Bildungsspiel: Pokémon and the Novel of Formation

Bildungsspiel: Pokémon and the Novel of Formation

            A young boy goes off traveling the world by himself, meets people that will change him forever, and comes back home wise, grown up, mature. If this sounds like the premise of Pokémon, it is also that of a whole literary genre, the Bildungsroman. And while the latter exudes respectability and artistic legitimacy, the Pokémon series is little more than a childish toy to most people’s eyes. I beg to differ, naturally. I will try raise a few parallels between the literary genre and the Pokémon video games, and see how the latter may even take it further.

            The Bildungsroman goes back to the end of eighteenth century, with Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. A few works of German literature then drew inspiration from the eponymous character’s epic quest of self-awakening and psychological growth, and later, it spread to the rest of Europe. In fact, it may well be responsible for the still popular coming-of-age story in books, movies, and TV shows. The premise of the Bildungsroman is often a decision made by the protagonist to leave and embark on a journey without a specific goal or end date, sometimes caused by a major rupture at home. In the case of Wilhelm’s Lehrjahre, he cannot stand the bourgeoisie anymore and he goes off to do what he truly wants: to be an artist (specifically: he joins a travelling theater troupe). While this is very clichéd today, the Bildungsroman is at the origin of certain of these tropes. In the sequel, his Wanderjahre, the travelling, the different spaces, become the central part of his journey. This is in fact reminiscent of the subsequent travel literature. Travelling as trigger of personal growth is nothing new.

            It is in this context that I feel like Pokémon inscribes itself perfectly into the Bildungsroman genre. The player becomes the protagonist who embarks on a long journey of growth and awakening. All Pokémon games put an emphasis on travelling from one city to the next, as the map shows, where the hero encounters a variety of mentor figures (mainly professors) and helpers (Pokémon centres, allies), as well as challenges — namely, gyms which serve to track the progress, the growth of the hero as a trainer, the core of his identity. Identity which relies on his or her ability to breed, train and utilize fictional pets. The protagonist/player is expected to learn as the game goes along, the same way that his or her Pokémon learn and grow alongside him or her. The Pokémon’s growth is made obvious by the leveling up system (an actual numeric representation of growth), by abilities that are learned (much like learning skills, mastering trades), and emphasized by evolutions (and in some cases, mega evolutions), where the Pokémon actually grows in size, age, strength, and gains a more mature look — like growing older. They sort of hit puberty, much like the protagonist himself/herself does. Both Pokémon and trainer hone their skills. These Pokémon are thus much more than pets: they mirror the protagonist/player’s growth. A symbiosis happens, which is all the more emphasized by the addition of mega evolutions in Pokémon X and Y, where the trainer and the pokémon reach a paroxysmal point of intense synergy, which triggers a hidden ultimate form in the Pokémon.

            So while cities and gyms are milestones and give tangible rewards for the player and his or her team’s growth, the heart of the games themselves is the in-between cities. That is to say, the various unnamed “routes” that link precise areas. The spaces in-between is where the growth happens: Pokémon are caught and fight here, the vast majority of the times. Much like in the Bildungsroman, the cities provide a space of interaction with others, but the character’s growth happens in the travelling itself, the act of leaving these cities and going elsewhere, wherever elsewhere is doesn’t matter so much. In fact, it is in these in-between spaces that the player has the most freedom, while cities offer more or less a checklist of things the player must do in order to move on once again. The player may choose to fight and catch as many Pokémon as he or she wishes, go back and forth indefinitely, and thus, gauging how much growth his Pokémon — and himself/herself — experience. Cities are where the growth is put to the test, and also a pause between travels where the Pokémon may rest and heal. Bildungsroman also portrays cities as tests of the hero’s mettle. It is where he or she encounters the Other in all its frightening glory, must interact with other human being who inevitably (often implicitly) challenge his or her morals, ethics, decision-making abilities, and wits, among other traits of personality.

