The ability to reliably perceive the emotions of other people is vital for normal social functioning, and the human face is perhaps the strongest non-verbal cue that can be utilized when judging the emotional state of others (Ekman, 1965). The advantages of possessing this ability to recognise emotions, i.e., having emotional intelligence, include being able to respond to other people in an informed and appropriate manor, assisting in the accurate prediction of another individual’s future actions and additionally to facilitate efficient interpersonal behavior (Ekman, 1982; Izard, 1972; McArthur & Baron, 1983). In the current experiment the consistency with which emotions display by a human female face and a Pokémon character are investigated.
The current study employed 30 hand drawings of Pikachu, a first generation electric-type Pokémon character, depicting a range of emotions (images used with permission from the illustrator, bluekomadori [https://www.deviantart.com/bluekomadori]; based on the video game characters belonging to The Pokémon Company); see Fig. 1a for examples. Also, 30 photo-quality stimuli displaying a range of emotions, expressed by the same female model, were taken from the McGill Face Database (Schmidtmann et al., 2016); see Fig. 1b for examples. Ratings of arousal (i.e., the excitement level, ranging from high to low) and valence (i.e., pleasantness or unpleasantness) were obtained for each image using a similar method to Jennings et al. (2017). This method involved the participants viewing each image in turn in a random order (60 in total: 30 Pikachu and 30 of the human female from the McGill database). After each image was viewed (presentation time 500 ms) the participants’ task was to classify the emotion being displayed (i.e., not their internal emotional response elicited by the stimuli, but the emotion they perceived the figure to be displaying).
The classification was achieved via “pointing-and-clicking” the corresponding location, with a computer mouse, within the subsequently displayed 2-dimensional Arousal-Valence emotion space (Russell, 1980). The emotion space is depicted in Fig. 1c; note that the red words are for illustration only and were not visible during testing, they are supplied here for the reader to obtain the gist of the types of emotion different areas of the space represent. Data for 20 observers (14 females) was collected, aged 23±5 years (Mean±SD), using a MacBook Pro (Apple Inc.). The stimuli presentation and participant responses were obtained via the use of the PsychToolbox software (Brainard, 1997).
Figure 1. Panels (a) and (b) illustrate 3 exemplars of the Pokémon and human stimuli, respectively. Panel (b) shows the response grid displayed on each trial for classifications to be made within (note: the red wording was not visible during testing). Panels (d) and (e) show locations of perceived emotion in the human and Pokémon stimuli, respectively. Error bars present one standard error.
The calculated standard errors (SEs) serve as a measure of the classification agreement between observers for a given stimuli and were determined in both the arousal (vertical) and valence (horizontal) directions for both the Pokémon and human stimuli. These are presented as the error bars in Fig. 1d and 1e. The SEs were compared between the two stimulus types using independent t-tests for both the arousal and valence directions; no significant differences were revealed (Arousal: t(58)=-0.97, p=.34; and Valence: t(58)= 1.46, p=.15).
Effect sizes, i.e., Cohen’s d, were also determined; Arousal: d=0.06, and Valence: d=0.32, i.e., effect sizes were within the very small to small, and small to medium ranges, respectively (Cohen, 1988; Sawilowsky, 2009), again indicating a high degree of similarity in precision between the two stimuli classes. It is important to note that the analysis relied on comparing the variation (SEs) for each classified image (reflecting the agreement between participants) and not the absolute (x, y) coordinates within the space.
What could observers be utilizing in the images that produce such a high degree of agreement on each emotion expressed by each stimulus class? Is all the emotional information contained within the eyes? Levy et al. (2012) demonstrated that when observers make an eye movement to either a human with eyes located, as expected, within the face or non-human (i.e., a ‘monster’) that has eyes located somewhere other than the face (for example, the mythical Japanese Tenome that has its eyes located on the palms of his hands; Sekien, 1776) the observers’ eye movements are nevertheless made in both cases towards the eyes, i.e., there is something special about the eyes that capture attention wherever they are positioned. Schmidtmann et al. (2016) additionally showed that accuracy for identifying an emotion was equal when either an entire face or a restricted stimulus showing just the eyes was employed. The eyes of the Pikachu stimuli are simply black circles with a white “pupil”, however they can convey emotional information, for example, based on the positions of the pupil, the orientation of the eye lid, and by how much the eye is closed. It is hence plausible that arousal-valence ratings are made on the information extracted from only the eyes.
However, for the Pokémon stimuli Pikachu’s entire body is displayed on each trail, and it has been previous shown when emotional information from the face and body are simultaneously available, they can interact. This has the result of intensifying the emotion expressed by the face (de Gelder et al., 2015), as perceived facial emotions are biased towards the emotion expressed by the body (Meeren et al., 2005). It is therefore likely that holistic processing of the facial expression coupled with signals from Pikachu’s body language, i.e., posture, provide an additional input into the observers’ final arousal-valence rating.
Whatever the internal processes responsible for perceiving emotional content, the data points to a mechanism that allows the emotional states of human faces to be classified with a high precision across observers, consistent with previous emotion classification studies (e.g., Jennings et al., 2017). The data also reveals the possibility of a mechanism present in normal observers that can extract emotional information from the faces and/or bodies depicted in simple sketches, containing minimal fine detail, shading and colour variation, and use this information to facilitate the consistent classification of the emotional states expressed by characters from fantasy universes.
Brainard, D.H. (1997) The psychophysics toolbox. Spatial Vision 10: 433–436.
de Gelder, B.; de Borst, A.W.; Watson, R. (2015) The perception of emotion in body expressions. WIREs Cognitive Science 6: 149–158.
Ekman, P. (1965) Communication through nonverbal behavior: a source of information about an interpersonal relationship. In: Tomkins, S.S. & Izard, C.E. (Eds.) Affect, Cognition and Personality: Empirical Studies. Spinger, Oxford. Pp. 390–442.
Ekman, P. (1982) Emotion in the Human Face. Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Izard, C.E. (1972) Patterns of Emotion: a new analysis of anxiety and depression. Academic Press, New York.
Jennings, B.J.; Yu, Y.; Kingdom, F.A.A. (2017) The role of spatial frequency in emotional face classification. Attention, Perception & Psychophysics 79(6): 1573–1577.
Levy, J.; Foulsham, T.; Kingstone, A. (2013) Monsters are people too. Biology Letters 9(1): 20120850.
McArthur, L.Z. & Baron, R.M. (1983) Toward an ecological theory of social perception. Psychological Review 90(3): 215–238.
Meeren, H.K.; van Heijnsbergen, C.C.; de Gelder, B. (2005) Rapid perceptual integration of facial expression and emotional body language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102: 16518–16523.
Russel, J.A. (1980) A circumplex model of affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39(6): 1161–1178.
Schmidtmann, G.; Sleiman, D.; Pollack, J.; Gold, I. (2016) Reading the mind in the blink of an eye – a novel database for facial expressions. Perception 45: 238–239.
Sekien, T. (1776) 画図百鬼夜行 [Gazu Hyakki yagyō; The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons]. Maekawa Yahei, Japan.
About the Author
Dr. Ben Jennings is a vision scientist. His research psychophysically and electrophysiologically investigates colour and spatial vision, object recognition, emotions, and brain injury. His favourite Pokémon is Beldum.
Paul Mountfort1, Anne Peirson-Smith2 & Adam Geczy3
1 Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand. Email: paul.mountfort (at) aut.ac (dot) nz
2 City University of Hong Kong, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Email: enanneps (at) cityu.edu (dot) hk
3 University of Sidney, Sidney, Australia. Email: adam.geczy (at) sydney.edu (dot) au
* This is an extract from Chapter 3 of Planet Cosplay: Costume Play, Identity and Global Fandom, by Paul Mountfort, Anne Peirson-Smith and Adam Geczy (Bristol, UK: Intellect Books; Chicago, US: University of Chicago Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission by Intellect Books. Note that this version may display minor editorial differences to the final published version.
Cosplay is a performance medium in which embodied textual citation and photographic practices come together and sometimes collide. Moreover, photography both documents and preconditions elements of the cosplay performance, via visual genres typically spanning those of the fashion runway, studio and ‘hallway’ shoots. This chapter brings these textual and visual analyses together to present a situated photo-essay shot in the candid style. It documents five years of an Australasian-based fan convention that celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2015, the Auckland Armageddon Expo. In doing so it offers a snapshot, as it were, of a half decade of ‘glocalized’ cosplay practice. The term ‘glocalization’ refers to twin processes at work in late capital. Firstly, capital and regulatory frameworks elide from the national upwards to the global scale and reciprocally downwards to the scale of the local. Secondly, economic activities and networks between business entities become simultaneously more localized, regionalized and transnational.[i] This model has been widely applied to the sphere of cultural capital and is of particular relevance to cosplay, which tends to grow by osmosis out of local conditions but owes its provenance to wider networks of cultural production and associated fandoms.
Armageddon is an instance of the organic way in which glocalized conventions develop and proliferate. It began as a comics and trading card event in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1995 with follow-ups in 1997, and within a few short years had spread to the capital city, Wellington (1998), and on to Melbourne, Australia (1999).[ii] Starting off in small community venues, progressing to more major urban events centres, and on to large-scale convention spaces, the Expo has evolved into a major regional sci-fi, comics and gaming convention with over 80 events to date, some 70,000 annual visitors in its home city and 130,000 across its Australasian diaspora. In aggregate, it is, therefore, close in scale to San Diego’s annual Comic-Con and exhibits a similar mix of cultural and industry practices. While the Auckland Expo has some factors that are specific to its geographic location, genealogy as a gaming and fan con, specifics of the main site and its mix of events, the photos in this chapter could have been taken at almost any con in the western world, both in terms of the diversity of participants and the franchises, storyworlds and other source media texts represented in the costumes on display. The first part of the commentary, which follows, discusses the range of sources being cited—the individual trees amid the forest of citations—along with some identifiable trends in the 50 photographs that comprise this selection.
With the identity of the cosplayers included in this chapter being anonymous, the focus of discussion here is on the characters and source texts identifiable in the sample of photos on display, and the popular cultural milieu out of which they have arisen. Many of the sources being mined here are comparatively ‘timeless,’ harking back decades to milestones in their respective media, such as the 2014 San cosplay and crossplay (Figures 23 and 40) inspired by Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime) (1997).[iii] Half a decade is long enough, however, for micro-historical forces to operate in fan cultures, wherein recent movies, games and media elements enjoy rapid waves of meme-like popularity. Of course, even the most up-to-the-minute sources being cosplayed may spring from long-lived media franchises. For instance, Marvel or DC’s blockbuster transmedia storyworlds have comic book precursors going back to the 1930s and 1940s. However, particular movie or game adaptions are often very specific: for example, a 2012 costume of The Joker (Figure 2) is not any old joker but identifiably Heath Ledger’s Joker from Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). Similarly, the 2016 release of the movie Suicide Squad, set in the DC Comics universe, indelibly marked the portrayal of Harley Quinn in that year.[iv] Nor do new waves of influence always overwhelm old favourites: stormtroopers and even sets from the original Star Wars (1977–83) trilogy jostle alongside Sith and other characters from the more recent prequels and sequels (Figures 25, 35 and 36).[v]
Identifying the ‘trees’ in the forest of citations that comprise even a medium-size convention would prove a challenging, if not impossible, task for even the most pop culturally literate geek or otaku. This is because, as we have seen, cosplay draws on multiple media sources: comics, movies, manga, anime, games, pop idols and other media identities, as well as online memes. Most, though not all, of the costumes in this essay proved readily identifiable.[vi] However, others were more elusive, with some cosplay, being, in any case, modelled after what Matthew Hales terms a generic (as opposed to discrete) character type[vii] or fashion style rather than a titular protagonist—though these two dimensions (character type and style) often go hand in hand. Common western character types include vampires, zombies and other genera of the undead, who shuffle convention spaces alongside Japanese-inspired samurai, ninjas, shōnen (boys) and shōjo (girls), including sub-types such as bishōnen (beautiful boys) and mahōshōjo (magical girls). Among the most important generic styles—which may comprise not just fashion but lifestyles—are Lolita and steampunk. As previously discussed, these styles have often infected source media, such as anime and manga. Furthermore, crossovers and mash-ups abound, especially at larger cons with more established player communities who have the confidence to push cosplaying boundaries. This said, superhero action franchises, sci-fi and fantasy television shows, multi-season anime series and protagonists from popular gameworlds tend to be the dominant fauna at most cosplay cons.
There are identifiable cultural fashions within cosplay, and one of the affordances of an extended photographic study is that we are able to see how the portrayal of certain characters, or iterations of certain characters, spike in relation to recent film, game and other media releases. Photos from Armageddon taken between 2012 and 2016 document a number of character iterations from Marvel and DC. Both are deep-rooted comics franchises from the early twentieth century that have had many iterations, adaptations and spin-offs over the decades, and which are now the subject of multiple big movie and television series versions. Marvel exerts a particularly powerful gravitational pull on western cosplay today, with Avenger’s franchise characters such as Captain America (Figure 32) much in evidence in the wake of the Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), The Winter Soldier (2014) and Civil War (2016) instalments.[viii] The interconnected nature of the Marvel universe, where the storylines of characters from discrete shows intersect at various junctures, rewarding fans focused on the detailed timelines and backstories, provides the perfect template for the kind of vast inter-referential networks that operate within the cosphere.
In recent years DC has made serious moves to mimic Marvel’s integrated storyworlds in an attempt to establish its own universe, though with mixed success. As mentioned, ‘Heath Ledger’s’ Joker (Figure 2) was cited at Armageddon in 2012, four years after the release of DC’s The Dark Knight (2008). Ledger’s Joker attained iconic status not just through his riveting performance and the relative critical acclaim of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy[ix] but also due to the actor’s tragic death in the same year as the movie’s release, which cemented his cult following in popular culture and ensured both actor and character iteration a viral afterlife. Nolan’s trilogy restored a cachet to the Batman storyworld notably lacking for DC in the pantheon of contemporary popular culture, including cosplay circles. Hence characters such as the Scarecrow (Figure 25),[x] who was the only villain of genuine vintage to star in the entire rebooted Batman trilogy (2005–12), Bane and Harley Quinn (Figure 5) showing up in cosplaying circles following the 2012 release of The Dark Knight Rises, even though Quinn does not appear in this particular trilogy. She has had many iterations and her popularity spiked in 2016’s Armageddon in response to Suicide Squad’s (2016) fishnet stockings and baseball bat toting version (Figure 39, 50), even though the movie itself was ambivalently received. Superman and Wonder Woman undergo periodic revivals, with 2016’s Armageddon showcasing both female and crossplaying versions (Figure 48) in anticipation of the Wonder Woman’s 2017 Warner Brothers’ reboot directed by Patty Jenkins, while the Green Arrow (Figure 44) from DC’s The Arrow (2012–) television series reboot also put in a guest appearance.[xi]
While some character iterations clearly follow more or less ephemerally on the heels of a movie or other media release, others enjoy relative longevity. For example, at Armageddon 2014 stormtroopers from the first Star Wars (1977) movie (Figure 25), a Ringwraith (Figure 21) and Quidditch player (Figure 20) were in evidence despite the original Star Wars trilogy dating back to 1977–83, Lord of the Rings from 2001–13 and Harry Potter from 2001–11.[xii] Of course, like the DC and Marvel storyworlds, these cinematic works have deep and massive roots in popular culture, functioning practically as cultural mythologies in the west, and continue to have currency courtesy of the follow up Star Wars prequels, sequels and spinoffs (1999–), The Hobbit movie adaptation (2013–14) and Potter prequel (2016).[xiii] The troupe of stormtroopers who posed in 2014 against a lovingly re-created backdrop from the original Death Star returned in 2015 to find themselves joined by a red guard (Figure 35) from Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones 2002 and a scruffy ‘sandtrooper’ from the extended Star Wars universe (Figure 36). Characters from the wider Star Wars universe may also make cameos, such as the Twi’lek woman from Armageddon 2014 (Figure 27). Although not an identifiable character from the canon, such as Aayla Secura, she is clearly a member of the alien species that figure in the television series Star Wars:The Clone Wars (2008–15). Creative adaptations from the storyworld are fairly common in cosplay, and could be described as fan-driven spinoffs, akin to fanfiction’s world building.
