The Gendered Mechanics of Pokémon Sword and Shield

I’m Sorry But I Have to Talk About My Force Masc Kink in a Pokémon Game, Oh Gosh

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Autumn Wright is a complete genderfuck. They study rhetoric and history in Orlando, FL and write about games, sex, and other things you love on the internet. Find her latest writing (and like their selfies) at @TheAutumnWright.Follow the author on Twitter

Nine hours. That’s how long it took to win my first badge in Pokemon Sword. It’s longer than I’ll spend with many games I play and write about, and I have every intention, the desire even, to continue for seven more badges. That’s weird for me since I never really liked playing Pokémon. I mean, I’ve liked Pokémon: the poster in my room, the Piplup plushie from an ex, the anime on Boomerang I’d watch as a kid on my parents’ bedroom floor, and yes, even the games. But I never liked playing Pokémon.

Pokémon Diamond came out when I was in third grade. For whatever reason, I played it a lot, but I didn’t really like to do the things the game wanted me to. Instead, my friends and I used an Action Replay, a cartridge that, when connected between my DS and game, enabled a sort of cheat code system. Unlimited rare candies meant I didn’t have to grind, unlimited master balls meant I could easily collect all the Pokémon I wanted to, and a no clip hack let me go wherever I wanted to from the start. I remember the device broke, as they were prone to do, and left me impossibly stuck in Canalave City. I made another save.

Pokémon Black came out when I was in seventh grade. I briefly played, though never finished, the entry. I was much more interested in Call of Duty that year of my life. But last year, I revisited gen five after seeing Detective Pikachu. Though Pokémon had been on my periphery—through fan art, the e-shop, and friends screens—I had maintained that “I don’t like playing Pokémon”. So, what brought me back? The same way the sprites of the 1990s ignited a fervor among people playing on Game Boy, the movie fulfilled that imagination for me. Now that I saw the fantastical world, I wanted more. So I went to the Unova region and…walked, or rather, battled through a map of sprites again. What I wanted out of Black was more like a walking sim. Instead, I had to trudge through battles to see more characters, to hear more songs, to visit new places. My desires, to observe and inhabit the fantastical setting, opposed the mechanical norms the game was designed around.

I appreciate Black. The story is compelling, the world is utterly charming, the soundtrack is an absolute bop, the Skyarrow Bridge is still impressive to behold, and Castelia City established how the series would represent cityscapes. My time with the game was valuable, but I still haven’t put a friend’s copy of Black 2 into my DS.

2019’s installments, Sword and Shield, have changed how Pokémon is played. At a glance, it’s because you don’t have to battle as much. Experience is shared and comes from more sources so grinding isn’t needed to level up. The topographic change to a 3D world also facilitates fewer, more select battles, and the caves are no longer a minefield of Zubats, so I can decide which wild Pokémon I want to encounter. What combat does exist is still a series of lists—but the animations look cooler now! And more importantly, they’re significantly shorter thanks to UI enhancements. What could take four taps on a DS screen is now one or two button presses, whether catching a Pokémon, checking a move, or selecting the next attack. All these have drastically reduced the time spent battling in Sword…so what have I been doing all this time?

Coupled with these changes to battling, the 3D world finally begins to open up to free movement and, thinking about it as a UI change, makes my favorite parts of replaying Black (characters, small stories, a unique world, and music) more enjoyable to explore and behold. Instead of battling, filling in your Pokédex is now a viable method to progress through much of the Galar region. Catching a Pokémon used to require a cost/benefit analysis since the time you spend catching did not contribute to the growth of your party. But Let’s Go! introduced a radical solution to this conundrum, distributing XP among your party for capturing a Pokémon. And in Sword and Shield, you don’t even need to go into a folder to select a pokéball! I can not stress this enough: Lets Go! was the first of these games to mechanically incentivize catching them all. Anything that gives a player more non-combat verbs to progress through a game is welcome to me, but Sword and Shield furthers this departure with an expansion of the ways you can care for and bond with your partners.

Farm

Sword and Shield expand upon the secondary and tertiary mechanics of cooking and playing with your Pokémon in previous games. These have become full fledged features through camps. You can cook decorative curries there to heal your Pokémon in routes or the new Wild Area, but that’s not all. You can also play with your party like you would a cat or dog and watch them play together. Multiple generations have implemented a bonding stat to suggest that you develop a relationship with your Pokémon as you journey (rather, battle) with them. However, Sword and Shield are the first to present a direct incentive for growing closer with your Pokémon. Spending time in a camp to play with and cook for your Pokémon means they’ll grow closer to you and gain XP. Caretaking and cooking are domestic duties that have been, and continue to be, feminized in both Japan and the U.S., and now they are mechanics that Game Freak markets on the back of the box and in Nintendo Directs.

XP, healing and bonding ultimately are an aid in battle—something you still need to do to progress through story—but where the story was my only incentive to battle in the past, I now find myself (slowly) charging forward into trainer battles for…credits that I can use to purchase black combat boots and a monochrome plaid skirt. These more varied, feminine possibilities of play, rather than disincentivize battle, give me a path to progress forward through the game I want to play. While aimed at improving the experiences of kids, disabled people, people with little time to play, and anyone unfamiliar with a controller or type-effectiveness, more accessible onboarding and the simplification of bloated, decades old systems is regularly decried by their “hardcore” players. Further, the vitriol of a masculinized body of “gamers” constructs a feminized subject to target their resentment. In the case of Pokémon Sword, I would argue that play has indeed changed, or rather, the possibilities of play in this iteration have grown.

