LMC Professor Anne Sullivan Awarded Best Paper For Research On Pokémon, Let's Go
LMC Assistant Professor Anne Sullivan, together with University of Central Florida Professors Anastasia Salter and Mel Stanfill, was awarded Best Paper for work on “But Does Pikachu Love You? Reproductive Labor in Casual Hardcore Games,” last week at the Foundations of Digital Games international conference held in San Luis Obispo, California. The paper analyzes the Pokèmon fandom’s reaction to the Nintendo Switch games Let’s Go, Pikachu! and its sister game Let’s Go, Eevee! .
“We noticed right away there was a fair deal of negative response by the fandom,” Sullivan says, “We were interested in exploring that further. At the time, I was playing a lot of Let’s Go and really couldn’t figure out why someone wouldn’t like it.”
The reaction following this latest release was especially interesting to the researchers, each long-time franchise fans, considering the fandom’s less-than-positive response to its predecessor, the mobile game Pokémon, Go! , a couple years before. (Back in 2016, the game went viral among newcomers, making headlines for how players were crowding streets and public places in an effort to catch ‘em all. Among native players, however, a different perspective surfaced.)
“Pokémon, Go! started this fan shift,” Sullivan explains, “People [in the fandom] began saying things along the lines of 'Oh, this isn’t a real Pokemon game.' So, that was the environment of the fandom when Let’s Go came out.”
Analyzing comments and reviews on Metacritic, an aggregator of media product reviews from leading critics as well as users, the team began the paper’s initial research.
“It’s pretty uncommon for the fans to give Pokémon games a lower score than the professional reviews,” Sullivan points out. [Even at the time of this article, the user scores are still significantly lower than the aggregate score from game critics.] “As we delved into the fan response more, I was able to better understand the frustration. The game was a definite change from how it has been for the last 20 years."
“There are two main differences between [Let’s Go] and previous core titles from the franchise. First, there were no longer random battles, instead it was much more about exploration and collecting. And second, your Pokèmon companion that you choose at the beginning of the game--whether it’s Pikachu and Eevee--is interactive. You can dress it, feed it, and so on.”
Patterns began to emerge in their research. “We noticed players self-identified as a fan and through this 'Fan Identity', asserted themselves as an authority voice,” she continues. “This leads to entitlement and creates a pressure, or stress-point, between companies and their fandoms. Fans still insisted this was not a ‘real’ Pokémon game, even though the franchise itself came out and said, ‘No, this is indeed a valid game.’”
The award-winning paper examines the dichotomey between "casual" and "hardcore" gaming mentalities, as demonstrated in the user comments, and how the fandom’s backlash ultimately represented a resistance to “feminized play mechanics.”
“From the comments, we pulled out common words like ‘hand-holding’, ‘casual’, and ‘friendly’--all used in a very negative way. Fans were equating grinding labor with hardcore gaming, and equating caring--like feeding and raising, something you’d do with the companion--as casual, or reproductive labor.”
The award marks Sullivan’s first Best Paper, as she continues her work with interactive narratives, games, and more in the Digital Media Department. The full research paper can be read here.
Anne Sullivan is also head of the Experimental Game Lab at Georgia Tech. More information about her research and publications can be found here.