Legacy movies that are not part of a larger franchise or storyworld can also provide cosplayers with material, especially where the imagery is iconic or has proved to ‘have legs’ in popular culture. Examples include the ubiquitous V For Vendetta (2006) masks that reference not only the film, but the Occupy movement, the cyber-insurgent group Anonymous and, more recently, NBC-Universal hacktivist drama Mr. Robot (2015–), in a feedback loop of popular cultural inter-referentiality (Figure 29).[xiv] Of course, anonymous masks may also be a cheap and easy way to simulate cosplay while retaining an aura of subcultural capital that other mass-produced masks do not convey. A movie’s cult status may ensure the relative immortality of its characters in the cosphere, such as the appearance of the eponymous heroine (Figure 37) from Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005) coming back to life in 2015.[xv] Long running movie series spread out over years mean that the distinction between legacy and current characters is often fluid. Pirates of the Caribbean’s (2003–)[xvi] Jack Sparrow is the source of numerous memes and has been widely cosplayed, there even being a professional cosplayer in Italy who has based his career on cosplaying Sparrow. ‘Jack’s’ appearance at Armageddon in 2016 could be a back reference to instalments 1–4 of the seemingly endless Pirates movie franchise mill, or may have anticipated 2017’s much dreaded Dead Men Tell No Tales.
There are character iterations, and then there are regenerations (when dealing with a certain 2822-year-old Timelord). Among the many television shows that jostle for attention with characters from live action movies, the long-running British sci-fi series Doctor Who (1963–) is a particularly popular media source. Contemporary characters (e.g. Madame Vastra, Figure 18) rub shoulders with both ‘classic’ and more recent iterations of the Doctor, as do daleks and newer menaces such as Weeping Angels, the Master in ‘his’ gender bending guise of Missy and The Ood (Figure 26). Along with sci-fi shows, quasi-historical series such as Spartacus (2010–13), represented by a slave gang (Figure 38) and, particularly, fantasy TV shows have massive constituencies, with Game of Thrones (2011–) being a major source of cosplay performance.[xvii]Occasionally, characters from popular novels that are not transmediated, such as the titular hero (Figure 24) from Skulduggery Pleasant (2007–), are cosplayed, ostensibly based on book cover and fan art.[xviii]
Western animation is sometimes adapted for cosplay, notable examples being Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–8) and The Legend of Korra (2012–14) (Figure 7).[xix] However, Japanese visual media comprise the twin lodestar, along with western live action films and television, around which contemporary cosplay gravitates globally. This is doubtless due to the sheer profusion of visual riches and the subcultural cachet afforded by Japanese manga, anime and gaming. As with live action, characters from classic anime staples continue to appear, such as the face-painted, dagger-wielding San (Figures 23 and 40) from Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime) (1997), along with many other Studio Ghibli characters and those from other anime studios, such as Toei Animation, Sunrise, Production I.G., Madhouse, Manglobe, Studio Pierrot, PA Works, Kyoto Animation and Bones. Characters from anime TV series spotted at Armageddon include Menma (Figure 9) from A-1 Picture’s Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai) (2011), Q (Figure 1) from [C] The Money of Soul and Possibility Control (2011), Mami Tomo (Figure 42) from Puella Magi Madoka Magica (Mahō Shōjo Madoka Magika) (2011), along with abundant fauna from big ticket franchises such as One Piece (Wan Pīsu) (1997–), Bleach (Burīchi) (2001–) and Naruto (1999–) (Figure 10).[xx]
Game characters are a widely represented—and perhaps the fastest growing—fictional demographic at cosplay cons, doubtless due to the massively increased penetration of gaming platforms into people’s homes in the early twenty-first century. Among the many examples of stand-alone game series characters in 2016, for example, was Shay Patrick Cormack (Figure 49) from Assassin’s Creed (2007–).[xxi] However, games are widely transmediated and evince complex relations with other media. There are, of course, the manga/anime/trading game tie-ins, resulting in cons being stacked with endless Pokémon (1995–)[xxii] characters along with identities from other systems such as Yami (Figure 30) from Yu–Gi–Oh! (Yū Gi–Ōh!) (1996–).[xxiii] These franchises are truly gargantuan, with Pokémon alone having grossed close to US $50 billion prior to the release in 2015 of the short-lived augmented reality (AR) craze for Pokémon GO.[xxiv] Their reach and formative influence on Millennials and Generation Z make it unsurprising that they constitute a major source for cosplay performance. Many characters and storyworlds migrate from manga to anime and onto gaming platforms, such as Naruto and One Piece. Indeed, the anime/games crossover is a huge subject that could easily comprise a book in itself.
Quite apart from trading games, there is a broad distinction between games that have evolved out of manga/anime source-texts and those that were games first but have subsequently been made into movies or television series. Thus, for example, the Colossal Titan (Figure 15) from Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) (2009–) references an acclaimed series that has also spawned official and unofficial games, while Namine and Roxas (Figure 8) are avatars from Kingdom Hearts (Kingudamu Hātsu) (2002–), a role-playing action game in the crossover genre—in this case Japanese studio Square Enix’s characters occupying a setting from the Disney universe.[xxv]Final Fantasy (Fainaru Fantajī) (1987–) is a long-running gaming franchise that was transmediated from the original games into films, while Tomb Raider (1996–) started as a game and was adapted to comics and into movies.[xxvi] Lara Crofts of various iterations remain a convention favourite throughout the west (Figure 41), though she is not unknown in Asia. Some game characters riff off anime genres, such as the magical girl anime style of Monimi Usami (Figure 45) from Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair(Sūpā Danganronpa Tsū: Sayonara Zetsubō Gakuen) (2012),[xxvii] despite, or perhaps because of, the game itself being shōnon (young male). Indeed, the abstracted look of many avatars and certain generic conventions in the depiction of costuming and weapons both here and in some anime can make identification of such cosplay sources difficult. For example, some Samurai cosplay (Figure 13) and fantasy figures (Figure 28) can be hard to distinguish from the general type. Similarly, it can be difficult without asking to tell at first glance if a particular player is Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow or The Hobbit’s (2012–14) Thor Okenshield (Figure 7). There are whole books devoted to making Japanese Kimono-inspired costumes, ‘because doing so requires specialized dressmaking skills that are different from western dress-making techniques’[xxviii] and the resulting kimono and yakata cosplay (Figures 33 and 34) can be hard to distinguish as genera or specific character references.
In Japan, characters from transmedia storytelling franchises are sometimes also pop cultural idol (aidoru) figures who may embody, or are embodied by, real-life avatars, from media celebrities to café ‘maids’ and ‘butlers.’ Some also may be stand-alone complexes, so to speak. The Hatsune Miku cosplay (Figure 43) at Armageddon 2016 comes from a digital avatar used in a synthesizer application Hatsune Miku (2007–) by Crypton Future Media.[xxix] As a further complication, there are the previously mentioned generic character types such as zombies (Figure 31) and fashion subcultures, such as Lolita and steampunk (Figure 7) that may or may not allude to films and games in which specific Lolis and steampunk characters figure. In some cases one might initially mistake the sackcloth and noose tooting costume from 2014 that was DC’s Scarecrow (Figure 22) as a repurposed Halloween mask. Increasingly prevalent is meme cosplay, which is hard to identify for those not in on the joke, and which tends to have a fairly rapid turnover, though less so perhaps in coser circles than online. Examples of this include the Onision ‘I’m a Banana’ (Figure 12) meme from 2009 and zipper-face (Figure 14) and zombie nurse (Figure 31) memes observed at Armageddon 2013 and 2014, respectively (the former meme dates back to at least 2011). More generic garb, such as the not-uncommon ‘horse head’ masks (Figure 17), may be adopted as an easy way to come costumed to a convention and to create dramatic effect on the cheap. Finally, where the current gallery of photographs is concerned, there are shots that document typical kinds of convention activity from milling around outside the convention (Figure 4) to common commercial features of the covered exhibition halls. These include the promotional application of prosthetics (Figure 3), themed mannequins (Figure 6) and sale of merchandise, such as mood-reflecting nekomimi (cat ears) sold at booths on the convention floor (Figure 11). These ‘costplay’ zones await further documentation within the archives of cosphotography, as do many other domains, both physical and virtual, of the ever-expanding cosphere.
Note: Many comic, film, television and game series have multiple directors and are the result of collaboration between several studios, production houses and distributors. For the sake of brevity, the following references limit credit to the main one or two directors, with additional directors noted by et al. Author’s names appearing before titles refer to comics or literary works. Production credit is generally given to the distributor, often a dominant partner in the production, due to many works being the result of collaborations with multiple studios. Readers who wish to know more about the specific commercial and artistic collaborations that give rise to specific productions can find detailed info
[i] See Erik Swyngedouw, ‘Globalisation or “Glocalisation”? Networks, Territories and Rescaling,’ Cambridge Review of International Affairs 17, no. 1 (April 2004).
[iii]Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime), directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Tokyo: Studio Ghibli, 1997), Anime film.
[iv]Suicide Squad, directed by David Ayer (New York: Warner Brothers, 2016), Film.
[v]Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, directed by George Lucas (Century City: 20th Century Fox, 1999), Film; Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones, directed by George Lucas (Century City: 20th Century Fox, 2002), Film; Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, directed by George Lucas (Century City: 20th Century Fox, 2005), Film; Star Wars IV: A New Hope, directed by George Lucas (Century City: 20th Century Fox, 1977), Film; Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, directed by Irvin Kershner (Century City: 20th Century Fox, 1980), Film; Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi, directed by Richard Marquand (Century City: 20th Century Fox, 1983), Film; Star Wars: The Clone Wars, produced by Dave Filoni (US: Disney/ABC, 2015), Film; Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, directed by J. J. Abrams (Century City: 20th Century Fox, 2015), Film.
[vi] Grateful thanks to Jasmin Darnell, Fin Mountfort, Felix Mountfort and to Sye Johnson and his cosplaying circle, for assistance provided to the authors in the identification of cosplay characters and other storyworld, gameworld and media content for this chapter.
[vii] Matthew Hale, ‘Cosplay: Intertextuality, Public Texts, and the Body Fantastic,’ Western Folklore 73, no. 1 (2014): 10–14.
[viii]Captain America: The First Avenger, directed by Joe Johnston (Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 2011), Film; Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Antonio Russo and Joe Russo (Burbank: Walt Disney Studios, 2014), Film; The Avengers, directed by Antonio Russo and Joe Russo (Burbank: Walt Disney Studios, 2014), Film; Captain America: Civil War, directed by Antonio Russo and Joe Russo (Burbank: Walt Disney Studios, 2016), Film.
[ix]Batman Begins, directed by Christopher Nolan (New York: Warner Brothers, 2005), Film; The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan (New York: Warner Brothers, 2008), Film; The Dark Knight Rises, directed by Christopher Nolan (New York: Warner Brothers, 2012), Film.
[x]Scarecrow, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, et al. (Burbank: DC Comics, 1941), Comic book.
[xi]Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shudter, et al. (Burbank: DC Comics, 1938–), Film; Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins (New York: Warner Brothers, 2017), Film; The Arrow, Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and Andrew Kreisberg (New York: Warner Brothers, 2012), Film.
[xii]The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson (Wellington, New Zealand: Wingnut Films, 2001), Film; The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, directed by Peter Jackson (Wellington, New Zealand: Wingnut Films, 2003), Film; The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, directed by Peter Jackson (Wellington, New Zealand: Wingnut Films, 2002), Film; Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, directed by Chris Columbus (New York: Warner Brothers, 2001), Film; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, directed by Chris Columbus (New York: Warner Brothers, 2002), Film; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuarón (New York: Warner Brothers, 2004), Film; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, directed by Mike Newell (New York: Warner Brothers, 2005), Film; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, directed by David Yates (New York: Warner Brothers, 2007), Film; Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, directed by David Yates (New York: Warner Brothers, 2009), Film; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 1, directed by Mike Newell (New York: Warner Brothers, 2010), Film; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2, directed by Mike Newell (New York: Warner Brothers, 2011), Film.
[xiii]The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson (New York: Warner Brothers, 2012), Film; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, directed by Peter Jackson (New York: Warner Brothers, 2013), Film; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, directed by Peter Jackson (New York: Warner Brothers, 2014), Film.
[xiv]V For Vendetta, directed by James McTeigue (New York: Warner Brothers, 2006), Film; Mr. Robot, Sam Esmail (US: NBC/Universal Television, 2015), TV series.
[xv]Corpse Bride, directed by Tim Burton (New York: Warner Brothers, 2005), Film.
[xvi]Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, directed by Gore Verbinski (Burbank: Walt Disney Studios, 2003), Film; Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, directed by Gore Verbinski (Burbank: Walt Disney Studios, 2006), Film; Pirates of the Caribbean: At the World’s End, directed by Gore Verbinski (Burbank: Walt Disney Studios, 2007), Film; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, directed by Rob Marshall (Burbank: Walt Disney Studios, 2011), Film.
[xvii]Doctor Who, created by Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber and Donald Wilson (London: BBC, 1963–), TV series; Spartacus, Steven S. DeKnight (Meridian: Starz, 2010–13), TV series; Game of Thrones, directed by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss (New York: HBO, 2011–), TV series.
[xviii] Derek Landy, Skulduggery Pleasant (London: Harper Collins, 2007).
[xix]Avatar: The Last Airbender, Micheal Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (US: Nickelodeon, 2005–8), Animated TV series; The Legend of Korra, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (US: Nickelodeon, 2012–14), Animated TV series.
[xx]Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai), directed by Tatsuyuki Nagai (Tokyo: A1 Pictures, 2011), Anime film; [C] The Money of Soul and Possibility Control, directed by Kenji Nakamura (Tokyo: Fuji TV, 2011), Anime TV series; Puella Magi Madoka Magica(Mahō Shōjo Madoka Magika), directed by Akiyuki Shinbo (Tokyo: Shaft, 2011), Anime TV series; One Piece: Defeat Him! The Pirate Ganzack! (Wan Pīsu: Taose! Kaizoku Gyanzakku), directed by Gorō Taniguchi (Tokyo: Fuji TV, 1988), Anime TV film; Eiichiro Oda, One Piece (Wan Pīsu) (Tokyo: Jump Comics, 1997), Manga; One Piece (WanPīsu), directed by Konosuke Uda et al. (Tokyo: Jump Comics, 2003), Anime TV series; One Piece: Romance Drawn Story! (One Piece: Romansu Dōn Stori), directed by Katsumi Tokoro (Tokyo: Toei Animation, 2003), Anime film; Tite Kubo, Bleach (Burīchi) (Tokyo: Jump Comics, 2001), Manga; Bleach (Burīchi), directed by Noriyuki Abe (Tokyo: TV Tokyo, 2004–12), Anime TV series; Bleach Nintendo Home Console (Sega, 2005), Console game; Masashi Kishimoto, Naruto (Tokyo: Shōnen Jump, 1999–2014), Manga; Naruto, directed by Hayato Date (Tokyo: TV Tokyo, 2002–7), Anime TV series; Naruto Shippuden, directed by Hayato Date (Tokyo: TV Tokyo, 2007–), Anime TV series.
[xxi]Assassin’s Creed (Carentoir, France: Ubisoft Entertainment SA, 2007–), Computer game.
[xxii]Pokémon, directed by Kunihiko Yuama et al. (Tokyo: The Pokēmon Company International, 1997–), Anime TV series.
