Consider the rhetoric: “To catch them all is my real test…I will travel across the land, searching far and wide. Each Pokémon to understand the power that’s inside.” Pokémon training has become about dominance and pure acquisition – with a focus on collecting as many as possible over creating lasting bonds of friendship.

Pokemon_team PlasmaThe only group that seems to be doing anything about this issue is the Unova region’s Team Plasma – who have been longtime champions of liberating Pokémon from their masters. However, their important message was undercut a few years back by scandal, when it was revealed that their leader Ghestis was secretly trying to keep all the liberated Pokémon for himself as a means to rule the world.

Stockholm Syndrome is a serious problem that needs to be addressed in the Pokémon community. But change isn’t going to come overnight. It’s a long process that needs to start with the way people think and talk about their Pokémon. For example, instead of saying “gotta’ catch ‘em all,” perhaps we could start saying “let’s only catch a couple and treat them respectfully.” The language we use about a person or thing directly impacts how it is viewed in society.

These wonderful creatures are the lifeblood of our world. We rely on Pokémon for so much more than battling, and it’s high time that they get equal rights as contributing members of society. To quote Frances Wright, “equality is the soul of liberty; in fact, there is no liberty without it.”

Tim Hitpas

Tim Hitpas

Tim is a writer by trade with a strong, undying passion for videogames. He’ll pretty much play anything with turn-based combat and a good story. His obsession with Super Smash Bros 64 is universally known, and he welcomes all challengers to taste his falcon punch.
Tim Hitpas

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