Monthly Archives: November 2015

Does Pokémon Teach you to be a Bad Scientist?

Passion, dedication and a love of nature are all great qualities a scientist should have, but they’re certainly not the only ones. Let’s examine a bit further the famous catchphrase: gotta catch ’em all!

As I said last week, the objective of the game is to register every species of Pokémon in the Pokédex. But there’s an important unstated assumption there: it assumes that all there is to know about a particular species can be obtained from one member of the population, or, as a biologist would put it, a sample size of one! In the real world, this is obviously a ridiculous assertion. Every species in the world has a massive amount of variability — one sample can never be enough to represent the full spectrum of intraspecific diversity.

Amazingly, this is true of Pokémon species too! There’s a few reasons I can think of for this, so let’s go into detail about them.

  1. IVs, Natures

The ‘stats’ of an individual Pokémon (a measure of how good it is at battling) is a surprisingly complicated game mechanic. Every species has a fixed ‘base stats’ distribution — certain Pokémon species are intrinsically stronger than others. But there’s a few ways the stat distribution of an individual can vary — basically, it’s possible for two Pokémon of the same species to have radically different strength.

One of these ways is via ‘IVs’: Individual Values. The IVs of a Pokémon are six immutable numbers, one for each stat, which are randomly assigned to the Pokémon when you first encounter it. These IVs add a small boost to the ‘mon’s base stat total, and they’re, well, individual. There’s over 88 million possible combinations of IVs, so the odds of two individuals of the same species having the same IVs are almost zero. For this reason, IVs are often called the ‘DNA’ of a Pokémon. (Let’s not get into the artificial selection by players which can drive two Pokémon to have the same IVs…)

A related concept is a Pokémon’s ‘Nature’ — an adjective like ‘Hardy’, ‘Naughty’, ‘Impish’ is assigned to it when it’s first encountered, and it alters the base stats the Pokémon has by virtue of being from a specific species. Again, the ‘Nature’ of a Pokémon is part of its DNA, in a sense.

So, if it’s possible, like in real life, for individuals within a species to show variability. This is a deliberate design choice — the creators wanted you to feel attachment to the Pokémon you catch, by making them as unique as possible. They wanted you to be able to think “this is my Pikachu”, not just Pikachu.

So, clearly catching one of each species isn’t enough to fully understand all Pokémon! But these are ‘behind the scenes’ effects. Let’s jump in to some striking, visible differences.

2.   Moves, Abilities

Every species of Pokémon has a certain selection of ‘moves’ it’s possible for it to know, and every individual Pokémon has a selection of up to four of those moves it does know. ‘Moves’ are attacks like Tackle, Tail Whip, Flamethrower, Poisonpowder, Focus Energy, Fly, which have some in-battle (or even out-of-battle) effect. So again, two individuals of the same species could have a totally different moveset. The Pokédex doesn’t register this. If you want to know everything there is to know about a species, surely knowing what moves it can and can’t learn would be one of those things? This, apparently, isn’t part of your job as a Pokédex completionist!

Similarly, every species of Pokémon has a certain ‘ability’ — some extra power it has, like Levitate (making it immune to Ground-type attacks) or Blaze (strengthening Fire-type attacks). Some species can have a range of different abilities, so catching one member of a species doesn’t fully determine every possible ability its species could have.

3.   Shinies

Shine on: Official Ken Sugimori concept art featuring Shiny Charizard (left) and regular Charizard (right)

Every species of Pokémon has a “shiny” form — an alternate colouration that is otherwise identical (in terms of stats, moves, abilities, etc). Think of it like albinism. Shinies have something of a mythical status among Pokémon fans. Every wild Pokémon you encounter has a 1 in 4096 chance of being shiny. That may seem low, but until the most recent game generation it was only half that — 1 in 8192! Seeing a shiny is an incredibly rare experience. In my decade and a half of playing Pokémon games, I’ve only encountered three in the wild. That’s right — they’re so rare I can remember every one I’ve seen (a Zubat, a Sandshrew, a Woobat, if you’re wondering). As such, Shinies are a status symbol among Pokéfans, and they amplify the collectibility of Pokémon exponentially.