[xxiii] Kazuki Takahashi, Yu-Gi-Oh (Yū Gi-Ōh!) (Tokyo: Weekly Shōnen Jump, 1996–2004), Manga; Yu-Gi-Oh (Yū Gi-Ōh!), directed by Hiroyuki Kakudō (Tokyo: Toei Animation, 1998), Anime TV series; Yu-Gi-Oh (Yū Gi-Ōh!) Duel Monsters, directed by Kumihisa Sugishima (Tokyo: TV Tokyo, 2000–4), Anime TV series.
[xxv]Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin), directed by Hajime Isayama (Tokyo: Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine, 2009), Anime TV series; Kingdom Hearts (Kingudamu Hātsu), Tetsuya Nomura and Shinji Hashimoto (Tokyo: Nintendo Entertainment System, 2002), Anime TV series.
[xxvi]Final Fantasy (Fainaru Fantajī), created by Hironobu Sakaguchi (Tokyo: Nintendo Entertainment System, 1987), Console game; Tomb Raider (London: Eidos Interactive, 2001–), Console game; Tomb Raider (Los Angeles: Top Crow, 1997); Tomb Raider, directed by Simon West (Hollywood: Paramount Pictures, 2001), Film.
Squids Odyssey is a role-playing game by French studio The Game Bakers. It is the latest entry in the Squids franchise, released in 2014 for Nintendo 3DS and WiiU, and more recently, in 2018 for PC and Nintendo Switch.
The fun fact about our Squids games is that we were actually all fascinated by octopuses and cephalopods in general long before we created the game. We even almost named our game studio “Happy Squids”… It was when we were working on the game mechanics and looking for some characters that could be “stretchable” on an iPhone screen that we thought about “tentacles”. Then we knew it was a perfect fit! We started designing our little heroes inspired by real octopuses, squids and other cephalopods.
We did a lot of research to get inspiration on shapes and colors, but of course there is also a lot of redesign in cartoon style so sometimes it might be hard to see the direct reference. But you can still recognize a few: for instance, Clint was inspired on the vampire squid. Baron, the bad guy in the story, is inspired by a more regular octopus.
We also looked at shrimps and crabs for the enemies. The big boss of the first game is a coconut crab, while a basic enemy you meet in the game is a hermit crab. You can tell the influences directly from the designs.
We took inspiration from other real underwater fauna and flora for the environment design. Even their habitations or their helmets are inspired by things you can find on the bottom of the sea. And in the comic book, we extended the character design to fish; for instance, one of the characters was inspired on a swordfish. In our game, squids and turtles actually cooperate, even though this might not be the case in real life.
For simplification, our little characters only have 4 arms. It’s funny that we’ve been told by some members of our Japanese audience – experts in octopuses and squids – that our little heroes did not look enough like these animals!
ABOUT THE TEAM
The Game Bakers are an indie game studio founded by Emeric Thoa and Audrey Leprince, and based in Montpellier, France. Besides the Squids franchise, they are also responsible for the acclaimed Furi and the upcoming Haven.
 Squids and cuttlefish have 8 arms and 2 tentacles. Octopuses have 8 arms and no tentacles.
 Shrimps, crabs and lobsters are crustaceans and belong to the Phylum Arthropoda, alongside insects and arachnids. They are not related to cephalopods, which belong in the Phylum Mollusca alongside snails and clams.
Through the Darkest of Times is a historical strategy video game taking place in Berlin during the Third Reich, from Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933 to Germany’s surrender in 1945. The player leads a civilian resistance group fighting off the new regime how they can. The resistance is made up of common people, from all walks of life, so it’s the leader’s job to win hearts and minds and hold the group together. The player will be responsible for planning the group’s activity and survive by avoiding the Gestapo. All of this while actual history unfolds outside: the game follows the actual historical time-line, which influence the player’s options. The game is under development by Berlin-based studio Paintbucket Games, made up by the duo Jörg Friedrich and Sebastian Schulz. It will be published by HandyGames in the near future and is already listed on Steam.
The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed Jörg Friedrich to understand how such a unique game like Through the Darkest of Times came to be. You can read the full interview below.
Q: On your website, you mention that a game focusing on the civil resistance during Third Reich Germany just had to be made. We agree, of course, but would you care to elaborate a little more on this?
A: The story of civilian resistance fighters in Germany is a story that people must learn about – these normal people with families, with normal jobs, saw what was going on the world and decided they had to do something against it. They went underground and risked their lives to stop an inhumane regime.
We think this is a story that must be told.
As political people, certain developments in the world, the fact that we see fascists rise again, here in Germany but also in many more countries in Europe and in the US, worries us a lot. In 2017 we wondered what we could do about this and the only thing we are good at is making games, so we thought “hey let’s make a game that takes an anti-fascist stance and maybe it will make the world a better place!”
As game developers and artists, we like to push the boundaries of the medium. Sebastian and I met when we were working for YAGER, where we made a game called Spec Ops: The Line – an AAA shooter that asked players to shoot people and blamed them when they did. It was supposed to make players feel bad.
Back in 2012 this was special. It felt like a game that needed to be made. We felt like pioneers, we felt like we tried something new by taking a new stance on war and on war in games.
Making Through the Darkest of Times feels similar – we try to find a new way on how games treat Nazism.
Q: Do you believe game developers have a responsibility when representing History? Should this come before artistic freedom?
A: We learn history not only at school, but also from the stories told to us by movies, books and well – video games.
But if someone would learn everything he knows about Nazism from games, he might conclude that Nazis are villains like the Empire in Star Wars: somewhat evil, but they have cool uniforms and tanks and are in the end just a faction like any other.
I find it problematic, that most games with Nazis don’t even mention the murderous anti-Semitism, the slow rise of Fascism or the Shoa.
I know that these games usually have no bad intention by omitting these facts, they often do it to avoid controversy. But honestly: if you think mentioning the historical crimes of the Nazis is inappropriate for your game, maybe picking Nazis as a faction or theme for your game is what is inappropriate here.
Q: Nazism seems to have become just another Hollywood trope nowadays. Are you concerned about how Nazi Germany is depicted in current games?
A: Here is the problem: if your game is about Nazis, but in your game, they do not commit any war crimes, there is no Auschwitz, no Shoa, then you create a historical narrative in which the Nazis didn’t commit these crimes.
And that’s the narrative that is told by Neo-Nazis who try to white-wash historical Nazism, so people are less hesitant to open for far-right ideologies.
Video games is the most important narrative medium of our time – as developers we must take responsibility and tell things the way they happened just as movies did a couple of decades ago.
Q: Current gaming culture is often referred to as toxic, where sexist, racist, homophobic behavior unfortunately abound. Do you believe that might be related to the ideals that games historically presented? Can game developers help change this culture?
A: Yes, I think so. The way games were marketed since the 1990’s until recently, towards young men, featuring the ideal of tough white guys who like hot girls and solve problems with their guns, appealed to a specific type. And this type feels now entitled to games. They think it is their medium and that developers need to create games for them and only for them.
This was never true, because of course there were always all kinds of people playing video games, but we now have this extremely entitled, extremely loud and toxic bunch of guys who yell the loudest and think they can dominate the Internet and our medium.
We must not let them. We must not listen to their demands; leave them stew in their own juice and just ignore them. Let’s make games that are open and inclusive, for an open and diverse audience instead of making games for the Christchurch killer.
Q: So, let’s turn to the game now. What exactly is the players’ goal in Through the Darkest of Times?
A: You play a leader of a civilian resistance group in Berlin in 1933 when Hitler becomes chancellor. You try to fight the regime with acts of sabotage and later attacks, educate people and let them know the truth about the Nazis’ plans and their doings, and help the persecuted, by hiding them or getting them out of the country.
Your goal is to persist as a group until the end of the war and do as much of the three things mentioned as possible without being caught by the Gestapo.
In order to achieve this you need to send your members on missions and organize resources necessary for your fight.
The group members are civilians, who are suddenly thrown into a situation where they must do something illegal and risk their life to resist the regime. Members have different biographies and political views, which can lead to conflicts within the group and keeping up morale and members from simply giving up can be tough.
So you try to do as much good as you can and lead you and your group through the darkest of times.
Q: There are some games out there with a healthy dose of historical backgrounds, such as Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts and Assassin’s Creed. How does Through the Darkest of Times approach History?
A: Every turn in the game is one historical week. At the beginning of each turn you get the news with what happened in that week – based on the historical events of that week. But history influences the game mechanics too: at the beginning you don’t need to be too worried, there are even public protests against the regime happening in the streets where you and your group can join. But over time, the repression increases; after the Reichstag fire, the city is full of SA and things are dangerous; and once the Gestapo is founded and the first concentration camp is built, things are dangerous.
There are also big historical events that you witness through narrative sequences to give you more a feeling of being there, than just in the strategy mode.
History also influenced the looks of the game. Sebastian was inspired by German expressionists of the 1920’s who were later banned by the Nazis as un-German art. He tried to create a look that the Nazis would have banned.
So I would say, history plays a very important role in Through the Darkest of Times.
Q: What kind of source material did you use while building the game? Books, historical documents, interviews?
A: All of this. We read a lot, we went to places and museums – luckily, as we are in Berlin and the game takes place in Berlin, there are a lot of memorial sites and local annalists we got in touch with. We read interviews of course and we talked to descendants of civilian resistance fighters.
Q: How faithfully does the game follow real-life events of the Third Reich? Can the players expect to “change the course of history”?
A: In the main game, the historical events and what you read in the news all follow the actual historical timeline. Your character, the members of the group and your supporters are fictional though, and so are their actions against the regime.
But characters and actions are inspired by real civilian resistance groups that were active in Berlin at that time, such as the Schulze-Boyssen/Harnack group or the Jochen-Baum group.
Most of the missions wouldn’t have an impact on grand politics – if this is what you mean by “changing history”. However, the way we see it, history is not only changed by generals and leaders but by all of us.
Who saves people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea today is changing history – more than most politicians and in a better way if you ask me.
But since we have all these rogue-like elements in the game and since we like the idea, we are thinking about a second mode – a “New Game+” if you want – in which events happen less predictably and you might be able to stop the regime before the end of the war.
Q: Do you hope players will learn something about German and World History by playing Through the Darkest of Times?
A: When I talk to people about the Nazi time they often have the idea that it started with war and holocaust right away. But it didn’t. Hitler got elected. He became chancellor in a legal way, because we had conservatives who thought that they could handle a fascist in power and that this would still be better than the left – 12 years later half of Europe was destroyed and millions of people had died.
I hope people might be able to recognize the patterns when playing Through the Darkest of Times when they look at what is going on in the real world.
Q: Is there any takeaway message you’d like the players to get from your game?
A: It would be great if our players took away the same message that we took away when we started to learn about civilian resistance fighters: some developments are so wrong, they are so evil, that we have to overcome our day to day disputes, unite and fight for the fundamental human rights even if it means taking a risk.
About the Team
Paintbucket Games is a Berlin-based indie game studio founded by two ex-AAA developers. Jörg Friedrich does design and code and Sebastian Schulz does art and design. They have been making games for more than 13 years each and worked on 10 of those together. Among the several titles they worked on are: Spec Ops: The Line, Dead Island 2, Albion Online, and Desperados 2.
HISTORYING, PUBLIC HISTORYING, AND HISTORICAL VIDEO GAMES
While traditional history, as a discipline, is important, that should not obscure the fact that doing history, sometimes called “historying,” is something everyone does. For history is fundamentally just the communication of the past through a medium (Dening, 2006; Chapman, 2016). That is certainly the case when the most traditional forms of history are crafted by academic historians: books and textbooks. The dominance of text and speech in history classes should not mislead us: they are not the only media for communicating the past and certainly not the only legitimate media (McCall, 2012b). There are many more, and once we leave the realm of academic historians, it’s easy to find pretty much everyone doing history in some form. They do this when they tell a story about their day, draw a picture about their vacation, or debate something that happened in their peer group. Film, painting, theater, sculpture, toys, music, even social media can and often do communicate aspects of the past and, when they do, they are history.
So, historical video games certainly qualify as a medium that can do history, that can communicate aspects of the past. To use a more formal term, historical video games are a form of public history. Because the term’s meaning varies widely, for purposes of this article, let’s define public history as any communication of the past crafted outside traditional academia with little or no involvement of academic historians. This includes games whose designers read published histories and even games where an academic historian was on board as a consultant but did not make the driving decisions in the design process (McCall, 2018).
So, what makes a video game count as historical? This is another area of debate, but a useful broad definition runs like this: a historical game “has to begin at a clear point in real world history, and that history has to have a manifest effect on the nature of the game experience” (MacCallum-Stewart & Parsler, 2007). This definition works for most commercial games set in the past: the big budget titles Call of Duty: World War II, Total War: Rome 2, and Battlefield One; Sid Meier’s Civilization series (now for almost three decades with III, IV , and V still sold and VI released in late 2016); Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey (and many earlier entries in the series); the favorite games of last decade like Stronghold, Sid Meier’s Pirates, and even Age of Empires; and hosts of recent games by independent developers such as Field of Glory II,Egypt: Old Kingdom, Bomber Crew, Nantucket, and TheCurious Expedition.
Some games that connect to the past, however, are more difficult to categorize. Wolfenstein: New Order, for example, imagines a counterfactual history where Nazi Germany conquers the United States in 1948. The game begins in 1960. Not a historically documented world of 1960, but a counterfactual United States ruled by Nazis. Though Wolfenstein deals with important historical topics like the Holocaust, it does not neatly fit the definition of a historical game noted above (McCall & Chapman, 2017, 2018).
Games in Assassin’s Creed series, on the other hand, do begin at a clear point in real world history but focus on player characters that did not exist (Altair, Ezio, Bayek, Kassandra) occupying roles (Assassins and Templars in cabals) that did not exist historically – at least not according to the best evidence and analysis. It’s best to remember that, ultimately, categories like “historical games” are useful not for their rigid application but only insofar as they help us focus on what is essential. Accordingly, this article is concerned primarily – but not exclusively – with exploring those games that fit the narrower definition of historical games most neatly: large-budget games like Civilization, Total War, Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Call of Duty,Battlefield, and countless independent games like Field of Glory II and Bomber Crew. Despite their many differences, these games have real-world historical settings and have player agents that – generally speaking – either existed historically or take on roles that existed historically (McCall, 2019).
HISTORICAL VIDEO GAMES: WHAT KIND OF HISTORY?
There are a great many kinds of these historical games: shooters, strategy games, adventure games, city builders, management sims, and so on. These games take two main approaches to representing the past: realist and conceptual (Chapman, 2016). Three-dimensional first- and third-person shooter games like Call of Duty, Battlefield One, and the Assassin’s Creed series take the realist approach to representing the past. Their designers present a visually verisimilitudinous environment, the past as it arguably appeared and as a world the player can navigate through the game’s protagonist. Much like historical novels, these games center on fictitious characters who act in historically documented setting but do not alter conventionally accepted larger historical narratives. So, for example, the Assassin protagonists in the Assassin’s Creed series do not alter the outcome of the French Revolutions in AC Unity or negate Cleopatra’s alliance with Julius Caesar in AC Origins as they have their adventures. Protagonist Red Daniels’ actions in Call of Duty World War 2 do not spawn an alternate history without the Allied Push through western France. Rather, the player character develops their own fictitious narrative within the backdrop of the more-or-less documented historical setting. Players decide some of the in-game protagonist’s actions but do not change the larger historical narrative.
