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Why Do Pokemon Obey Their Trainers? (Theory)

Updated on March 17, 2016

If you’re a Pokemon fan whose been playing the games and/or watching the anime since their release in America in 1998, by now you’ve asked yourself a question that many people have been trying to figure out for quite a while now. And that question is, why do Pokemon obey their captors or “Trainers?”

Now let me first start by saying, if your a fan of something you shouldn’t take questions like this too seriously, because all you’ll end up doing is deconstruct the whole premise of your fandom to the point where you can’t even enjoy it anymore. It’s best to just accept the fantasy world for what it is, and that’s exactly what I did for many years. I didn’t question how team rocket constantly survived being electrocuted and blasted hundreds of feet in the air, or what happened when a pokemon goes back in it’s ball, all that mattered to me was that the show was on everyday after school. But of course I was a kid back then, and as you get older you start to analyze things your interested in a lot more closely, especially when it’s presented in a story telling format. Concepts, ideas, reasoning, character growth, motivations, all become more relevant to you as you get older. And while I can sit and speculate how and why the tears of pokemon revive ash from a petrified state. I can also get chills, cry, and fully enjoy the moment, not giving a damn about how illogical it is.

That being said, my theory on why pokemon obey instead of rebelling against the trainers who capture them, and make them to fight against other pokemon, started to develop when I was casually joking with my friends about how unfair it was to all of Ash’s other pokemon, that Pikachu never had to return to his pokeball. Sure, those two are best buds and all, but what about the others? Don’t they deserve the same opportunity to build a strong bond with their trainer like Pikachu has? This particular aspect of the show is one that always floated around in my subconscious when it came to pokemon, but this is one of those things that you just suspend your disbelief on, with hopes the show will give and explanation for it eventually. And they do, in the very first episode in fact, the reason Pikachu doesn’t have to go in his pokeball is because, ready?....... He doesn’t want to. Mind blow, right!?

In all honesty that isn’t really that big a deal, unless you consider what that means. You’d think it means that there’s something about being inside a pokeball that a pokemon could consider undesirable, like being caged right? But since the franchise hasn’t given any definitive explanation of what it’s like living inside a pokeball, we’re left to speculate on how it must work, not really knowing if it’s uncomfortable or not. However I didn’t realize how important the fact that Pikachu didn’t want to be in a pokeball would be to my theory until later on in my life, when all the pieces started to come together.

More conversations of pokemon arose among my friends and I, like why didn’t people nickname their pokemon more often? Both in the show and in the games. I always thought it was strange that people would use a pokemon’s species as it’s name. That would be like if you only referred to your dog, as dog, and no one does that unless their like Eustase Bagge, from Courage the Cowardly Dog. It always seemed so cold, but yet even Meowth the ambitious wiseguy pokemon who taught himself how to speak human words, didn’t feel the need to assign himself a personal name. The only way I could give myself closure on that subject was to name every pokemon I caught while playing the games. I named my Pikachu Blezu... Get it? You know like, bless you?.. because it’s a pik-ahh-choo!.... nevermind.

Anyway the discussions somehow shifted to the moral compass of the pokemon universe and whether or not it was right for humans to battle pokemon the way they do. I believe that’s the most debatable subject you can address when it comes to pokemon. Taking into consideration the new Pokken Tournament game, I ended the conversation giving a half-joking theory, that maybe it’s just like how in real life we have MMA and boxing, perhaps the pokemon just wanna be professional fighters. I wasn’t really one hundred percent satisfied with that theory because it was still missing something. Something that made it necessary. So until then, it was tossed into my subconscious, like all the other pokemon things I’ve contemplated on over the years. But it wasn’t till a month ago, I saw something that made all those things rush back into my mind, connecting like pieces of a puzzle that I didn’t even know I was building.

I was scrolling through Instagram, looking at Nintendo art, when I came across this--

I’m not sure who made the picture, you can see the artist’s name is in the bottom left corner. But upon seeing this image a story played out in my head. A story of a Charmander and it’s older Charmeleon brother, living life and going on adventures together. I imagine Charmeleon showing Charmander how to fish without getting his tail wet, the two climbing trees together, drawing pictures with sticks in the dirt, and watching the sunset over the ocean. Night falls and the brothers make camp within a small rock cave on the edge of the forest, just big enough for the two of them to sleep in comfortably. Sometime that night, the Charmander is awaken by a sound outside, the curious young pokemon emerges from the cave to see what might have caused the noise. Not seeing anything he looks up at the night sky, becomes entranced by the millions of twinkling stars above, he lies down on his back to stare at the stars for a while. Soon the older brother Charmeleon rushes from the cave half panicked for his missing brother, but is immediately calmed by the waving flame of his little brother’s tail in the grass ahead of him. He smiles for a moment before noticing bright yellow eyes staring from a tree at the edge of the forest ahead of him. The Charmeleon’s smile melts away as he realizes what it is, and begins running and calling out to his brother, the yellow eyed creature flies out of the tree and takes to the sky. The Charmander sat up and looked back to answer his brothers call, and saw him running towards him, pointing up at the sky. The Charmander turned his gaze to the sky to see a huge noctowl swiftly flying at him. The Charmander stumbles to his feet and runs for his brother. The Charmeleon realizes he won’t make it to his little brother before Noctowl does, so he begins gargling embers in his mouth, then blows smoke from his nose creating a wide smokescreen cloud that extends far enough to envelop his brother.