Interestingly, unlike with IVs, natures, moves, and abilities, the Pokédex will record every shiny you see as distinct from the regular colouration, so it is possible to consider a Pokédex “incomplete” until it’s seen all of the 721 shiny forms in existence, even though the game doesn’t acknowledge this.  Needless to say, outside of hacking the games, no one has ever done this. Your ‘dex will still be ‘complete’ (and you’ll get the certificate from the last post) without having seen any shinies. But in principle, does “catching them all” extend to catching every shiny? We’re just getting started…

3.   Aesthetic forms

Besides shinies, many, many Pokémon have variant designs. Again, these are only aesthetic changes, and it’s still functionally the same Pokémon. The differences can be almost impossible to spot, or they can look very different. A lot of the differences are due to sexual dimorphism — just like in real animals, many Pokémon look very different depending on their sex. And yes, every different-looking variant has its own shiny version, too!

Again, the Pokédex will register every variant of a Pokémon seen, and again, it’s possible to ‘get away with’ only seeing one sex of each Pokémon for the purposes of ‘dex completion… so do you need to catch one of each sex of every sex-varying Pokémon? Imagine if a biologist called it a day after studying a female mallard without bothering to examine the male. If they can’t quit halfway through, why can’t you?

Some examples of differences:

Let's talk about sex: Hippowdon is a Pokémon with very noticeable sex differences. (From
Let’s talk about sex: Hippowdon is a Pokémon with very noticeable sex differences. (From
...Whereas with Beautifly, can you even tell the difference?
…Whereas with Beautifly, can you even tell the difference?
Basculin's colours aren't sex-dependent or shiny-dependent-- it just has two alternate colourations.
Basculin’s colours aren’t sex-dependent or shiny-dependent– it just has two alternate colourations, each with their own shiny versions
Unown has the most variants at 28! 26 are based on letters, two are punctuation marks.
Unown has the most variants at 28! 26 are based on letters, two are punctuation marks. (From Bulbapedia)

4.   Forms, Mega Evolutions

Finally, we come to different forms and Megas. Some Pokémon have different forms which are so different, they may as well be different species. Their base stats change, their types may change, even their shape may become radically different! For all intents and purposes they are different, and the Pokédex will register every form of a specific species you encounter… but, again, you don’t need to see every different form of a species to count it as being ‘caught’.

Some Pokémon can change between their different forms under certain conditions, some can only be first encountered as one form which never changes. Mega Evolution is a specific type of temporary form change introduced in the newest games. Again, Mega Evolutions are registered in the Pokédex, but you don’t need to see them all to have ‘caught’ them all. Here’s some examples of form changes:

Deoxys' stats radically change with its different forms.
Deoxys’ stats radically change with its different forms. You can change its form whenever you want outside of battle.
This is the same species! When weakened in battle, Darmanitan enters Zen mode.
This is the same species! When weakened in battle, Darmanitan enters Zen mode.
Size matters: Pumpkaboos come in four different sizes, each with different stats. Unlike Deoxys, it can't switch between forms.
Size matters: Pumpkaboos come in four different sizes, each with different stats. Unlike Deoxys, it can’t switch between forms.
Do you even lift? When Swampert (left) Mega Evolves, it gets a significant stat boost temporarily in a battle.
Do you even lift? When Swampert (left) Mega Evolves (right), it gets a significant stat boost temporarily in a battle.

Wrapping up, how many Pokémon are there? Last week I said 721, and showed a picture of all of them… but that picture didn’t show any form variants. If you count variants as being different Pokémon, well, the shinies alone double the number of ‘mons! By my estimate, adding up just all the shinies, aesthetic variants, forms and megas, there are about 2,000 Pokémon! Gotta catch ’em all?

So does it make you a bad scientist to only catch 721 of them? I say no. When the game tells you you’ve completed the Pokédex, I don’t think it’s implying everything there is to know about Pokémon is now known, it’s just saying your job is complete. But science is never complete. There’s always new things to be discovered about the natural world. You’re not a bad scientist for not being able to discover all of it — you’re only human! You just need to know your limits, and try to overcome them!

Don’t ever stop catching them all.

Does Pokémon Teach you to be a Good Scientist?

Ok hear me out on this one. It sounds crazy but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while…

This Pikachu is also canonically female... does this count as a women in science post?(!) (Image from Bulbapedia)
Pikachu, PhD: You can really dress up a Pikachu like this in one of the games!