The other main approach to historical games is the conceptual simulation approach. Games like those in the Civilization series, Total War series, and Paradox’s grand strategy games like Europa Universalis IV, Crusader Kings II, and Hearts of Iron IV focus not on showing how the past looked but telling how the systems and processes of the past functioned. They do this, not through immersive visually realistic environments, but through underlying rule sets and systems, communicated to the player through stylized and sometimes abstract symbols and graphics (Chapman, 2016). So, Civilization, for example, does not show what ancient civilizations looked like so much as tell, among other things, how geography shapes the development of civilizations. Crusader Kings II does not show how medieval barons lived but tells about the political fragmentation of medieval Europe. In these games, players can make choices that have a grand impact on historical outcomes: managing ancient Egypt to become the dominant world power by the time of the Renaissance, preventing Rome from falling, fending off the Crusaders, etc. These are approaches are not mutually exclusive, however, and many games have elements of both, such as the Total War games that combine the conceptual-style large-scale grand strategy of campaign maps and city-management screens with the more realist verisimilitudinous representations of individual soldiers and battlefields rendered in 3D.
What kind of histories are these historical video games? The vast majority whether their approaches to the past are realist, conceptual, or some combination, present that past as one or more historical problem spaces (McCall, 2012a, 2012b, 2016a, 2018). That is, they present the past in terms of:
A primary agent, the player character of the game, with one or more roles and goals, operating within
a physical space, a virtual world with an environment and geography that includes
any number of elements, including other agents modeled by the AI as non-player characters, that can afford and assist player actions, constrain player actions, or both depending on the situation; and so, the player crafts
strategies and makes decisions to take advantage of available affordances, work within or around constraints, and achieve their goal.
This certainly can be a problematic way to approach the past: It can over-emphasize agents’ conscious goal-oriented behavior and cause humans other than the primary agent to be cast as instruments (McCall, 2012b: 16–19). When applied specifically to the study of agents making decisions in systems like politics, trade, management, construction, battle and so on, however, the historical problem space approach of video games works reasonably well. For in these and other spheres, there was a great deal of conscious goal-oriented behavior, taking place in a physical geography containing elements and agents that could afford and constrain actions – terrain, weather, the physical condition of agents, their morale, and so on. Merchants and revolutionaries, soldiers and farmers, all formed strategies and made choices to reach their short- and long-term goals within their environment, their space.
Historical games model historical problem spaces in significantly different ways from narrative historical texts (McCall, 2012b: 13–21, 2016a: 8–10). The basic distinction is that games are interactive where text-narrative histories are fixed. Texts are fixed by the author and though, of course they can be interpreted in many ways by readers, the reality of the actual letters on the actual pages is objective and fixed and the narrative outcome of the text is fixed. For example, every reader that reads the book as designed will experience the same words in the same order. To that extent, the narrative outcomes of the text are fixed. Videogames (and boardgames for that matter) are interactive. The player is faced with meaningful choices and a variety of possible narrative outcomes based on those choices. Different players playing the game as designed will experience different scenes and episodes in different orders, a different narrative overall. In practice, this means historical games will necessarily include counterfactual history, events and outcomes that did not happen, but might have.
Crusader Kings II, for example, allows a player to start their games at various times in the 9th to 15th centuries CE. At any given date, the world map is divided into territories under the control of historical local rulers according to the historical evidence the game developers have been able to find. So, to use the European Middle Ages as an example, starting the game in late 1066, the player finds William of Normandy as the new king of England. The game designers did not stop with historical monarchs; lesser nobles generally correspond to historically documentable agents when that information is known, and the political boundaries of the world map change to match the history of the time and place. Thus, to a certain extent, Crusader Kings II accurately simulates the political geography of the time period in its various starting points. Once the player selects a dynasty to control and starts to play, however, the game simulates the actions of all the lords great and small in the game that the player does not control. Each lord operates according to the rules and priorities established in the game code. The player’s freedom of choice and the fact that artificial intelligence (AI) agents’ choices are coded as probabilities, not certainties, means that the narrative of gameplay will bear similarities to the broader historical context of the period and place but almost certainly not match the specific historical chronology. So, one can centralize eleventh-century England under King Harold instead of William the Conqueror, lead a Mongol king to conquer all of Eurasia, and so on (McCall, 2012b: 12–16, 2016a: 8–10, 2018: 408–409).
This key feature of historical games, interactivity and, as a result, counterfactual outcomes, makes games potentially a very powerful medium for exploring the past. Historical games, in short, can do a very good job presenting the past in terms of systems and interactions, the causal connections that made past societies and people act the way they did. They can also represent the past, to a certain extent, as it seemed to agents at the time, as a contextualized world of possibilities where agents make choices in the hopes of achieving or avoiding certain outcomes, without any certainty how everything will come out in the end. Indeed, this is how life is experienced for most of us, past and present. Interestingly, however, as Copplestone (2017) noted, the standard form of representing the past, textual history, tends to present the past as anything but open-ended, as simply a linear set of events destined to turn out the way they did. Games offer a sense of exploration, of control, of possibility, possibly a sense of sober consideration, not just passive determinism. As such they can helpfully move history education beyond the archetypal monotony of “one damned thing after another.”
Historical games generally make two kinds of claims to being historical, to conforming with evidence and scholarship about the past: implicit and explicit. Essentially, all historical games make implicit claims to having at least some accurate historical detail. Consider this: When designers craft a historical game, they can choose to make it about a historical topic and world – Civilization or Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed – or not – Scrabble, Super Mario Odyssey, and so on. By opting to connect the game to a historical world with historical names, visuals, symbols, and rules, the designers implicitly suggest the game is historical to some extent and has some level of accurate portrayal of the past – though of course that level can vary widely within and between games.
Many historical game publishers go beyond these implicit claims to claim explicitly that their games are historically accurate. “Historical accuracy” is a problematic term in-and-of itself and means different things to different people. Copplestone (2017) found in her research that many video game designers understood “accuracy” in terms of verisimilitude, correctly portraying architecture and material culture. Many players, on the other hand, considered accuracy to be judged in the degree to which a game matched something they had read (Copplestone, 2017). Gilbert (2019), however, found some players judged games to be more accurate than history texts to the extent that the games seem to espouse more diverse points of view than standard historical textbooks or teachings. Those investigating the connections between video games and history have their different definitions too and some advocate distinguishing between accuracy, defined as exact capturing of historical factual details, and authenticity, a more systems-based general feel that may err on details but gets an overall valid impression (Chapman, 2016; McCall & Chapman, 2017, 2018). Still, many would recognize historically accurate or even historically authentic representations of the past must conform to some debatable extent to sound historical evidence. In other words, they are consistent with at least some of the evidence. And this is what some game developers explicitly claim. The manual for Civilization IV, for example, boldly proclaims:
“Civilization IV is the latest iteration of Sid Meier’s Civilization, first released in the early 1990’s. From its inception the Civilization series has been acknowledged as the first and best world history simulation, lauded for its incredible depth of play and its extraordinary addictive nature.” – (2K Games, 2005)
And Paradox Interactive claims its game, Europa Universalis IV allows one to “Rule [their] nation through the centuries, with unparalleled freedom, depth and historical accuracy” (in store.steampowered.com; accessed on 04/Apr/2019). Activision, publishers of the 2017 World War II shooter, Call of Duty: WWII, crowed, “our teams at Sledgehammer and Raven (…) captured the epic scale and authentic atmosphere of the most brutal war ever fought” (Jones, 2017). Creative Assembly, makers of the historical Total War series, play with definitions some, but still claimed their historical games conform to historical evidence when a spokesperson noted, “Authenticity is probably a better word than accuracy, and that’s what we aim for” (Brown, 2013).
Historical games not only promise to connect players to a real past, however; they promise all the traditional appeals of video games, elements that shape the type of history these games deliver. Beyond the tendency to cast players as goal-oriented agents within a problem space, video games often seek to indulge power fantasies where players have not just choices, but interesting and important choices that determine the fate of the game world. And because games try to satisfy this desire to make important decisions, they tend to be made about topics that seem more readily cast in heroic terms. This is at least part of the reason why there are very few peasant agriculture history games or games about herding flocks – despite the importance of these activities in human history – but there are myriad games about battles and politics.
Several other common biases of the medium are worth noting. Beyond presenting agents as empowered goal-seekers who face interesting choices, historical games also tend to simplify and streamline the topics they cover to make them more readily graspable, and, as a result, more appealing to consumers. Converting the health of soldiers into hit-points, calculating the experience of a player agent in terms of levels, treating all the nutritional requirements of humans as a simple all-purpose food commodity, expressing diplomatic relationships as positive or negative numbers. These are all examples of simplification and abstraction (McCall, 2012b).
On top of designers’ goals to craft engaging gameplay, and the historical problem space framework, game histories – like indeed all historical media – are also shaped by their designers’ understandings of the past. At a basic level, when a designer attempts to model the past, the elements in a game function according to that designer’s understanding of the past. To give some recent examples, the Civilization series continues to emphasize the designers’ understandings that advantageous geography and the development of Western arcs of technology are primary determinants in a civilization’s success, a quantifiable success often expressed in militaristic terms. The Roman city-builder game from last decade, CivCity:Rome, has a happiness level, that is essentially a material comfort level, and this measures the success of the player. In other words, the game promotes the “bread and circuses” approach to government – give the people material gifts and entertainment, and they will be happy. The popular Total War series suggests that morale is a critical part of battles, because soldiers fight not until they die, not always anyway, but until their morale dips too low and they flee in fear. None of these understandings are necessarily in conflict with historical evidence. They simply illustrate that designer’s understandings of the past shape their games (McCall, 2010; McCall, 2014).
GAMING THE PAST: VIDEO GAMES AND HISTORICAL THINKING INSIDE AND BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
Designers do a considerable amount of historying when crafting their historical games, and this alone suffices to make them an interesting manifestation of public history for historians to explore. These games also have great potential to inspire and enhance all sorts of historical inquiries in and outside of the classroom. Since 2005, I have advocated that historical games’ ability to:
immerse and engage through choice and multi-modal channels,
provide systems-based interpretations that emphasize causal connections,
offer historical problem space approaches to understanding the past,
makes them useful tools for formal history education. Treating games as historical interpretations to critique, not as factual accounts, is critical to this approach. In other words, teachers and students should approach historical video games critically, study historical evidence, discuss ways the games simulate the past effectively and ways that they misrepresent it. This approach integrates reading historical sources, having discussions, direct instruction segments, and gameplay in class, and engaging in activities ranging from discussion to critical analytical writing, all designed to get students thinking about the historical claims of game models, and thereby, hopefully, developing a greater understanding of the past by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the game versions. At the same time, I have explored the flip side of the coin, students crafting historical simulations as a way to practice the craft of historians, think carefully about cause and effect, and explore the choices of historical agents in the past. Most recently that has manifested itself in research and work on Twine, the choice-based interactive text tool, that allows students to research and craft interactive historical texts, allows them, in short, to do interactive digital history (McCall, 2016b, 2016c). The powerful potential of historical video games as pedagogical tools for history education is just starting to be realized.
Even when not used in class as part of well-crafted learning environments, however, historical video games are an important medium of participatory public history. Players do history just by playing, for they interact with the game and engage in play that leads to historical narratives. Theorists about public history talk about the idea of shared authority, that non-academic historians, the public, can share authority for reconstructing and interpreting the past with academic historians. Game players and designers also share authority for reconstructing the past in video games. The game does nothing without a player, and so the act of playing is, in a very real sense, a dialogue between player and designer about what the past was like and how it functioned (McCall, 2018).
There is some research in this area, trying to understand what players think about as they play and reflect upon a historical game, though more is needed (Gilbert, 2019). Internet game forum discussions offer an important and largely untapped resource for investigating the historical reasoning and journeys of game players. True, most game players likely never post on game forums. So, one can rightly question how representative forum posts are of game-players’ thoughts in general. Still, they are an important resource for understanding some of the possibilities for players’ historical thinking: since the forums allow essentially any gamer to participate in them, they publicize players’ ideas ranging from support to analysis and criticism of their games. Forum threads, therefore, illustrate some of the types of experiences and understandings players can have interacting with these games. This is a critical point: the forums show a range of possible interactions with games available to anyone who wants to share their thoughts, and these interactions are no less possible for those who choose never to post. In short, the forums tell us what kind of reasoning can happen, a critical data point for those investigating historical games as media for learning history (McCall, 2018).
Forum posts suggest that some players engage in considerable amounts of historical reasoning as they reflect upon and discuss their gameplay. Discussion topics include:
the difference between a fixed representation of the past and a simulation;
the tensions that often exist between historical accuracy and engaging gameplay;
the role of counterfactual history in games;
how accurately games simulate elements of world history ranging from a historical state’s political and military power, to the role of women in the politics of a period, a religion’s characteristics, and to institutions of slavery.
Sometimes posters just assume the truth of their historical claims. Other times they provide reasonable historical statements (“facts”) to back their assertions. Occasionally, they refer to a historian’s work or text to back up their claims. In these ways, posters clearly engage in significant historical thinking on varied important topics and also think about the accuracy of the games (McCall, 2018)
In short, historical video games have an impact on how players approach and understand the past (McCall, 2018; Gilbert, 2019). Indeed, they can serve as foils for important arguments about past and present. It’s time to consider this final point in our exploration of historical video games as means of encountering, learning, and thinking about the past.
WHEN GAMES ABOUT THE PAST TROUBLE THE PRESENT
Far from desiccated topics of debate only of interest to antiquarians, video games histories inspire intense, sometimes inflammatory debates about past, how it is portrayed, whether those portrayals are historically accurate, and how those portrayals affect the present. This final section will examine a few cases where contemporary controversies have arisen about how accurately certain video games represent the past.
Some video games have proven to be politically charged in how they represent military and political powers in the past, causing some to challenge their historical accuracy. Assassin’s Creed Unity (2014), for example, places the player in control of a fictional Assassin based in Paris during the French Revolution. The game, developed by French company Ubisoft, sparked criticism from some French politicians, most notably former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon. He challenged the seemingly bourgeois depictions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as honorable victims of revolution, the radical Maximilien Robespierre, author of the Terror, as a vicious despot, and the Parisian working class as a bloodthirsty mob. Debates about these and other actors in the Revolution have existed since the time of the Revolution itself and continue to take place, now around video games (Chibber, 2014).
Company of Heroes 2, a real-time strategy game about the Eastern Front in World War 2, was released in 2013, causing an uproar among some in Eastern Europe and Russia. Some of those upset signed a digital petition, hoping to block the sale of the game in the Russian Commonwealth. Critics “review-bombed” the game, flooding a videogame review site, in this case Metacritic, with negative reviews to lower dramatically its overall review scores. At issue was the depiction of the Soviet Army and war effort in the Second World War. At different times in the game, the Soviet army is depicted as sending soldiers into battle without rifles, ordering officers to shoot any soldiers who retreated, and fielding battalions of convicted criminals. Critics suggested that these elements caricature Eastern Europeans as violent and obedient to the point of self-destruction and the Soviet state as evil. Relic defended its history and noted that there is enough evidence to suggest that two totalitarian states were brutal in their clashes on the Eastern Front and soldiers there were often caught between a rock and a hard place, between their enemies on the battlefield and their own states (Campbell, 2013).
The Civilization series, created by Sid Meier back in 1991 and now in its sixth iteration, has received significant criticism not only for its questionably accurate portrayals of the past but also the problematic messages those portrayals send to players. In this extremely popular strategy game franchise, players take on the role of leader of a “civilization.” These are ostensibly historical national leaders, but functionally deities, the guiding intelligence for their civilizations. Starting with the foundation of their first city in about 4000 BCE on a world map of earth-like or random geographic features, players navigate geography, and compete, collaborate, and fight with rival civilizations in a race to create the best civilization. Some have objected to the game’s caricature of historical figures and cultures. Other have criticized that the surest path to victory, to having the “best” civilization, is following the historical imperialist trajectory of technological and military development found in Western Civilization (Poblocki, 2002). Still others have pointed to the game’s problematic presentation of technological and industrial growth. In most playthroughs, a civilization can truly expand without to all the corners of the world, exploiting ever more land and resources, without any problematic effects on the environment. Interestingly enough, anthropogenic global warming and its effect on sea levels were built into the earliest games of the series, CivilizationI (1991) and CivilizationII (1996), and not seen as particularly controversial. The phenomenon disappeared from CivilizationsIII through V (Tharoor, 2016). Most recently the developers of CivilizationVI (2016) have released an expansion, “Gathering Storm” (2019), that adds, among other human made crises, anthropogenic climate change.