The Noctowl hovers above the smog a moment, then flaps it’s wings creating a gust that blows the smoke away, up ahead it sees the charmeleon running back towards the cave, holding the little Charmander’s hand pulling him along. The noctowl continues it’s pursuit, swiftly gaining on the two brothers. A few feet from the caves entrance, the Charmeleon realizes they won’t make it in time. So just before the the talons of the Noctowl grab the Charmander, Charmeleon yanks the little brother’s arm and hurls him into the cave. The little Charmander tumbles on the cave floor and smacks his head against the back wall. His consciousness begins to fade, and just before passing out, the last thing he see’s is the blurry image of his older brother’s fading tail flame being lifted into the sky.

Now I know what your thinking, “Did I just read the intro of a Disney movie?” No, no you did not, just the results of my very active imagination. But all kidding aside, all this literally manifested within my mind just by seeing that artwork, and with it my theory of why pokemon obey their captors, the reason is simple. Survival.

In a franchise where evolution is one of the main charms, it all seems fairly obvious. Pokemon allow themselves to be captured and trained in order to be more capable of surviving in nature. By having this relationship with humans, the pokemon are able to train and fight against other pokemon in a sanctioned environment, which allows them to develop their offensive and defensive skills, without it being a life or death situation. This is a big part of what evolution is all about, increasing your ability to survive in the environment you live in. Humans and animals uncontrollably develop minor evolutionary traits, very subtly over a long period of generations. Humans can even make conscious decisions that allow us to increase our ability during our natural lifespan, by having certain diets, buying means to create a more fortified home, working out to increase our physical capabilities, even choosing to think a certain way can increase our odds of survival. Pokemon however are able to go through entire physical evolutionary changes in one lifetime, sometimes twice. Unfortunately most pokemon are born in the wild, without any established society or civilization, leaving them to only rely on their base instincts and abilities for survival. And since naturally pokemon are creatures of evolution, and are also capable of human intelligence and emotion, it makes since that they would be willing to take part in the already established symbiosis relationship with humans. You see humans have evolved in such away that makes them capable of such great intelligence, comprehension, and understanding, that they were able to make huge leaps in survival and sustainability. They don’t need to rely on their base instincts anymore, all they need to do is observe a situation and come up with a solution, so much so they’ve even discovered how to teach pokemon moves they don’t learn naturally. And in the pokemon universe it’s pretty clear humans have been able to make large technological advances due to their relationship with pokemon.

So going back to my earlier statement about Pikachu not wanting to be in a pokeball, and it’s relevance. It teaches viewers early on that pokemon aren’t simply tools, they’re living creatures with desires and wills of their own, and they have an understanding of the world around them. Meaning pokemon have a choice on weather or not they’ll allow themselves to be inside a pokeball. That’s why some pokemon have been known to leave their pokeball whenever they want. But by allowing themselves to be put in a pokeball they are entering into a pact, acknowledging someone as their trainer; the person who will train them to reach their full evolutionary potential. This could also explain why the majority of trainers don’t assign their pokemon names, and why the games refer to them as nicknames when they do. It’s because the trainers don’t actually own their captured pokemon, the pokeball is just a contract of sorts, that’s why trainers can’t capture other trainers pokemon, not unless the terms of the contract have been violated or the pokemon are released from the contract.

The concept of releasing your pokemon always baffled me as a child. My logic was always, I worked so hard to capture and/or train this pokemon, why would I ever want to release it? The tag-line of the show was gotta catch ‘em all, so releasing them seemed counter productive. As I got older, I realized it was necessary to have that release option in the game, to get rid of the extra pokemon you didn’t need or want from breeding, trading, or recapturing. However the trainers in the show often release their pokemon when they feel they’ve found somewhere the pokemon belongs, like when Ash’s Lapras reunited with it’s family in episode 113, or Ash’s Pidgeot episode 81, his Charizard in episode 134, Butterfree episode 21, he even tries to let go of his Pikachu at one point. I guess “gotta catch ‘em all” doesn’t necessarily mean you gotta keep ‘em all.

This theory also explains why people don’t bother giving their pokemon names, it’s because the trainer/pokemon relationship isn’t like a owner and it’s pet, it’s more like coach and pupil. If you hired a personal trainer you wouldn’t expect them to give you a new name, you don’t suddenly give up who you are just because you’ve made a commitment to improve yourself. Having personal identifiers like names aren’t important to pokemon, so if their trainer does give them a nickname, it’s most likely due to the fact that they’ve been with that pokemon since it was born, or work with multiple pokemon of the same species.

Now one last thing that I feel that most people are wondering is, if pokemon are so willing to agree to this partnership with humans, why is it so many of them fight so hard to avoid being captured. Well most creatures establish dominance by fighting each other, so it makes since pokemon would try to resist capture from just any ol’human who calls himself a trainer. How can the pokemon know that the trainer is worthy enough to teach it. If it can defeat the pokemon already being trained by that trainer, what reason would it have to follow him. Take Ash’s Charmander for example, once it started getting stronger and evolved all the way to a Charizard, it stopped listening to Ash and didn’t even bother trying to fight pokemon that were weaker than it. This also happens in the pokemon games as well, if you’ve ever obtained a pokemon that was around level 78 (most likely from trade) before you’ve even achieved your second gym badge, that pokemon will do whatever it wants, which includes not listening to you, and doing moves that you didn’t tell it to do.

Taking all these things into account I believe this is a pretty solid theory on why pokemon obey their captors. Not because they develop Stockholm Syndrome, and it isn’t because humans force them to. It’s because as evolutionary based creatures they’re instinctively programmed for self preservation, and are intelligent enough to realize that having these relationships with humans gives them greater opportunities to learn better survival skills and find their calling, therefore allowing them to take the next step in their evolution.

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