            The transposition of the highly human(e) characters of the Bildungsroman onto fictional creatures in Pokémon is an interesting one. It allows for a less overt, more relatable, more playful way of emphasizing growth and important decision-making as part of maturing. In fact, Pokémon could be seen as a fairy-tale-like allegory of the Bildungsroman in video game format. Much unlike a great number of video games, the end goal is not focused upon by the narrative or the gameplay per se. While there is a high number of elements that track improvements (number of Pokémon caught, their levels, number of badges, number of opponents defeated, items found, money acquired, etc.), the ending of the game is never really the end. You do not ‘beat the game’ and never touch it again after you become the Pokémon champion, like the last page of a book. The end is when the player decides to stop playing, in which case the game itself is not finished, but the player has decided to stop his or her growth, which could practically be endless.

            This is indeed taking the Bildungsroman even further, as books as a medium do not allow the same endlessness as video games do. It is however interesting that Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister spans over two books, and ends with “to be continued” despite never having been continued. I interpret this as a certain future-oriented gesture at human growth which never truly ends. Wilhelm could keep growing until his death, and so the possibility of a sequel was always open (keep in mind this is way before the epoch of the Harry Potter and Twilight era, as well as the Marvel and DC era, where sequels and prequels and side stories keep coming up). It was, at the time, shocking that a novel would end like this.

            What makes the video-gaming appropriation of the Bildungsroman fascinating is the player involvement. I have discussed this at length in other entries so I shall not restate my points, but the mirroring of the player and the protagonist (who is himself or herself a mirror of his or her Pokémon) may create a certain infiltration of the game’s ethos into the player (who of course infiltrates the game clearly through the decisions he or she constantly makes). I would argue that the growth experienced by the protagonist through his travels and his Pokémon is simultaneously experienced by the player. Therein lies much of the nostalgic power of Pokémon: the generation of players that grew up with Pokémon feels very tied to the games which instilled the sense of growth present in the games into the players. The creatures, the protagonists, and the players all grew alongside each other, with each other, and caused each other to grow (the influence goes back and forth between all three poles).

            This becomes even more fascinating in the case of Pokémon GO, not only because it capitalizes on the nostalgia for the Bildungsromanesque growth its players experienced with the Pokémon games, but also because of its medium. In fact, being mobile (and thus following the player absolutely everywhere), this player/protagonist identification is taken to its extreme. The very space of the game becomes the player’s space, using an actual GPS-powered map tracking the player/protagonist’s movements, becoming his or her movements. Virtuality becomes a layer of the player’s physical space, merging with it, like the player and protagonist merge. The player becomes the hero of his or her own Bildungsroman, or Bildungsspiel (game of formation), as I amuse myself to call it.

Foreign Languages and Trauma

Foreign Languages and Trauma

           I’m passionate about learning languages, not only to access the cultural baggage they contain and for the communicative aspect, not only to improve my travelling experiences and to open my mind to new ways of thinking — I could go on and on about the neurological benefits of learning languages — but also, I learn languages as a coping mechanism, as a healing tool.

          The benefits of self-expression, communication, and artistic creation in the process of healing from trauma are no longer to be proven and can hardly be understated, and writing comes to mind first. A great number of writers (all writers?) have the urgent, irrepressible need to communicate something in their soul, in their mind, to grab something in there and put it out there. It is very therapeutic. Like extracting a tumour. As such, language becomes a tool for healing. Not so much a medicine per se, as simply using language in any manner is not sufficient in itself. It is more like a scalpel, which needs to be used well and carefully to heal. Language can also backfire and entrap in trauma, as I argue is the case with Nelly Arcan, a writer whose language became her only way out, but ultimately made her go around in circles infinitely, creating a prison out of her literary space. However, I’ve written on this quite a lot already, so for now I would like to raise a tangential idea and push my metaphor further: if (a) language is a tool for healing (say, a scalpel), is learning additional languages giving oneself more tools for healing (say, anesthetics and stitches)?

       This may stem from my own introspective thinking, as it is one of my coping mechanisms, and I’ve sometimes found writing in a foreign language particularly therapeutic. French is indeed linked to all my emotions and basic thoughts (I feel in French), while my knowledge of English and German stems from thousands of hours of intellectual work. I don’t feel traurig or hoffnungslos or terrified or aloof. I’ve learned, memorized these words. I’ve thought them through, which means I know precisely the weight each word I use has, which is not always the case in French, where my use is more spontaneous and informed by a certain naïveté. I never actively and consciously learned French. My learning of French (in strictly communicative terms, I have indeed spent a lot of time to improve my mastery of it, but never had to learn it from scratch) did not implicate any choice, any agency.