Still others have questioned how Civilization portrays certain historical leaders and cultures. Recently the Cree Nation criticized Civilization VI for including the Cree, without their consultation, as a historical civilization along with their historical chief Poundmaker. Said Cree Head Milton Tootoosis, “It perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land” (Chalk, 2018). Tootoosis further opined, “That is totally not in concert with our traditional ways and world view (…) It’s a little dangerous for a company to perpetuate that ideology that is at odds with what we know. [Chief Poundmaker] was certainly not in the same frame of mind as the colonial powers” (Chalk, 2018).
This concern about historical accuracy takes a grim turn when some argue, even against the historical evidence, that a game obscures the reality of the past in order to be “politically correct” and inclusive of diversity. Assassin’s Creed Origins (2017), for example, since its unveiling, has sparked debate and a considerable amount of racist rant and memes on Steam forums and elsewhere about the skin tones of ancient Egyptians, ancient Mediterranean peoples, and so on. Much of this discussion focused on whether Ubisoft was historically accurate in its racial portrayals of ancient Egyptians. Though not always, much of this discussion reeked of blatant efforts to promote racist ideology in the present by attempting to apply it to the past (as a search in the Steam forums under Assassin’s Creed Origins will illustrate) (Tamburro, 2017).
Similar debates about including women as protagonists in historical video games have surfaced in recent years. Creative Assembly’s Total War: Rome 2, a strategy game in which players command an ancient state and its armies, received an update in March of 2018 that increased slightly the chances of certain states to receive female generals as potential recruits. These adjustments corresponded with Creative Assembly’s release of the Desert Kingdoms CulturePack that added Kush and Nabataea, among other new playable states (Grayson, 2018; Lukomski, 2018; Scott-Jones, 2018).
Ultimately, the changes assigned some ancient states in the game a 10–15% chance to receive female generals as potential recruits. A few received greater chances. The ancient Nubian state of Kush, for example, received a 50% chance to reflect the greater frequency of women in political and military roles there. The most historically patriarchal societies – Rome, Greece, and Carthage – had no chance of recruitable female generals appearing.
Several months later, in September 2018, Creative Assembly released a tweet to respond to forum posters who did not condone the inclusion of women. The developers spoke in terms that demonstrated their interest in history and in representing the past in fairly viable, broad strokes. They stood by the changes.
Almost immediately after the tweet, negative reviewers review-bombed Total War: Rome 2 in the Steam reviews section for the game. Many of the protests claimed that the game was historically inaccurate in its inclusion of women in the game. Much of the criticism also suggested that Creative Assembly was pandering to the so-called “SJWs”, or Social Justice Warriors, a label of derision often applied in forums to designate those who are too interested in supporting diversity and inclusion (Grayson, 2018; Lukomski, 2018; Scott-Jones, 2018).
Battlefield V, a popular first-person shooter game focused on World War 2, became the topic for a similar debate. A trailer launched for the game in May 2018 included a female sniper with a prosthetic arm engaged in a pitched skirmish. Critics, often in volatile misogynistic terms, protested the game’s inclusion of playable women characters as historically inaccurate (Plunkett, 2018).
The striking feature of the Total War: Rome 2 and Battlefield 5 controversies is not so much that the critics of these aspects of the game – the inclusion of more women characters in political and militaristic historical contexts – often use inflammatory language calling out “the politically correct” and “Social Justice Warriors,” as interesting as that is. What is truly striking is that these critics levy the at-first-glance-more-objective claim that Creative Assembly and EA DICE are in the wrong because these features make their games “historically inaccurate.” In reality, however, there are any number of basic features of these games and indeed the larger Total War and Battlefield series that fail the test of historical accuracy, if that means consistency with the critically researched available historical evidence. This was pointed out by Lukomski (2018) in an insightful essay titled: “Accuracy” vs Inclusivity: Women in Historical Games. And, in fact, there is ancient evidence that in some cultures women indeed participated in the political and military conflicts of their states as rulers, generals, and even just combatants. The same is true for World War 2 where women did play combat roles, especially in the Soviet forces, legendary for lethal women snipers and an air unit, the Night Witches, composed entirely of women pilots (Arbuckle, 2016; Holland, 2017). In short, it appears a number of posters have appealed to historical accuracy to support what essentially are racist and sexist arguments to limit diversity and representation in games.
The case of Kingdom Come: Deliverance (2018, henceforth KC:D) is a particularly interesting one to end this exploration with, because of a role reversal: instead of a game developer, as in the case of Ubisoft, Creative Assembly, and EA DICE including diverse people, increasing representations of diversity, and sparking cries of historical inaccuracy, the developers of KC:D presented a largely monolithically white, patriarchal, Catholic vision of Medieval Bohemia that pushed some to question how historically accurate this un-diverse vision of the Middle Ages was. In response to a query from a reader, the blogger at People of Color in European Art History investigated the game’s Kickstarter and raised questions about the game’s very un-diverse portrayal of medieval folk in Bohemia. Angry Internet sparring followed, and ultimately KC:D lead designer, Daniel Vávra, tweeted, “would you please explain to me whats [sic] racist about telling the truth? There were no black people in medieval Bohemia. Period,” a problematically binary and ill-defined statement. In response to this doubling down, considerable debate has spawned on the Internet over whether indeed there were people of color in this small section of Medieval Bohemia.
In response to the ensuing flame war, blogger Robert Guthrie noted Vávra’s claims were misleadingly selective. There are many elements in KC:D, Guthrie (2015) notes, that are not historically accurate, but ignored in the game designers’ claims to accuracy. And so, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion captured in Guthrie’s title: “When historical accuracy is used to deny agency” (Guthrie, 2015). By insisting this exclusion of people of color and women in anything other than stock subordinate roles is required of a historically accurate game, KC:D essentially erases these groups from history, at least from the audiences of their game.
All of this raises interesting questions for historians and history teachers who hope to leverage historical video games that are, like all historical sources, limited in their scope and representation of issues and people. Historical accuracy certainly seems to be a reasonable value for history educators, and reasonably accurate historying by game designers seems to be a positive goal. But what happens if the claim of historical accuracy is used, not as the basis for civil discussion about the past and how it is represented but as a way to exclude others? There is, indeed, a critical point here. When whole groups of people are left out of historical narratives and analysis, whether in a history book, class lecture, or video game, the effect is to almost erase those peoples from the record. This is not a problem that is unique to historical video games, of course. Even the best historians must be selective in their treatments and topics and will have their own biases. Thoughtful and reasoned debate and discussion are critical to navigating the often-muddy waters of historical accuracy in video games.
And those thoughtful and reasoned debates can certainly take place in the classroom. When it comes to use in history classes, the learning experience enhanced by games will be successful to the extent educators and students ground their discussion and analysis in historical evidence. After all, a game that is largely historically inaccurate – however one wants to measure that – can still be useful for learning history because the flaws in the game provide grist for the mill of critique (McCall, 2010, 2011).
Historical games, accurate or loose, exclusive or inclusive, problematic or purposeful, are history. They communicate their designers’ understandings of the past, not only in terms of what the designers think about the past, but also in terms of what they think is important to know, engage, and remember. They offer the possibility to game the past, to immerse oneself in historical problem spaces, seek out goals, make choices, and see the impact of those choices in a causally-connected systems. Accordingly, they offer significant possibilities for learning history whether it comes to students honing their abilities to critique modern media or developing their appreciation of systems and problem spaces. Regardless of whether they are leveraged in formal history education, they communicate messages about the past that reach considerable numbers of people. They should not be ignored by anyone concerned with how the past is perceived, portrayed, and played.
Copplestone, T. (2017) But that’s not accurate: the differing perceptions of accuracy in cultural-heritage videogames between creators, consumers and critics. Rethinking History 21: 415–438.
Dening, G. (2006) Performing cross-culturally. Australasian Journal of American Studies 25: 1–11.
Gilbert, L. (2019) Assassin’s Creed reminds us that history is human experience: students’ senses of empathy while playing a narrative video game. Theory and Research in Social Education 47(1): 108–137.
McCall, J. (2011) Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History. Routledge, London.
McCall, J. (2012a) Historical simulations as problem spaces: criticism and classroom use. Journal of Digital Humanities 1(2).
McCall, J. (2012b) Navigating the problem space: the medium of simulation games in the teaching of History. The History Teacher 45: 9–28.
McCall, J. (2014) Simulation games and the study of the past: classroom guidelines. In: Kee, K. (Ed.) PastPlay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. Pp. 228–254.
McCall, J. (2016a) Teaching history with digital historical games: an introduction to the field and best practices. Simulation & Gaming 47: 517–542.
McCall, J. (2016b) Twine, inform, and designing interactive history texts. Play the Past. Available from: http://www.playthepast.org/?p=5739 (Date of access: 02/Mar/2019).
Dr. Jeremiah McCall is an historian who writes about the political and military culture of the Roman Republic and about videogames as a form of history. He teaches high school history, quite likely his true calling, at Cincinnati Country Day School, where he has been for most of the past two decades. For more details on his work, please visit Gamingthepast.net.
 History and accurate/authentic history are not the same, and a work that qualifies as history can still be a very flawed communication of the past, whether a monograph, a lecture, a visual artwork, a film, a game, etc.
It feels like a long time since Altair first adventured through the Holy Land. Now Assassin’s Creed, by Ubisoft, became one of the highest selling video game franchises of all time. It is even bigger if you consider the novels, comic books, animations, and well… that movie-thing. It is also one my top 3 favorite game series, so no wonder it would pop up on one of my articles eventually.
Besides the nice action and beautiful historical settings of Assassin’s Creed games, my favorite moments are when I suddenly stumble upon one of my real-life heroes. I enjoy talking to their in-game reconstructions and to see how they match both my expectations and the historical accounts of their real-world counterparts. Most of these people are, of course, scientists, even though some lived in a time where the word “scientist” was yet to be coined.
So, my goal here will be to show how these people are portrayed in Assassin’s Creed and how this matches reality. I will also explain their major achievements and their importance to science. But with so many games in the franchise, it would be a monumental task to write a single article with every scientist; thus, I decided to present this in parts. The first one, as you might have surmised from the title, will be about James Cook and Charles Darwin.
At first sight, this might seem a strange pairing, but it has its reasons. I’ve chosen to start with them because this year marks some anniversaries – and us humans just can’t help but be attracted to round numbers and meaningful dates. The year of 2019 marks 250 years from Cook’s historical first visit to New Zealand and 240 years from his death. It is also Darwin’s 210th would-be-birthday and the 160th birthday of the most groundbreaking book ever written: On the Origin of Species.
CAPTAIN JAMES COOK
James Cook was born on 7 November 1728 in Marton, in North-East England. He attended local school, apprenticed as a shop boy, and in his late teens became a merchant navy apprentice. During that time, he learned navigation skills and a healthy dose of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and astronomy. In 1755, he joined the Royal Navy, just when Britain was preparing for the Seven Years’ War.
Cook served aboard several ships; most remarkably, he was part of the HMS Pembroke crew when the British captured the Fortress of Louisbourg from the French in 1758, during the Seven Years’ War. Due to his talent as a cartographer, he was put to good use during that time, mapping several parts of Canada in the late 1750’s and early 1760’s (then aboard the HMS Grenville). This is the part of his life seen in Assassin’s Creed, but he is most famous for what came afterwards; so let us take a look at that before turning to the game.
In 1768, the Admiralty made Cook lieutenant and put him in command of the HMS Endeavour on a scientific voyage to the Pacific Ocean. His main goal was to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti in 1769, which would help to determine the distance of the Earth to the Sun (the solar parallax). After that was out of the way, Cook opened an envelope with further orders: to navigate the South Pacific in search of the hypothetical continent Terra Australis and to find New Zealand’s eastern shores. He set off to the south and then westwards, reaching New Zealand and precisely mapping its entire coast. He also took the opportunity to record the transit of Mercury. Cook also needed to document the flora and fauna and establish a relationship with native people; in the long term, the goal was to acquire their consent to take the land for His Majesty. That was the beginning of the British history of New Zealand.
BOX 1. The discovery and naming of New Zealand
Despite what might be assumed, Cook did not discover New Zealand. Polynesian settlers arrived there between 1200 and 1300 CE and became known as the Māori. They called their new home Aotearoa.
The first non-Polynesian person to arrive in New Zealand was Dutch explorer Abel J. Tasman, who first sighted the shores of South Island in December 1642. Tasman’s crew would have landed there, but were driven off by the Māori. They assumed that land could be the western shore of the imaginary continent Terra Australis. In any event, Tasman named the “new” land Staten Landt, which is a straightforward horrible choice. Dutch cartographers recognized this and renamed the place Nova Zeelandia in 1645, after the province Zeeland in the Netherlands. This name stuck, even under later British control.
Even though he did not stay long, Tasman literally put New Zealand on the map and right under the radar of European colonial efforts. His name lives on today in the Tasman Sea (separating Australia and New Zealand), in Tasmania (Australia’s southern island), and in the Abel Tasman National Park (in northwestern South Island, New Zealand).
Once back in England, Cook was promoted to commander and sent on a second voyage in search of Terra Australis, which everyone now knew was not New Zealand. Cook took the HMS Resolution, with the HMS Adventure serving as its companion ship, and navigated the southern oceans. He almost reached Antarctica, but his “failure” to find land put an end to the Terra Australis myth.
Back in England once again, he was made captain and soon became involved in a third voyage, commanding the HMS Resolution once again (the companion ship this time was the HMS Discovery). His goal was to find a northern passage, through the Arctic, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. He couldn’t do it, of course, and became frustrated with the voyage. During a prolonged stay in Hawaii to fix the ship, tensions began to rise with the locals. Cook tried to kidnap the Hawaiian king to put an end to it; the Hawaiians naturally didn’t like that and Cook was killed.
Captain Cook was responsible for mapping large parts of the world, as well as for several astronomical observations and for collecting dozens of ethnographic artifacts. He might not convey the impression of the typical scientist, but can and should be counted as one.
He was not the only scientifically-inclined person on his expeditions, though. During his voyages, Cook counted with botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel C. Solander, astronomers Charles Green, William Wales and William Bayly, and naturalists Herman Spöring, Johann R. Forster, Georg A. Forster and David Nelson. There were also artists to illustrate the new lands, their people, flora and fauna.
Cook features in Assassin’s Creed: Rogue (henceforth ACR), released in 2014 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (2015 for Microsoft Windows) and remastered for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in 2018. This game is different from the others in the series in that you play as a Templar instead of an Assassin. The game follows Shay Cormac in his convoluted journey from Assassin apprentice to senior Templar.
Cormac first encounters Cook towards the middle of the game’s story. By that time (June 1758) Cook was master of the HMS Pembroke. Even though he appears several times, his presence is not as well-marked as one would hope. Cormac and his crew go after him due to his “mathematical mind” and expertise in deciphering secret codes. They comment that Cook’s “seamanship is second-to-none” and that he had a self-policy of strict honesty. Cormac and his colleague Gist discuss how Cook would be a good addition to the Templars, but in the end decide that his total lack of guile would be bad for the Order: the man would not be able to keep the secret.
