Art: Campbell La Pun, Pink Ahhh Claws (2014).

You Like Pokémon Too!?

Why are so many of us still in love with Pokémon?

By William R. Anderson

Last summer I received a message online from Hannah, a young woman living in Portland, Oregon. She would be coming to Washington, DC to spend the fall semester working in Congress and wanted to know if I would be willing to meet up with her for an upcoming Pokémon GO Community Day. I readily agreed because, as many have found, spending Community Day with a group is a fantastic way to spend time with old friends and make new ones.

I contacted James and Eric, two other DC players I know from our online community, and we arranged to meet up by the Smithsonian National Zoo on a drizzly Saturday afternoon. That day was the unofficial beginning of “Hannah and her Three Gay Dads.” Once or twice a month we would use Pokémon GO as our excuse to get together, sometimes only in our group of four, sometimes with guests. It expanded beyond just Pokémon GO—we would meet up for lunch or dinner, have a coffee run as tradition, and spend hours catching Pokémon at the Jefferson, FDR, and MLK memorials.

I have loved playing Pokémon games in all their myriad forms for decades. I am fortunate enough to spend every week discussing the latest Pokémon news (and cracking poor jokes) with my friends Steve and Greg on the It’s Super Effective podcast. Through the podcast I have learned about the various communities that grow around the Pokémon games, and have had the opportunity to share my love of the games with many people. Besides our mix of co-hosts from diverse backgrounds, including the current gay co-hosts, we are constantly in touch with a fan community that includes lesbians, bisexuals, demi-girls and demi-boys (people who feel they are partially but not fully female or male), and others who are questioning and learning about their own identities.

Why do so many of us who fall outside the gender and orientation norms gravitate to Pokémon? There is tremendous diversity in both the variety of formats with which you can engage with Pokémon (anime, video games, card game, manga) and within the stories told within the games. With 809 Pokémon to choose from, it would be difficult not to find one with some personal appeal (my current “all time” favorite is Volcarona).

The huge initial popularity of Pokémon GO made evident the long-standing love that many of us had for the game. When Pokémon GO first launched in 2016, its impact was evident: especially in urban areas, people were spending time outdoors again. Because of the design of the game around Pokéstops, you could tell which of your neighbors were playing and, surprisingly, people wanted to talk about it. The common interest in Pokémon became the foundation for adventuring in your neighborhood streets with the common goal of catching them all. Many aspects of the games appealed even to those who had never played a Pokémon game before—accessibility on mobile devices, the ability to combine it with other activities, and the biggest appeal of them all: collecting!

Over the past thirty years, the traditional centers of gay and lesbian communities have eroded.

Over the past thirty years, the traditional centers of gay and lesbian communities have eroded. Increased acceptance of gender and orientation diversity has allowed us to brave life in traditionally straight areas of town. Bar and club culture is a shade of what it used to be, as we can now meet people through apps, and younger generations are less focused on alcohol-centered entertainment. We still need to find opportunities to join together as a community for fun and play, throughout the year and not only during Pride celebrations. Pokémon provides those opportunities.

Pokémon GO is not the only avenue for LGBTQIA+ individuals to find opportunities to meet up and share their Pokémon love. Over the years I have participated in both the VGC (video game championships) and TCG (Trading Card Game) competitively. At these events, ranging from local shop tournaments to regional, national, and even world championships, you will encounter members of the community. When everyone is indulging in Pokémon play, it’s a little easier to relax and just be yourself. Generally, the Pokémon gaming communities are open and accepting and will not tolerate bigotry in any form. When I have attended organized Pokémon events, I have usually felt that I am in a room full of allies.

In some ways, Pokémon Crystal, released in 2001 in North America, was revolutionary because it allowed you to select whether your player character was a boy or a girl. For some people, being able to play in a virtual world as the gender of their choice (rather than what they were assigned) provided some outlet for living life on their own terms. More recent Pokémon games have made further progress, moving beyond selecting “boy” or “girl” at all. You are presented with pictures of different racial, facial, and hair configurations and you select the one that looks “most like you.” From there, many of the in-game characters use non-gendered terms to refer to you, the player. Many of us who have been involved with Pokémon for the long haul have been asking for additional changes—like being able to purchase any of the clothing items for character customization rather than being limited to the boy clothes or the girl clothes depending on the image you selected at the start of the game.

Ultimately, though, there is a fundamental question for the LGBTQIA+ community to answer when engaging with Pokémon: Who is the most fabulous Pokémon? In my humble opinion, it is Florges, the beautiful Fairy-type Pokémon whose design is a drag queen’s dream. My co-host Greg, on the other hand, votes for Roserade, a Grass- and Poison-type pixie. His argument is that Roserade can be either male or female, while Florges can only be female. In the end, it doesn’t matter, so long as Pokémon gives us a reason to get together every week to laugh, argue, and play. Pokémon games all follow the same overall formula—you, the player, set out on an adventure starting with selecting your first Pokémon. Your intent is to defeat eight gym leaders and the Elite Four but, along the way, you end up saving the world. Don’t worry—with six trusty Pokémon by your side, you can do it!

Art: Campbell La Pun, Pink Ahhh Claws (2014).
William R. Anderson

William R. Anderson

William R. Anderson (@washinthesink) has been the co-host of the weekly podcast It’s Super Effective since 2012. He also hosts Drive Check: a Cardfight!! Vanguard podcast and contributes to the Tuesday Knight Games podcast. He lives in Washington, DC with his cat, Scrapple, and will be happy to bend your ear about his other interests including Katamari Damacy (greatest game of all time) and Monster Hunter (Switch Axe only hunter).