Earlier this week, while speaking to a group of game-savvy people, I declared rather incoherently that Pokemon was a sports game.
Everyone laughed at me. There were some games-studies people in there, and they all said “Arrr, noooo, me hearty, games can only be sports games if they’re about simulating real-world sports, and if they address the problem of physical embodiment in a digital space, arrr.” Which is pretty much true, yeah, if you think about all the games that get sold as sports games, and also if you are a crusty old academic.
Some of them thought that Pokemon couldn’t be a sports game because it uses RPG mechanics and involves travel across an overworld. I dismissed this, too. “I’m talking about general categories of games, not about actual commercial genres or genres of mechanics,” I said. “Pokemon is about sports in the same way that a game about fox-hunting, cockfighting, or bearbaiting would be about sports.” Actually, I didn’t say that. I was being incoherent and frustrated and didn’t bother to explain myself properly. But I’m writing this now, so I’m editing my stupidity out of the conversation.
Anyway, here is why Pokemon is a sports game. And, at the end, I propose a redefinition of the concept of ‘sports games.’ Wooooo!
Aren’t a lot of games about competition? Well, yeah. Lots are, and many of those have nothing to do with ‘sports.’ Simply including competition doesn’t make a game be ‘about sports.’ But Pokemon, like many conventional sports games, is about structured, rulebound competition. A specific kind of competition. It’s a game which contains a game, and the game is Pokemon Battling. Pokemon Battling exists separately from Pokemon the Nintendo game in the same way that American Football exists separately from Madden 2010. It’s not real, but we know its rules and can imagine it on its own, in television shows, card games, and in video games developed for other platforms.
Within the world of Pokemon, Pokemon Battling is a sport.
It has regulations, leagues, tournaments, rulebooks, referees, ladders, matches, arenas, qualification tournies, and all the other superficial surface-elements we associate with real-world sports. We’d be forced to consider it a sport if it existed on this side of the screen. Much of the story energy that goes into Pokemon is directed at convincing us that we’re taking part in an exciting, new kind of sport.
Mechanics do not a sports game make.
Madden’s mechanics, where you control the actual players on a team and execute actions contained within the game of American Football, are not “the” sports-game mechanics. Plenty of games which are widely accepted as sports games do not contain that kind of control system or play style, and many contain lots of mechanics in addition to these ones. Football Manager games are a great example of sports games which aren’t solely about playing the actual sport itself. And remember Cycling Manager? Steam insists that it’s a sports game, and I think you’d be unable to find people who disagree who aren’t already crazy people. Furthermore, sports games have been including RPG-ish mechanics—where the players get better the more they play, and can upgrade different abilities—for years. These days, as everyone says, there’s a bit of RPG in everything. Anyway, in Pokemon, plenty of things occur that aren’t about actually playing the actual sport, but many of those things are presented as directly effecting sport performance. We travel the overworld to seek new team members and to test ourselves against opponents; even the underground digging game in Diamond and Pearl could produce items useful to the sport. Just because alternate mechanics and goals were there doesn’t mean that the game itself wasn’t ‘about the sport.’
Related news: it has story
Some suggested to me that having a story rules Pokemon out of the ‘sports’ category. Well, true: commercial sports games, as a rule, don’t have scripted stories. But this doesn’t mean that they should or could never have one. I’m being creative here, people. I’m suggesting that the ‘sport-ness’ of sports games is totally independent of story. In fact, I’m challenging someone to make a soccer game where you fight evil soccer mafias and save the world from an evil soccer manager intent on destroying the universe with a mutant soccer player named BeckhamTwo. Do it.
I know that it’s not commercially useful to think of Pokemon as a sports game. I’m suggesting that there are commonalities between Pokemon and traditional sports games which are useful when it comes to analyzing them. I think that there’s something about the structure of traditional sports games– the reward structure, the illusion of progression and growth, of competitive achievement, of being the best and winning vetted awards from imaginary masters and experts– which has much in common with some aspects of Pokemon’s structure. I’m sure that part of the reason why Pokemon and, say Madden are so successful is that they’ve mastered this elusive element. Pokemon isn’t all about collecting them all– it’s also about defeating your friends, defeating the Elite Four three times in a row, being tougher and smarter than everyone else, knowing your strategy, being so good at your game that your game stands for goodness and purity and can actually defeat evil– it’s about Sport, ‘sport’ in the ancient meaning of the word, in the sense that includes grit and stiff jaws and firm handshakes in the arena. “Sport” in the nineteenth-century sense.
At any rate, I think that I could convince those nutty academic types to accept my comparison by merely changing the name of the ‘genre’ slightly. If I’d said “Sport Games” instead of “Sports Games”—‘sport’ in the ancient sense that would include cockfighting and all the rest of those bloodsports I mentioned at the top of this post—I would have been more persuasive. The problem with proposing weird ideas is that the associative power of our language can confuse your audience if you don’t manipulate it properly, particularly if your audience is ultra-semantics-sensitive. Pokemon is “sport.” In the traditional sense, it isn’t “SPORTS,” it isn’t Gatorade and sweaty dudes and drooling self-insertion in Superstar Mode, but it’s ‘sport.’
I rest my case.