The presentation of Cook’s character and personality is in line with contemporary sources and his many later biographies, which paint him as intelligent, honest and driven. However, he faced many trials during his voyages and sometimes dealt with them using more brutality (towards his crew or the native people of the Pacific) than we can now accept. Furthermore, he seemed to have had a drastic change of personality on his third voyage. In any event, the depiction of young James Cook in ACR is very compelling.
The first mission in ACR involving Cook is very straightforward: to beat the French. Cormac takes the helm of the HMS Pembroke to aid Cook in turning the tide of the battle and finally, capturing the Fortress of Louisbourg. This aligns rather nicely with the historical record.
Cormac meets Cook again in Percé, in 1759, and asks him to decipher some encrypted maps. Cook also helps in tracking down a French-Canadian Assassin, after which he asks Cormac whether he belonged to a larger organization. After getting a reply in the lines of “we couldn’t say even if we were”, Cook then assumes Cormac and his crew were under direct orders of the King. The Templars seem satisfied with this and do not correct Cook. Instead, they say their group will contact him about sponsoring future voyages.
The last bit is a clear reference to Cook’s three exploration voyages to the Pacific. What interest the Templars might have there remains unknown for the moment, but it could definitely involve Terra Australis. In any event, real-life Cook indeed got the attention of the Admiralty and the Royal Society during his years in Canada, especially because of his incredible work mapping Newfoundland; indeed, this latter led to his appointment as commander of the first Pacific voyage.
CHARLES R. DARWIN
Darwin (1809–1882) needs no introduction – but here’s one anyway. He is THE most important figure in Biology and of the most important scientists of all time. He is most famous for his book On the Origin of Species (henceforth Origin), first published in 1859, but his contributions to the natural sciences extend beyond that. As late American paleontologist Stephen J. Gould argued, Darwin’s ideas rank with Copernicus in the way they revolutionized not only science but also the very way our silly species sees itself.
There is simply way too much to write about Darwin: his early life, his voyage, his books, his garden experiments, his immense legacy, etc. There are dozens of books written about him and, if I start writing all the things I find interesting here, I might just end up with a whole book. Since I do not want that, I will focus here on very small parts of his life that are related to what happened in the game.
Darwin features in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (henceforth ACS), released in 2015 for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Windows. The game takes place in London, starting in 1868, and revolves around the brother and sister pair of Assassins, Jacob and Evie Frye.
In the game, you first meet Darwin investigating a factory that produced an opium-based drug called “Soothing Syrup”. It was made by the Templars, of course, and Jacob decided to help Darwin in his investigation. They find out that Richard Owen (see Box 2), who was responsible for an article defaming Darwin, knew something about the syrup. Jacob interrogates Owen and discovers the name of the doctor who was behind the new drug, confronting and killing him in an asylum.
BOX 2. Sir Richard Owen
Owen is clearly linked with the bad guys in ACS. He was a controversial figure indeed, hated by his adversaries, but maybe not quite the “video game villain” kind. Sir Richard Owen (1804–1892) was a brilliant naturalist and authored outstanding works in animal anatomy and paleontology. In fact, he is the one who coined one of the most important words in our vocabulary, “dinosaur”. He is also responsible for the magnificent Natural History Museum in London, built as a cathedral of Nature.
However, Owen opposed Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural (and sexual) selection. Owen was well aware of the anatomical features that established lines of descent and relatedness among animals. Still, his belief in human uniqueness, immersed in what he saw as “natural order” arranged by a creative power, escalated his quarrel with Darwin and his followers, mainly Thomas H. Huxley and Joseph D. Hooker. He could not agree with humans being “just” a weirdly naked species of ape.
In ACS, Darwin even says to Owen: “Mr. Owen, you are truly the most insufferable fellow I have ever had the misfortune to count among my acquaintances!” In real life, after Owen’s involvement in an event that undermined one of his colleagues, Darwin wrote in a letter: “I used to be ashamed of hating him so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred & contempt to the last days of my life.”
Back to the real world, first I should point out that Darwin was somewhat of a hermit. He lived in the countryside near London since 1842 and his home was known as Down House. Darwin reportedly did not enjoy going into town that much, so you would be hard pressed to find him in London as the Frye twins did. But that is totally excusable, as a game set in Victorian London must include Darwin somehow. Also, by that time Darwin already had his share of adventures during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle around the world, so you would be even more unlikely to find him poking around criminal activities in London. Thus, the whole “Soothing Syrup” quests would be very unlikely, especially because they involve more medicine and chemistry than actual biology.
Later on in ACS, the Frye twins meet Darwin again, who says that his critics were threatening him and his colleagues with violence. He was waiting for a certain German colleague of his, identified in the game simply as Dr. Schwartz, who was bringing an important fossil to London. Darwin asks the Fryes to protect Schwartz, but they discover that the German scientist was intercepted and killed by Templars. Even so, they manage to recover the fossil and deliver it to Darwin.
This mission is simply perfect for the setting, even though it is slightly historically inaccurate. The mission is called “The Berlin Specimen”, which is a name that can only refer to one thing: the fossil specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica from the Natural History Museum (Museum für Naturkunde) of Berlin. This species is one of the most important in the world from a historical perspective: its first fossil was discovered in southeastern Germany just two years after Origin was published and was a major evidence in favor of Darwin’s work, showing that the origin of modern birds lays within the group of theropod dinosaurs.
The Berlin specimen is the most famous (and most complete) of all the fossils of Archaeopteryx lithographica; we typically see a replica of it in exhibition in museums worldwide. However, it was only discovered somewhere in 1874–1876, some years after the setting of ACS, but still reasonably close. Curiously, a man named Schwartz, from Nuremberg, tried to buy the actual fossil before it was bought by the Berlin museum (funded by Werner von Siemens, founder of Siemens AG).
There is in fact a “London specimen” of Archaeopteryx, discovered in 1861 and bought by none other than Richard Owen for the Natural History Museum in January 1863. Perhaps this fossil would have been more appropriate for ACS; especially given that Owen is already in the game.
Back to ACS, Darwin first asks the Fryes to investigate a plant that can make people delirious and then to secure him a copy of that day’s newspaper, which had a rebuttal to Owen’s defamation mentioned above. The Fryes then discover a Templar plot to spread newspaper articles with anti-Darwin propaganda, epitomized as a caricature.
In fact, Darwin was constantly under the radar of the Templars in ACS, who tried to buy him (and his research) out. Darwin answered that “[s]cientific knowledge cannot be bought, it belongs to everyone.” The Fryes, of course, would come to his aid. They discover who was behind the caricature (spread through London as posters) and sabotage the printer shop.
Darwin’s ideas of evolution by natural and sexual selection and their implications for our own species were the cause of many heated debates during his lifetime. In fact, to this day many people are still in denial regarding his ideas (especially in religious countries like the US and Brazil), despite the massive amount of evidence in his favor. Darwin knew this would happen and that is basically why he took so long to publish his main book: he needed to amass as much supporting evidence as he possibly could. In ACS, Darwin says to Evie that “I am used to people challenging my ideas”.
The last mission involving Darwin in ACS is called “A Struggle for Existence” and alludes to the full title of his main book: “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. But the mission is not as poetic as it sounds; rather it is very literal. It begins with Florence Nightingale telling the Fryes that Darwin had been arrested and that she feared that “Mr. Darwin is no longer the fit, young man who once traveled the world.” The Fryes then rescue him from a Templar base and Florence suggests that Darwin retired with his family to the Isle of Wight to recuperate in peace. Darwin, though, argues that “[t]he acquisition of knowledge is in itself sufficiently recuperative.” Real-world Darwin actually spent a holiday with his family on the Isle of Wight during 1868; the latter of the photos shown above was taken there.
ASSASSIN AND TEMPLAR SCIENTISTS
As I said in the beginning, Cook and Darwin (and Owen, I suppose) are hopefully just the first on a series I intend to write exploring all the real-world scientists that feature in the many Assassin’s Creed games. (I’ll definitely include Florence Nightingale at some point, in case you were wondering.) Also, since several games take place before the establishment of modern science, you’ll also see some philosophers and historians around here. Until next time!
Barlow, N. (Ed.) 1958. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. Collins, London.
Beaglehole, J.C. (1956) On the character of Captain James Cook. The Geographical Journal 122(4): 417–429.
Beaglehole, J.C. (1974) The Life of Captain James Cook. A. & C. Black, London.
Berkman M.B. & Plutzer E. (2010) Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Brooking, T. & Enright, P. (1988) Milestones. Turning Points in New Zealand History. Mills, Lower Hutt.
Browne, E.J. (2002) Charles Darwin. Vol. 2: The Power of Place. Jonathan Cape, London.
Brownsey, P.J. (2002) The Banks and Solander collections – a benchmark for understanding the New Zealand flora. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 42: 131–137.
Boulter, M. (2009) Darwin’s Garden: Down House and the Origin of Species. Counterpoint LLC, Berkeley.
Chiappe, L.M. (2007) Glorified Dinosaurs: The Origin and Early Evolution of Birds. UNSW Press, Sydney.
Collingridge, V. (2003) Captain Cook: The Life, Death and Legacy of History’s Greatest Explorer. Random House, New York.
Dames, R. (1927) Werner von Siemens und der Archaeopteryx. Nachrichten des Vereins der Siemens-Beamten Berlin E.V. 1927: 233–234.
Darwin, C. (1845) Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. FitzRoy, R.N. Second ed. John Murray, London. [a.k.a. The Voyage of the Beagle]
Fisher, R. & Johnston, H. (1979) Captain James Cook and His Times. ANU, Canberra.
Gould, S.J. (1987) Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Harvard University Press, Harvard.
Herdendorf, C.E. (1986) Captain James Cook and the transits of Mercury and Venus. Journal of Pacific History 21: 39–55.
Holmes, R. (2008) The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. HarperCollins, New York.
Hough, R. (1994). Captain James Cook. W.W. Norton, New York.
Jones, S. (2009) Darwin’s Island: The Galapagos in the Garden of England. Little Brown and Company, Boston.
McCalman, I. (2009) Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution. W. W. Norton, New York.
McLynn, F. (2011) Captain Cook: Master of the Seas. Yale University Press, New Haven.
Newell, J. (2010) Trading Nature: Tahitians, Europeans, and Ecological Exchange. University of Hawai‘i Press, Honolulu.
Reel, M. (2013) Between Man and Beast. Doubleday, New York.
Rupke, N.A. (1994) Richard Owen: Victorian Naturalist. Yale University Press, New Haven.
Salmond, A. (2003) The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas. Allen Lane, London.
Shipman, P. (1998) Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.
Tischlinder, H.E. (2005) Neue Informationen zum Berliner Exemplar von Archaeopteryxlithographica H. v. Meyer 1861. Archaeopteryx 23: 33–50.
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Wellnhofer, P. (2009) Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution. Friedrich Pfeil, Munich.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a biologist who studies mollusks or, to put it shortly, a malacologist. He loves reading about the scientists of old and can’t help but share this sometimes. He is hyped by Assassin’s Creed games ever since the very first images of Altair came out. His favorite entry in the series is Origins, because… Egypt, but his favorite Assassins are still Ezio and Evie.
 Herdendorf (1986) argued that the Transit of Venus, first in 1761 and then in 1769, was the first international collaborative effort in science, including dozens of observers in tens of stations spread worldwide. He considered it as the establishment of the modern scientific international community.
 Actually, while Darwin was working on his book another British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), independently conceived the idea of evolution through natural selection. His work on the subject was jointly presented with Darwin’s in 1858 to the Linnean Society of London.
Valleys Between is an environmental puzzle game, where your goal is to grow your world for as long as you can while protecting it from threats that will damage its health.
When we started designing Valleys Between we wanted to explore ways to get people thinking about environmental issues, and while the game has evolved during the game development cycle, the core themes of the game are still there. While we considered real world ecology and nature, we realised early on that to create a fun and engaging game we would need to take inspiration from them without being too literal.
One of our goals is to create a strong bond between the player and the world they’ve created, and one of the ways we do this is by allowing you to literally shape the world with your fingertips. Players only have the ability to swipe up or down to interact with the world, but small actions such as pulling a tree up out of the ground can actually have a big impact. Much like the real world, one action isn’t always enough to solve larger problems but a group of small actions can result in a big change.
Many of the games mechanics are inspired by nature, though in a simplified or abstract way. This allows us to craft gameplay that’s enjoyable and relatable without ever straying too far into something that feels completely at odds with reality (at least in most cases). With that in mind we had two important rules that guided our design:
The game is inspired by nature, so the environmental theme should always be present while never overpowering or distracting the player from the gameplay.
We won’t sacrifice enjoyable gameplay for the sake of keeping something too realistic or similar to how our real world works.
These rules allowed us to find a balance between fun and relatable mechanics that are easy for the player to understand. When designing mechanics we often started from an ecological concept and explored how we could distill it down to base elements to see how they could work well within the game. The best way to illustrate this is to look at the primary mechanics in Valleys Between.
At its core, Valleys Between is about creating a thriving world. The first step to doing this is to create an environment where things can grow, so the first move a player makes is to create water tiles in their new world. Water makes all dirt tiles around it turn into grass, and trees can only be planted on grass. To plant a tree, the player pulls up on a grass tile and essentially plucks a fully-grown tree out of the ground. While this is clearly a few steps removed from reality, it feels close enough, and this familiarity helps create a stronger connection between the nature presented in the game and what the player expects from nature in the real world.
Trees that are next to each other can be combined to make a forest, which grows your world by adding a new row of land. In this way, the base relationship between water and trees are shown as being critical to growing a world. Groups of forests can be further combined to make a house, which introduces humans as part of the ecosystem in Valleys Between. While this is an incredibly simplified representation of nature to a few small mechanics in Valleys Between, it’s part of what makes it feel environmentally rich.
The game wouldn’t be very fun without something challenging you, so we decided to introduce the two sides of human influence on the environment. The first is a positive influence of creating a house by combining trees which helps your world grow and expand. However, as your world grows, we also introduce a negative influence in the form of factories and other man-made objects. Factories threaten the health of your world and they can spill oil to surrounding tiles if you leave them for too long. While there isn’t necessarily an easy action to fix things these things in our world, we wanted players to want to protect their world from these threats even if they can’t stop them from occurring. We also found in early playtests that people became very attached to the animals that wander their world, and this helped them feel connected to it, so we decided to tie these concepts together and have animals act as the primary protectors of your world. Animals wander throughout your world, and while you can influence their path, you aren’t able to control them directly. You can choose to use them to nurture and enhance a specific area, or use them to convert a factory to something that won’t damage the health of your world. Once you’ve used an animal, they fall asleep for a period of time so the player has to choose when to nurture and when to protect their world.
While these mechanics may seem to be quite a stretch from the real world, we’ve found that by taking inspirations from nature rather than literal representations, we’ve been able to craft an enjoyable game.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Niamh Fitzgerald is a producer and game designer at indie studio Little Lost Fox, based in Wellington, New Zealand. She organised the New Zealand Game Developer Conference in 2017 and 2018, and likes to combine her love of travel with game development by getting involved in game developer events around New Zealand and internationally.
 Released in 2018 by Little Lost Fox. Currently available for iPhone/iPad and coming soon to Android. Learn more at http://littlelostfox.com/
Pocket Monsters or as they are better known, Pokémon, are playable monsters which first appeared in the 1990’s as a video game in Japan, but soon expanded worldwide. They are still very successful with numerous games, a TV series, comic books, movies, toys and collectibles, additionally to the trading card game and video games. Most recently the release of Pokémon GO, an augmented reality game for smartphones, meant that Pokémon became as popular as never before. The game launched in 2016 and almost 21 million users downloaded it in the very first week in the United States alone (Dorwald et al., 2017).