           It can of course be very cathartic to express oneself naturally, without the additional constraints of the intellectual work that comes with using a foreign language, and I often do write in French, don’t get me wrong. But writing in English or in German allows a certain distanciation from the written words. It is not so much a mirror that reflects the state of your soul back at you, but more a product of reflection, not only of content but also of the structure, grammar, and words themselves. This mirror is often that which entraps you in your own trauma, as you keep seeing yourself in the traumatic words that you write. Trauma takes the bigger piece of your literary identity, which, for a writer, is gigantic. On the other hand, writing in a foreign language may help by getting it out there, but leaving it on its own. It is still the productive result of your work and creativity, but there is more distance that allows for a more objective or external look at it. The writing process is also altogether different, involving different parts of your brain, which may or may not be a better healing tool for you. Indeed, just like a scalpel is inappropriate if you have the flu, different tools work at different times for different people, and so I would argue that it never hurts to have more tools at your disposition.

Being Ashamed of Past Work

Being Ashamed of Past Work

            As I was going through my files of texts I’ve written over the years to see if any of them should be reanimated by Dr. Krabby, it occurred to me how the older the text was, the more shameful I felt reading it. It is a common feeling that any artist or student has, I imagine, to feel that way about past work — because, obviously, we’re so much better than we were. Are we really, though? Does this sense of shame, of a sort of Fremdschämen towards another Self, not anymore recognized as one, really stem from we being so superior to who we once were? Of course, we are in constant change. We are shaped by our experiences, but do these make us objectively better at our art? Not at all: just think of the art you prefer. Very often, I like a singer’s first albums more than their later ones (e.g. Adele), a theorist’s first ideas rather than their latest (e.g. Judith Butler), a writer’s first texts (e.g. Amélie Nothomb). So why would I see a progress in me that I do recognize in others? When critiquing others, we do not consider their progress as artists, the growth in the mastery of their skills, we simply consider different styles, variations, artistic directions taken. There is a clear rift between the art and the artist that we see in others. We recognize our own subjectivity in saying “I personally prefer Romeo and Juliet over Hamlet,” without implying that Shakespeare got worse with time, and without considering that his writing skills should have improved.

            So why are we so different? Are we narcissistic in thinking we’re so much better than our past self, we evolve so much, but when it comes to others, it’s a non-variable? Why are we ashamed of our own past work? Aren’t we hypocritical in almost always preferring our own latest work, while we almost always do not prefer our favorite artists’ latest work? I’m simply thinking out loud here, but to answer my own questions, I wouldn’t say hypocritical per se, and not quite narcissistic, but lacking perspective, navel-gazing. We always see our own improvement in what we do because we know exactly the amount of time and energy that has gone in any piece of work, without thinking of the life the piece of work we created has. Once something is out there, it’s not ours anymore. We try to control everything we create like possessive parents, but much like kids, the work of art is out there on its own. We are responsible for its content, but not for its reception. And without any reception, we are doomed to be both the performer and the public, and we’re a terrible public, in that we are unable to see the work only for what it is, we see the work we’ve done. We see a mirror of ourselves. And so, when we view a piece of art that was created by what seems a different us, we feel shame not because of the piece of art itself, but because of the artist we once were. The mirror is reflecting a different person who is supposed to be us, but is not. I don’t think it’s fair to be ashamed of ourselves, because it’s not so much that we lacked experience and skills, but that we were in a different time and space, a different emotional, mental, and physical state which gave rise to a piece of art we would not create today. We have to learn to see our own art for what it is: art. Not our art, it does not belong to us anymore. We also need to stop focusing so much on improving constantly, because that perpetually sets impossibly high standards, and because it is simply not true. We gain more knowledge and skills from which our art benefits, but that does not de facto make our art better to every single individual that receives it, because they also come with their own baggage and will interact with our art differently than we do. Fear not: your skills are improving, but this isn’t about you. It’s about all of us as individuals.