Playing Pokémon Diamond as a closeted 10 year old girl, I latched on to the player character’s “female” avatar, Dawn. This didn’t mean anything for moving through the game world, but in the anime, she was Ash’s friend. There, she adventured with Ash not to battle, but to compete in Pokémon Contests. As Ash battled through the eight gyms, she competed by dressing up and showing off the dazzling moves of her close friend, Piplup. This was enough for her to move through the Sinnoh region, but not enough for me to progress through Diamond. Contests were a mechanic in Diamond just like camping is in Sword, but they didn’t directly aid your progression the way battling necessitated. Over a decade later, I can’t role-play as a Pokémon Contest champ, but I will certainly look as cute as one. Still voiceless, but much more expressive, Pokémon has become my favorite fashion sim since Breath of the Wild. Simply put: home invasion has never looked so cute.

Fashion

These possibilities do still exist within frustrating limits on fluid and non-binary expression. When you pick a character, the game won’t say this is what Game Freak thinks a “boy” and “girl” look like, but it will treat them as such. Temtem and Battletech have already shown through a separate pronoun option how gender is not an unspoken aesthetic of bodies, and Sunless Skies provides one of the most sound systems I have seen represent gender. As Ruth Cassidy describes, the unordered presentation of body parts, clothes, and titles that are gendered in our world works for the game that doesn’t comment on gender: “Sunless Skies is a game that cares about telling stories, about people and their temptations and curiosities, and at no point does it need to define the player’s gender to do so.” I’m left wondering why Nintendo thinks they need to have—or rather, why they think they can get away with—a facsimile of inclusion when the boutique in Motostoke only offers my avatar, Ada Lovelace, a fraction of its inventory. Maybe walking while trans has made me hyper-aware, but I notice every time an NPC insists on calling them different pronouns and nouns based off the binary set of bodies I chose from.

So, I started to make my own rules and, as with my action replay, I think I broke the game again. I indulged the games wont to gender Ada incessantly with my desire to fail masculinity, foregoing the escapist fantasy for genderfuckery. I started to think of Ada as a trans boy, swapping out a dress for a sweater and a parka for a hoodie and…well, I kept the boots and short skirt. This shift in role play, in my desires and expectations for the character and the game world, turns Pokémon’s poor (and contradictory) attempt to tell a “gender neutral” story into a kinky exploration of masculinity.

Castle

Role-playing in a world (explicitly) full of gender, it’s surprising how easily a forced-masc narrative works within the confines of a Pokémon game. Forced-masc is a sort of fantasy, a kink, about being pressured or coerced into a masculine presentation, role, and/or expression. And that’s okay because it’s sensual and maybe even affirming (and, though not always portrayed as such, should be consensual!!!). Forced-masc is the gendered inverse of the forced-fem trope, which is omnipresent in our culture for a lot of reasons, but especially transmisogyny. Though forced-masc exists on the margins of kink discourse, both of these toe the line of (dis)empowerment, affirmation, and transphobia. And drawing on Daniel Lavery’s originary series of essays on forced-masc fantasies in Regency romance novels, Pokémon provides everything for “The Great Chaste Lie of the Plucky Heroine” genre:

  1. “Oh, no, don’t make me cut off all my hair and shorten my name, I’d sure hate that!”
  2. “Oh, no, don’t take me back to school, you strict lessons-master!”
  3. “Oh my, I can barely get a word in edgewise, I’m falling all to pieces!”
  4. “Gee whiz, mister, all the other men in the carriage sure think I’m the best little lad in all the world – a real corker of a boy, met with universal male approval, and having a universally male experience. This is the worst!!!!!”

I’m not saying that you can view every Pokémon game as a delicious forced-masc fantasy, but that it’s kinda how I felt when I chose a “male” avatar in third grade to cover when I played Diamond with friends. And it’s kinda how I feel as a genderfluid person playing Sword now, locked out of masculinity in a region that necessitates the universal experience of boy or girl alongside the singular trainer.

The forced-masc fantasy is one that, in its popular conception, is not mine to have. On the surface, I should be relegated to femininity with all the other trans girls. But that’s not the entirety of my experience with gender. We (in contemporary Western culture) lack the positionality of being both trans masc and trans fem. It’s a positionality that defies the stability of any one label: I’m a butch trans woman, a twinky enby, and, on the fateful day I may wear a dress, a femme trans girl. Fluid, genderfuck, dykefag, what does exist (appropriately) lacks any denotation.

What I find in the forced-masc fantasy, then, is an offer at something my body struggles to achieve: irrevocable girlhood, a constant femininity in the girlish-masculinity of boy. Anything but man, really. Please, just, promise me this: “if you can’t make me a boy, at least make me a decent girl.” Either way, I’ll win this game.

Works Cited

Black, Lillian. “Destined for Silence: Speech as Trans Identity in Destiny 1 & 2.” First Person Scholar, 6 March 2018.

Cassidy, Ruth. “I Love Sunless Skies’s Gender Defying Character Creator.” Medium, 20 June 2019.

Lavery, Daniel. “‘Wondering whether he was to mount the box or enter with his master’: Forced-Masc Fantasies In Georgette Heyer.” The Shatner Chatner, 11 June 2019.

Nikbin, Esther. “You Don’t Always Transition Once.” Autostraddle, 30 Jan 2019.