The games and TV series take place in regions inhabited by humans and Pokémon. Each Pokémon lives in a specific environment (forests, caves, deserts, mountains, fields, seas, beaches, mangroves, rivers, and marshes). The humans try to catch Pokémons with Pokéballs, a device that fits even the largest Pokémon but that is still small enough to be placed into a pocket, hence the name Pocket Monster (Whitehill et al., 2016). After Pokémon have been caught, they are put to fight against each other, just like in the real world, in which humans (unfortunately) let cockerels, crickets, or dogs fight (Marrow, 1995; Jacobs, 2011; Gibson, 2005). The origin of Pokémon goes back to the role-playing game created by Satoshi Tajiri and released by Nintendo for the Game Boy (Kent, 2001). Tajiri was not only a game developer, but like many Japanese adults, grew up catching insects as a child. He wanted to design a game so that every child in Japan could play and let their critters fight, even if they lived in areas which are too densely populated to find insects in the wild. This resulted in the 151 Pokémon in the first versions of the game (“first generation”), with each version adding more Pokémon.
Today, there are 807 Pokémon (seventh generation). Almost all are based on real organisms (mostly animals, but many plants as well), while some depict mythological creatures or objects (e.g., stones, keys). Each Pokémon belongs to one or two of the following 18 types: Normal, Fire, Fighting, Water, Flying, Grass, Poison, Electric, Ground, Psychic, Rock, Ice, Bug, Dragon, Ghost, Dark, Steel, and Fairy (Bulbapedia, 2018). All Pokémon in the game are oviparous, which means they all lay eggs; probably because the creator was fond of insects or just for practical reasons.
Certain Pokémon also evolve; however, this kind of evolution is not the same as the biological concept of evolution. In Pokémon evolution is largely synonymous to metamorphosis, such as when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. As this is the core concept of the game, almost all Pokémon evolve, not only the insects, but also mammals, rocks, and mythological creatures. Usually, they evolve with a complete or incomplete metamorphosis: either they just grow larger, or their look differs significantly between the adult and the young stages.
Insects are the largest group of organisms on earth (Zhang, 2011). There are more than one million described species of insects, of a total of 1.8 million known organisms (Zhang, 2011). They occupy all terrestrial environments (forests, fields, under the soil surface, and in the air) and freshwater; some are even found in the ocean. Additionally, they show a wide range of morphological and behavioral adaptations. This biodiversity is not reflected in the Pokémon world. In the present Generation VII, only 77 of the 807 Pokémon are “Bug type”: about 9.5% of all Pokémon. The aim of this work is to describe the entomological diversity of Pokémon based on taxonomic criteria of the classification of real insects.
The Pokédex was the source of primary information on Pokémon (Pokémon Website, 2018). The criteria to identify insects are either based on the type (Bug type) or morphology (resembles a real insect). Afterwards, the insect Pokémon were classified to the lowest possible taxonomic level (family, genus, or species) according to their real world counterparts. This classification of the Pokémon allowed the comparison of their biological data (such as ecological or morphological traits; Bulbapedia, 2018) with the current knowledge of real insects. The information of the biology of real insects is largely based on Borror et al. (1981).
Not all Bug types are insects; many of them represent other arthropods, like spiders, while some are from other invertebrate groups (Table 1). Also, five insect Pokémon do not belong to the Bug type (e.g., Trapinch (#328) is a Ground type; Table 2). In total, insects represent only 62 of the 807 Pokémon. In comparison, the vertebrate groups are overly well-represented by birds (61), mammals (232), reptiles (57), amphibians (23), and fishes (39) (Table 3).
Eleven insect orders are represented in the Pokémon world, namely Blattodea (with 1 Pokémon), Coleoptera (11), Diptera (3), Hemiptera (7), Hymenoptera (6), Lepidoptera (22), Mantodea (4), Neuroptera (3), Odonata (2), Orthoptera (2), Phasmatodea (1). They are listed below in systematic order.
Families: Libellulidae and Aeshnidae
Genera: Erythrodiplax and Anax
Yanma (#193) evolves to Yanmega (#469).
Yanma is a large, red dragonfly Pokémon. Like all dragonflies and damselflies, it lives near the water and hunts other insects for food. Yanma is territorial and prefers wooded and swampy areas. Based on its appearance, it belongs to the dragonfly family Libellulidae, and further to the genus Erythrodiplax Brauer, 1868.
Yanmega on the other hand is a large, dark green Pokémon. It is actually a different real-world species. Not only the colors are different, but also the morphology, like the appendages on the tip of the tail. Based on this, it belongs to the dragonfly family Aeshnidae, and to the genus Anax Leach, 1815. One could argue that it is based on Meganeura Martynov, 1932, a very large (wingspan up to 70 cm) but extinct dragonfly genus from the Carboniferous Period. However, the size alone should not be the indicator to classify the species, as many insectoid species are larger in the Pokémon world compared to the real world.
Scyther (#123) evolves to Scizor (#212, incl. Mega-Scizor).
Scyther is a bipedal, insectoid Pokémon. It is green with cream joints between its three body segments, one pair of wings and two large, white scythes as forearms. Scyther camouflages itself by its green color. Based on its appearance, it is classified as a praying mantis (or possible a mantidfly).
Scizor is also a bipedal, insectoid Pokémon. It is primarily red with grey, retractable forewings. Scizor’s arms end in large, round pincers. It appears to be based on a praying mantis, maybe with some references to flying red ants and wasp-mimicking mantidflies.
Although Scizor evolves from Scyther, they are very different and would actually be two different real-world species. Not only are the colors different, but also the morphology: the arms end in either scythes or pincers; Scyther has one pair of wings, Scizor has two.
Fomantis (#753) evolves to Lurantis (#754).
Fomantis is a plant-like and, at the same time, an insect-like Pokémon. Its main body is pink, with green hair, green tufts on the head, and green leaves as a collar. Fomantis is somewhat bipedal and is likely based on the orchid mantis Hymenopus coronatus Olivier, 1792 (Fig. 1), which is known for being able to mimic the orchid flower, along with the orchid itself.
Lurantis is also plant- and insect-like. It is pink, white, and green. Lurantis looks and smells like a flower, to attract and then attack foes (and prey). It also disguises itself as a Bug Pokémon for self-defense. Lurantis is likely based on the orchid mantis as well as the orchid flower itself, as it is impossible to say where the flower ends and the insect starts. Orchid mantises mimic parts of a flower, by making their legs look like flower petals. Well camouflaged, they can wait for their prey, which will visit the flower for nectar.
Pheromosa is a bipedal anthropomorphic Pokémon. It has a rather slender build and is mostly white. Pheromosa originates from the Ultra Desert dimension in Ultra Space. Pheromosa is based on generic cockroaches just after they have molted (Fig. 2); during this stage, the animals are pale and vulnerable until their exoskeleton hardens and darken.
Kricketot (#401) evolves to Kricketune (#402).
Kricketot is a bipedal, bug-like Pokémon. It has a red body with some black and white markings. By shaking its head and rubbing its antennae together, it can create a sound that it uses to communicate. Based on its appearance, it is a cricket.
Kricketune is also a bipedal Pokémon with an insectoid appearance, also primarily red with some black and tan colored markings. It can produce sound by rubbing its arms on the abdomen. Kricketune appears to be based on crickets due to their sound-producing ability, but it somewhat resembles a violin beetle.
Both Kricketot and Kricketune are depicted with only 4 limbs, whereas insects are largely defined by having exactly six legs.
Families: Gerridae and Fulgoridae
Surskit (#283) evolves to Masquerain (#284).
Surskit is a blue insectoid Pokémon with some pink markings. It produces some sort of syrup, which is exuded as a defense mechanism or to attract prey. This Pokémon can also secrete oil from the tips of its feet, which enables it to walk on water as though skating. Surskit usually inhabits ponds, rivers, and similar wetlands, where it feeds on microscopic, aquatic organisms. This Pokémon is based on water striders. However, a water strider does not ooze syrup and neither does it need oil to walk on water; it can walk on water due to the natural surface tension.
Masquerain is a light blue Pokémon with two pairs of wings. On either side of its head is a large antenna that resembles an angry eye. These eyespots are used by many real-life moths and lantern-flies to confuse and intimidate would-be predators. Masquerain is in fact based on a lantern-fly.
Both “species”, water striders and lantern-flies, are only distantly related, belonging to two different families within the “true bugs” (Hemiptera).
Nincada (#290) evolves to Ninjask (#291) and then to Shedinja (#292).
Nincada is a small, whitish, insectoid Pokémon. The claws are used to carve the roots of tree and absorb water and nutrients. Nincada builds underground nests by the roots of trees. It is based on a cicada nymph, which lives underneath the soil surface. However, a cicada nymph usually does not have fully developed wings. Instead, they have short wing stubs which eventually will become fully functional wings – as usual amongst hemimetabolous insects.
Ninjask is a small, cicada-like Pokémon with two pairs of wings. Its body is mostly black with some yellow and grey markings. Ninjask is a very fast Pokémon and it can seem invisible due to its high speed. It is based on an adult cicada, with the colors somewhat resembling Neotibicen dorsatus (Say, 1825) (Fig. 3).
Shedinja is a brown and grey insectoid Pokémon. A hole between its wings reveals that its body is completely hollow and dark, as it possesses no internal organs. It is based on the shed husk (exuvia) that cicadas and other hemimetabolous insects leave behind when they molt.
Paras (#046) evolves to Parasect (#047).
Paras is an orange insectoid Pokémon with an ovoid body. On the top it has two little red and yellow mushrooms known as tōchūkasō. The mushrooms can be removed at any time, and grow from spores that are doused on this Pokémon’s back at its birth by the mushroom on its mother’s back. Tōchūkasō is an endoparasitoid that replaces the host tissue and can affect the behavior of its insect host. The base insect is based on a cicada nymph. The real-world tōchūkasō live on hepialid caterpillars in Tibet. However, there are many more species of entomopathogenic fungi in the world, most notable the genus Cordyceps (L.) Fr. (1818).
Parasect is an orange, insectoid Pokémon that has been completely overtaken by the tōchūkasō mushroom. The adult insect has been drained of nutrients and is now under the control of the fully-grown tōchūkasō. Parasect can thrive in dank forests with a suitable amount of humidity for growing fungi. The base insect is a deformed version of what is probably a cicada nymph, the parasitic mushroom having caused a form of neoteny, when the adults look like a juvenile form.
Trapinch (#328) evolves to Vibrava (#329) and then to Flygon (#330).
Trapinch is an orange, insectoid Pokémon. This Pokémon lives in arid deserts, where it builds its nest in a bowl-shaped pit dug in sand. It sits in its nest and waits for prey to stumble inside. Once inside, the prey cannot climb back out. It is based on the larval stage of the antlion, which lives in conical sandy pits before maturing into winged adults.
Vibrava is a dragonfly-like Pokémon. Vibrava’s wings are not fully developed, so it is unable to fly very far. However, it is able to create vibrations and ultrasonic waves with its wings, causing its prey to faint. Vibrava is a saprotroph – it spits stomach acid to melt its prey before consumption. Vibrava is based on the adult stage of an antlion. Adult antlions and dragonflies look from a distance quite similar and are therefore often mistaken for each other.
Flygon is a desert-dwelling insectoid dragon with a green body and one pair of wings. Its wings make a “singing” sound when they are flapped. It uses this unique ability to attract prey, stranding them before it attacks. It is based on the winged, adult stage of the antlion.
Pinsir (#127, incl. Mega-Pinsir).
Pinsir is a bipedal beetle-like Pokémon with a brown body and a large pair of grey, spiky pincers on top of its head. Pinsir is based on a stag beetle.
Grubbin (#736) evolves to Charjabug (#737) and then to Vikavolt (#738).
Grubbin is a small insectoid Pokémon. It has a white body with three nubs on either side resembling simple legs. Grubbin typically lives underground. It uses its jaw as a weapon, a tool for burrowing, and for extracting sap from trees. Grubbin appears to be based on a larval beetle, also known as “grubs”.
Charjabug is a small cubic Pokémon resembling an insect-like battery. Its body consists of three square segments with two brown stubs on each side. It generates and stores electricity in its body by digesting food. This energy is stored in an electric sac. Charjabug appears to be based on a cocooned bug and a battery. It may also be based on the denkimushi (Monema flavescens Walker, 1855), a caterpillar in Japan that, when touched, can give a sting that is said to feel like an electric shock (Fig. 4).
Vikavolt is a beetle-like Pokémon with a large pair of mandibles. It produces electricity with an organ in its abdomen, and fires powerful electric beams from its huge jaws. Vikavolt appears to be based on a stag beetle. Its straight, scissor-like mandibles resemble those of Lucanus hayashii Nagai, 2000.
Ledyba (#165) evolves to Ledian (#166).
Ledyba is a red ladybird-like Pokémon with five black spots on its back. Female Ledyba have shorter antennae than male Ledyba. Ledyba is a very social Pokémon, e.g. in the winter they gather together to keep each other warm. Ledyba is probably based on the five-point ladybird Coccinella quinquepunctata Linnaeus, 1758 due to its color and/or on the harlequin ladybird Harmonia axyridis (Pallas, 1773), which clusters together in the winter.
Ledian is a large red bipedal ladybird-like Pokémon. Female Ledians’ antennae are shorter than the males’. Ledian sleeps in forests during daytime inside a big leaf.
Heracross (#214, incl. Mega-Heracross).
Heracross is a bipedal beetle-like Pokémon with a blue exoskeleton. The prolonged horn on its forehead ends in a cross-shaped (males) or heart-shape (females) structure. Heracross is most likely based on the Japanese rhinoceros beetle Allomyrina dichotoma Linneaus, 1771 (Fig. 5).
Volbeat (#313) and Illumise (#314).
Volbeat is a bipedal firefly-like Pokémon. Its body is black with some blue, yellow, and red portions. It has a spherical yellow tail, which glows to communicate and draws geometric patterns in the sky while in a swarm. This is a male only Pokémon “species”; Illumise is its female counterpart. Volbeat lives in forests near clean ponds and is attracted by the sweet aroma given off by Illumise. It is based on a firefly like its counterpart Illumise. Its appearance may be based on a greaser, a subculture from the 1950’s.
Illumise is a bipedal firefly-like Pokémon. It is black and blue with some yellow markings. This is a female only Pokémon “species”; Volbeat is its male counterpart. It is a nocturnal Pokémon that lives in forests. Illumise does not seem to share its coloring with any particular species. Illumise may be based on flappers, a 1920’s women’s style. Its mating behavior only slightly resembles the behavior of real-world fireflies, in which females use light signals to attract mates.
Karrablast (#588) evolves to Escavalier (#589).
Karrablast is a round bipedal Pokémon with a yellow and blue body. When it senses danger, it spews an acidic liquid from its mouth. It targets another Pokémon, Shelmet, so it can evolve. It resides in forests and fields, and it often hides in trees or grass if threatened. Karrablast may be based on a Japanese snail-eating beetle due to its preference for attacking Shelmet, a snail-like Pokémon.
Escavalier is an insectoid Pokémon wearing a knight’s helmet. Its tough armor protects its entire body. It flies around at high speed, jabbing foes with its lances. Escavalier is probably based on the Drilus Olivier, 1790 genus, with references to a jousting knight. Drilus larvae are known for eating snails and stealing their shells, explaining why it attacks Shelmet and takes its shell to evolve into Karrablast.
Weedle (#013) evolves to Kakuna (#014) and then to Beedrill (#015, incl. Mega-Bedrill).
Weedle is a small larval Pokémon with a body ranging in color from yellow to reddish-brown. It has a conical venomous stinger on its head and a barbed one on its tail to fend off enemies. Weedle can be found in forests and usually hides in grass, bushes, and under the leaves it eats. Weedle appears to be based on the larva of a wasp or hornet, although these real-world larvae usually don’t have defense strategies. The only larvae which feed directly off leaves are those of sawflies.
