Pokémon Fandom as a Religion: Construction of Identity and Cultural Consumption in Hong Kong

Pokémon Fandom as a Religion: Construction of Identity and Cultural Consumption in Hong Kong

Bruno Lovric
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1048-3.ch022
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This chapter examines the fandom of Nintendo Switch's Pokémon video game and its association with religion and identity-building. By means of semiotic analysis of the game's content and in-depth interviews with Hong Kong fans, the study examines the game's narrative and its role in the construction of players' social and religious identities. Using the functional framework of religion, it explores three major elements of the story: myth, ritual, and community. These three elements strengthen players' investment with the game by projecting the animistic attachment towards Pokémon characters and imbuing them with a sense of spirit or anima. The chapter argues that the game's animism is rooted in commodity-consumerism which uses emotive ties between people and things to encourage capitalist drives and encourage the sale of products. At the same time, by allowing its fans to create meaning and build a sense of connection with imaginary beings and likeminded fans, the game grants an escape from Hong Kong's urban alienation and approaches a functional view of religion.
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The Pew Research report from 2018 indicates that Millennials and Generation Z around the world are increasingly more irreligious than their predecessors. Religion used to play an extremely important role in relieving the existential anguish of young people by establishing clear guidelines for their lifestyles and values. However, the globalization trends have eroded the importance of local traditions and pushed youth in urban centers towards consumption as an anchor of personal identification. This chapter argues that popular products like video games fulfill the gap by delivering users with functional moments of transcendental aesthetic and explores the significance of the Nintendo Switch game fandom in Hong Kong. Asides from analyzing the text, the study considers the motives and implications of cultural consumption in users’ identity-construction processes by employing a functionalist view of religion. Through the examination of the game’s ritual, myth, and community facets it explains how the Pokémon: Let’s Go Pikachu! provides users with certain satisfactions that are akin to functional-religious experiences.

Though not commonly associated with dogmas, the game establishes rather consistent lore with its own set of rules, traditions, and histories that mirror religious texts to some extent. Of course, religious elements appear in a wide plethora of other cultural artifacts like advertising, television, film, music videos, art, and literature (Mazur & McCarthy, 2000). While used in a selective format or even contradicting established religious norms, religious symbolism of these products guarantees a recurrence of long-established tropes that resonate well with users. Even decontextualized and fragmented religious iconography helps consumers make sense and “give meaning to their lives” (Santana & Erickson, 2008, p. 18). Yet utilizing player’s agency in the narrative and affording them with instances of “everyday transcendencies” (Varul, 2011, p. 449) makes video games a superior agent in communicating values and instilling ethical credos. Everyday transcendencies are a set of common beliefs and practices that are positioned towards, or generative of, something beyond the immediate here-and-now. They can be compared to a “folk religion” or out-of-this-world experiences that help individuals make sense of the world around them.

Hence, the chapter contends that the secular world of popular culture and religion can and do complement one another. Video games transform homely interiors of living spaces into ‘sacred’ or liminal spaces where gamers transcend limitations of their corporal lives while imaginatively extending themselves into “internal spaces of experience” (Tenbruck, 1986, p. 271). Yet it is important to highlight that the goal of this research is not to demonstrate that a video game is a religion or that its fans constitute a religious community. It solely examines its functional domains and builds upon the previous studies done in the gaming field and interdisciplinary research of culture, media and identity studies (Campbell & Grieve, 2014; Wagner, 2012; Hoover, 2006; Martín-Barbero, 1997; Lovric, Liu, & Scialpi, 2018).

The first section of the chapter scrutinizes some common approaches to studying religion and explains how the author operationalizes the concept of ‘functional religion’. It also explores the viability of using substantive and phenomenological lines of inquiry to answer research questions. The following section delves into consumer practices and their role in identity building. Explicitly, it interrogates how cultural consumption and the act of shopping can be viewed as a pivotal action in personal identity formation (Falk & Campbell, 1997) and locates the meaning of transcendence in the context of cultural products. The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to research methods, the game’s content and experiences of its fans. Based on empirical observations, the investigation assists in a comprehension of the processes involved in the formation of the players’ identities as well as values in Asia, Hong Kong, and beyond. It holds the promise of locating a normative aspect that may enable Pokémon fans to extrapolate a self-directed and individualistic identity and to pinpoint their moments of religious meaning-making within the game’s parameters.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Pokémon: A media franchise managed by The Pokémon Company, a Japanese consortium between Nintendo, Game Freak, and Creatures. The franchise produces animated TV series, video games, cards, films, comics and other commercial products.

The Hero's Journey: An archetypal story pattern, common in ancient myths as well as modern day adventures. The concept was described by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In narratology and comparative mythology, this story structure is also known as the monomyth.

Semiotic Analysis: A study of symbols and behaviour of using symbols.

Pokémon Let's Go, Pikachu! & Let's Go, Eevee!: Role-playing video games published by The Pokémon Company and Nintendo for the Nintendo Switch gaming system

Functional Religion: Approach to studying religion. This style is commonly associated with eminent sociologists like Emile Durkheim or Milton Yinger (1957) , who investigated what religion does (from the standpoint of an individual or a community), rather than what is.

Techno-animism: A practice of imbuing technology with human and spiritual characteristics. It can also be viewed as a culture that assumes that technology, humanity and religion (like Shintoism) can be integrated into one entity.

Autonomous Hedonism: reliance on imagination or daydreams to conjure up pleasurable feelings. Though such daydreams are reached via consumer goods, the sense of pleasure arises from the self-illusionary interaction with products.

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