I love Pokémon, but if you don’t know what it is… Pokémon is a multimedia franchise centred around a series of video games created by Game Freak, and published by Nintendo. In the (main) games, you play as a child or teenager who lives in a world where people live alongside fantastical creatures called Pokémon. These creatures mostly resemble real world animals and things, and wild ones can be ‘captured’, tamed, and trained to battle each other for sport.

That's actually a lie! It's as of 2013! Two more have been released since then, with a third coming soon!
A world of adventure awaits: A picture of every Pokémon released as of 2015

There are two main aims to the game. The first is to become the Pokémon League Champion — effectively the world champion at the sport of Pokémon battling. That’s the less interesting of the two aims. The other aim is encapsulated in the famous slogan of the franchise — you gotta catch ’em all! What does this mean? It means you have to collect a specimen from every Pokémon species in the world… all 721 of them!!

From Bulbapedia
Battle Subway: This is what the games want you to imagine a Pokémon battle is like…

As an aside, yes, it is ‘basically like cockfighting’, but I want to stress that the games do go out of their way to emphasise the love and friendship between humans and Pokémon, and how the Pokémon do choose to fight alongside you, and how you’re encouraged to see your Pokémon as partners and friends. A key theme is living in harmony with nature. It’s a very positive, animal-loving message overall.

…And this is what one actually looks like!

So, the reason you gotta catch ’em all is that at the start of each game a Pokémon professor gives you a Pokédex — a device which can analyse every Pokémon you catch to tell you information about it. but it’s given to you devoid of data — it has no information about any Pokémon in it. You are then instructed to complete this Pokédex, i.e. you must use it to scan every Pokémon in the world once. Your task is to create a complete encyclopaedia of every species of these mysterious creatures.

Yes, this is me. Trust me, it's a big deal. I'm very proud of it.
Yes, this is a screenshot from my game. Trust me, it’s a big deal. I’m very proud of it.

What is the purpose of this task? The game hammers the point home quite thoroughly — nothing more than the pursuit of knowledge! Various characters in every game say things like “there’s still so much we don’t know about Pokémon”, and “the power of science is staggering!”… Every game’s professor is explicitly stated to be researching some different aspect of how Pokémon work, from breeding, to evolution, to their habitats, to their origins.

Incredible: This guy is in every main game’s starting town.

These professors are all naturalists, working in labs, studying specimens, (presumably) publishing research. One professor even starts the game in some tall grass doing field work. As you progress you can ask the professor to evaluate your Pokédex, and if you do they’ll give you advice on other places to look, and other things you can do to find more Pokémon. You effectively play as their unpaid intern, doing a PhD’s worth of work in categorising every single one of the hundreds of species of Pokémon! Err… your payment is adventure?

Anyway, looking back, it’s great how a love of science and naturalism is instilled in the player as they play the game. Why explore that dark cave, or that deep ocean, or dense woods, or icy mountain? Simply for the joy of discovery. Who knows what rare new specimen could be lurking in that hidden alcove? It fosters a wonderful sense of exploration, and this is deliberate. Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokémon, was an avid bug collector as a child. Here’s what he had to say about bugs when discussing his inspiration for Pokémon:

They fascinated me. For one thing, they kind of moved funny. They were odd. Every time I found a new insect, it was mysterious to me. And the more I searched for insects, the more I found. If I put my hand in the river, I would get a crayfish. If there was a stick over a hole, it would create an air bubble and I’d find insects there. I usually took them home. As I gathered more and more, I’d learn about them, like how some would feed on one another. So I stopped bringing them home. But I liked coming up with new ideas. Like how to catch beetles. In Japan, a lot of kids like to go out and catch beetles by putting honey on a piece of tree bark. My idea was to put a stone under a tree, because they slept during the day and like sleeping under stones. So in the morning I’d go pick up the stone and find them. Tiny discoveries like that made me excited.

Satoshi Tajiri with some Pokémon!

It’s hard to come away from a Pokémon game and not want to become a naturalist, to not get enthused by taxonomy and the life sciences. It just makes it all seem so idyllic and exciting. All you need to do to know everything about a species is to throw a Poké Ball at it!

But does it teach you to be a good scientist? Maybe. It depends on what qualities a good scientist has. If passion, love of knowledge and exploration, dedication, an appreciation of nature’s beauty, and a bit of a completionist streak make a good scientist, then the Pokémon player is an ideal one! Or perhaps not… I’ll discuss the flip side of the ‘Pokémon player as scientist’ idea next week!