Kakuna is a yellow cocoon-like Pokémon. Kakuna remains virtually immobile and waits for its “evolution” to happen, often hanging from tree branches by long strands of silk. Although Kakuna is the pupa stage of a Hymenoptera, it showcases a silky cocoon, a feature usually found in Lepidoptera and only some Hymenoptera, like sawflies.
Beedrill is a bipedal, wasp-like Pokémon. Its forelegs are tipped with long, conical stingers. It stands on its other two legs, which are long, segmented, and insectoid in shape. Beedrill has two pairs of rounded, veined wings, and another stinger on its yellow-and-black striped abdomen. By its color pattern, Beedrill looks like a vespid wasp, but due to the previous stages of this Pokémon species, it must be based on Tenthredo scrophulariae Linneaus, 1758, the figwort sawfly.
Combee (#415) evolves to Vespiquen (#416, female).
Combee is a small insectoid Pokémon that resembles three social bees inside three hexagonal pieces of honeycomb stuck together; the top two have wings. Female Combee have a red spot on the forehead. Male Combee are not known to evolve into or from any other Pokémon. The sex ratio of Combee is 87.5% male and 12.5% female. Combee can fly with its two wings as long as the top two bees coordinate their flapping. They gather honey, sleep, or protect the queen. Combee is based on a mix of bees and their larvae living in honeycombs. (Bees arrange their honeycombs in a vertical manner, whereas wasps arrange them horizontally.)
In the hive of the real-world honey bee (Apis mellifera Linneaus, 1758), there is usually one queen bee and up to 40.000 female workers. So, the sex ratio of Combee does not reflect the ratio of female (workers) and male (drones) honey bees, but of the reproductive bees, the drones and the fertile queens. The larger number of drones is needed, since each queen will often mate with 10–15 males before she starts a new hive. Usually, drones can make up to 5% of the bees in a hive.
Vespiquen is a bipedal bee-like Pokémon with a yellow and black striped abdomen resembling an elegant ballroom gown. Underneath the expansive abdomen are honeycomb-like cells that serve as a nest for baby Combee. Vespiquen is a female-only Pokémon “species”. Vespiquen is the queen of a Combee hive, controlling it and protecting it, as well as giving birth to young Combee. The horizontal honeycombs hints that this “species” is a wasp rather than a bee.
Durant is an ant-like Pokémon with a grey body and six black legs. It is territorial, lives in colonies and digs underground mazes. Durant grows steel armor to protect itself from predators. Durant is based on an ant, possibly the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile Mayr, 1868), due to the jaw and their invasive behavior.
Caterpie (#010) evolves to Metapod (#011) and then to Butterfree (#012).
Caterpie is a green caterpillar-like Pokémon. It has yellow ring-shaped markings down the sides of its body and bright red “antenna” (osmeterium) on its head, which releases a foul odor to repel predators. The appearance of Caterpie helps to startle predators; Caterpie is probably based on Papilio xuthus Linnaeus, 1767, the Asian swallowtail (Fig. 6). The osmeterium is a unique feature of swallowtails. Caterpie will shed its skin many times before finally cocooning itself in thick silk. Its primary diet are plants.
Metapod is a green chrysalis Pokémon. Its crescent shape is based upon a Swallowtail chrysalis with a large nose-like protrusion and side protrusions resembling a Polydamas Swallowtail or Pipevine Swallowtail chrysalis (genus Battus Scopoli, 1777).
Butterfree is a butterfly Pokémon with a purple body and large, white wings, somewhat resembling a black-veined white Aporia crataegi (Linneaus, 1758). Although it is supposed to be a butterfly, it lacks the proboscis, which is typical of Lepidoptera, and presents teeth instead. Additionally, the body does not consist of the typical three segments of insects. Therefore, each stage seems to be based on a different species.
Families: Geometridae and Arctiidae
Venonat (#048) evolves to Venomoth (#049).
Venonat has a round body covered in purple fur, which can release poison. It feeds on small insects, the only Lepidoptera caterpillar which is known to feed on prey instead of leaves belong the genus Eupethecia Grote, 1882 (Geometridae). However, Venonat does not resemble a caterpillar in general body shape or numbers of legs.
Venomoth is a moth-like Pokémon with a light purple body and interestingly two small mandibles. It has two pairs of wings, which are covered in dust-like, purple scales, although the color varies depending on their toxic capability. Dark scales are poisonous, while lighter scales can cause paralysis. These scales are released when Venomoth flutters its wings. The general appearance resembles species belonging to the Actiidae.
There is no cocoon stage for this species it is doubtful whether both stages were based on the same real-life species.
Scatterbug (#664) evolves to Spewpa (#665) and then to Vivillon (#666).
Scatterbug is a small caterpillar Pokémon with a grey body. If threatened by a bird Pokémon, it can spew a powder that paralyzes on contact. Similarly, the large white butterfly Pieris brassicae (Linneaus, 1758) is known to throw up a fluid of semi-digested cabbage, which contains compounds that smell and taste unpleasant to predators, such as birds.
Spewpa is a small insectoid Pokémon with a grey body covered by white furry material. In order to defend itself, Spewpa will bristle its “fur” to threaten predators or spray powder at them. Spewpa is based on a generic pupa of a moth or butterfly, probably a silkworm cocoon.
Vivillon is a butterfly-like Pokémon with wings that come in a large variety of patterns, depending in which climate it lives or rather, in which real-world region the player is. There is a total of 20 patterns known. It would be interesting to know whether they evolved due to allopatric speciation or if it is a case of mimicry.
Pineco (#204) evolves to Forretress (#205).
Pineco is a pine cone-like Pokémon without visible limbs. It is based on a bagworm, the caterpillar stage of psychid Lepidoptera. Bagworms cover themselves with a case (the bag) made of surrounding material. This Pokémon uses tree bark and thus resembles a pine cone.
Forretress is a large spherical Pokémon, also without any visible limbs. It lives in forests, attaching itself immovably to tree trunks. Forretrees is also based on a bagworm.
Different bagworm species are adapted to their environment, to the plants they eat, and to the materials available for producing their case. Therefore, Pineco and Forretress are actually based on two different species, as they both are caterpillars. There is no adult stage for this Pokémon.
Burmy (#412) evolves to Wormadam (#413, female) or Mothim (#414, male).
Burmy is a small pupa-shaped Pokémon with a black body and six stubby legs. It is based on a bagworm pupa, which will metamorphose into a winged moth if male, or wingless moth if female. Burmy can change its “cloak” (case) depending on the environment it last battled.
Wormadam is a black bagworm-like Pokémon with a cloak of leaves, sand, or building insulation. Its cloak depends on Burmy’s cloak when it evolved, and so does it type (Grass, Ground or Steel). It is a female-only “species”, with Mothim as its male counterpart. Female psychid moth either don’t have wings at all or have only small wing stubs that don’t develop fully.
Mothim is a moth-like Pokémon with two pairs of legs and two pairs of wings, one larger than the other. Mothim is a nomadic nocturnal Pokémon, searching for honey and nectar. Instead of gathering honey on its own, it raids the hives of Combee. It is a male-only “species”, with Wormadam as its female counterpart.
Wurmple (#265) evolves to Silcoon (#266) and then to Beautifly (#267).
Wurmple is a small caterpillar-like Pokémon with a mostly red body and many spikes on the top of its body. It can spit a white silk that turns gooey when exposed to air. Spikes or hairy appendages are common amongst nymphalid caterpillars. Also, it has five pairs of legs, whereas insects are known to have only three pairs of legs. However, many lepidopteran caterpillars have additionally “prolegs” (small fleshy stub-like structures) to help them move.
Silcoon is a cocoon-like Pokémon which is completely covered by white silk. Silcoon also uses the silk to attach itself to tree branches. Nymphalid cocoons are usually not woolly or hairy, but smooth.
Beautifly is a butterfly-like Pokémon with two pairs of wings. Beautifly has a long and curled black proboscis that it uses to drain body fluids from its prey. In the real world, Lepidoptera usually drink the nectar of flowers. One of the few exceptions are the species of the genus Calyptra Ochsenheimer, 1816, which pierce skin of animals and drink blood.
Wurmple (#265) evolves to Cascoon (#268) and then to Dustox (#269).
The caterpillar stage of this species is morphologically identical to the caterpillar stage of the “species” above: Wurmple. It appears that Wurmple can evolve in two forms: due to mimicry, sympatric speciation or are there morphological or biological characters, which have not been notices yet?
Cascoon is a round cocoon-like Pokémon covered in purple silk. Saturniid cocoons are usually covered in silk.
Dustox is a moth-like Pokémon. It has a purple body, two pairs of tattered green wings, and – just like Beautifly – two pairs of legs. Dustox is nocturnal and is instinctively drawn to light. Clearly, this is a moth. Some of the markings on its wings resemble typical markings of noctuid moths, but the big “fake eye” is typical of saturniids.
Larvesta (#636) evolves to Volcarona (#367).
Larvesta is a fuzzy caterpillar-like Pokémon. It has five red horns on the sides of its head, which it can use to spit fire as a defensive tactic to deter predators. Larvesta is based on a saturniid caterpillar.
Volcarona is a large moth-like Pokémon with four small feet and three pairs of wings. It releases fiery scales from its wings. Just like Larvesta, Volcarona is based on a saturniid moth, likely the Atlas moth Attacus atlas (Linneaus, 1758).
Cutiefly (#742) evolves to Ribombee (#743).
Cutiefly is a tiny Pokémon with large wings. Cutiefly appears to be based on the bee fly, specifically the species Anastoechus nitidulus (Fabricius, 1794) (Fig. 7).
Ribombee is a tiny insectoid Pokémon with a large head, slightly smaller body, and thin arms and legs. It is covered in fluffy yellow hair. Two wings nearly as large as its body sprout from its back. The wings are clear with three brown loop designs near the base. Its four thin limbs have bulbous hands or feet. Ribombee uses its fluffy hair to hold the pollen it collects from flowers. It is based on a bee fly.
Buzzwole is a bipedal anthropomorphic Pokémon. It has four legs and two pairs of orange translucent wings. It uses its proboscis to stab and then drink “energy” off its enemies/prey. Buzzwole originates from the Ultra Desert dimension in Ultra Space. It is based on a mosquito and may specifically derive inspiration from Aedes albopictus (Skuse, 1894), which is an invasive species worldwide.
Mixed Orders: Lepidoptera and Phasmatodea
Families: Tortricidae, Hesperiidae, and Phylliidae
Sewaddle (#540) evolves to Swadloon (#541) and then to Leavanny (#542).
Sewaddle is a caterpillar-like Pokémon with a green body with three pairs of legs. It makes leafy “clothes” using chewed-up leaves and a thread-like substance it produces from its mouth. The leafy hood helps Sewaddle to hide from enemies. Sewaddle appears to be based on the caterpillar of the silver-spotted skipper Epargyreus clarus (Cramer, 1775), which produce silk and fold leaves over themselves for shelter (Fig. 8).
Swadloon is a round yellow Pokémon inside of a cloak of leaves. It lives on the forest ground and feeds on fallen leaves. Swadloon appears to be based on the chrysalis of Epargyreus clarus. Epargyreus clarus fold leaves over themselves for shelter as they age and, when cocooning, eventually use silk to stick the leaves together and form its chrysalis.
Leavanny is a bipedal, insectoid Pokémon with a yellow and green body with leaf-like limbs. It lives in forests and uses its cutters and sticky silk it produces to create leafy “clothing”. It also warms its eggs with fermenting fallen leaves. Leavanny has the features of several insects. Primarily it appears to be a bipedal leaf-insect (Phylliidae). Its general body structure is also similar to that of Choeradodis Serville, 1831 mantises, which also have laterally expanded thoraxes and abdomens.
Only 11 insect orders (out of 30) are represented in the Pokémon world. Possible more, as differentiation of insect Pokémon and non-insect Pokémon are sometimes difficult. The main reason is, that many insect Pokémon are not depicted as a typical insect with its segmented body, the six legs, and two pairs of wings. Many are depicted as bipedal (e.g., #401 Kricketot) or even in an anthropomorphic way (e.g., #795 Pheromosa). Also, insectoid Pokémon typically have only four limbs (instead of six). Many insectoid Pokémon also have fewer wings than insects (except for #637 Volcarona, which has more). Therefore, the definition of what is an insect Pokémon is debatable.
One clue is to look at the types each Pokémon belongs to. However, from the circa 80 Bug-type Pokémon, only about 60 are insects. The others belong to other arthropods groups, like Chelicerata, Crustacea, and Myriapoda. This is not surprising, as often creepy crawlies (basically everything that is small with legs) are all addressed as “bugs”. In fact, only member of the insect order Hemiptera are called “true bugs”.
Interestingly, Prado & Almeida (2017) have included Pokémon on their insect list, which are doubtful: #251 Celebi, #247 Pupitar, and #206 Dunsparce. None of them are considered insects here. Celebi may resemble a bipedal somewhat anthropomorphic insectoid, but nothing of the lifestyle or beyond the vague appearance gives a clue to an insect. Similarly, #247 Pupitar, might look like a pupa of an insect. However, both its “larval” stage (#256 Larvitar) and its final stage (#248 Tyranitar) resemble a dinosaur or some sort of dragon. Only the hint of “pupa” in its name, links Pupitar to an insect. Lastly, #206 Dunsparce was classified as a Hymenoptera by Prado & Almeida (2017). Is may look somewhat like an insect, even showing two pairs of wings (and no legs at all). Dunsparce, however, is based on a mythical “snake-like animal” called Tsuchinoko, also known as “bachi hebi” (or “bee snake”). Finally, Prado & Almeida (2017) have classified #212 Scizor as “unknown”, but here it is treated as a praying mantis (Mantodea). Similarly, those authors have classified #284 Masquerain as a Lepidoptera, but here we treat is as a true bug (Hemiptera).
Lastly, #649 Genesect resembles somewhat an ant covered by steel. However, according to the Pokédex (Pokémon Website, 2018), it is a man-made machine.
Compared to the vertebrates (birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes), many more insects live on earth (66,000 described species to about 1 million, respectively; Zhang, 2011). This ratio is, however, not represented in the Pokémon world (Table 3), most likely due to the fact that the majority of people prefer (cute and cuddly) furry animals over creepy insects, even though butterflies and dragonflies are regarded as beautiful.
Borror, D.J.; DeLong, D.M.; Triplehorn, C.A. (1981) An Introduction to the Study of Insects. Saunders College, Philadelphia.
Bulbapedia (2018) The community driven Pokémon encyclopedia. Available from: http://bulbaped ia.bulbagarden.net/ (Date of access: 10/Sep/ 2018).
Dorward, L.J.; Mittermeier, J.C.; Sandbrook, C.; Spooner, F. (2017) Pokémon GO: benefits, costs, and lessons for the conservation movement. Conservation Letters 10(1): 160–165.
Gibson, H. (2005) Detailed Discussion of Dog Fighting. Michigan State University, East Lansing.
Kent, S.L. (2001) The Ultimate History of Video Games. Crown Publishing Group, New York.
Morrow, L. (1995) History they don’t teach you: a tradition of cockfighting. White River Valley Historical Quarterly 35(2): 5–15.
Official Pokémon Website, The. (2018) The Official Pokémon Website. Available from: http://poke mon.com/ (Date of access: 10/Sep/2018).
Prado, A.W. & Almeida, T.F.A. (2017) Arthropod diversity in Pokémon. Journal of Geek Studies 4(2): 41–52.
Whitehill, S.; Neves, L.; Fang, K.; Silvestri, C. (2016) Pokémon: Visual Companion. Pokémon Company International / Dorling Kindersley, London.
Zhang, Z.-Q. (2011) Animal biodiversity: an outline of higher-level classification and survey of taxonomic richness. Zootaxa 3703: 1–82.
I am grateful to Seth Ausubel (https://www. flickr.com/photos/96697202@N07/collections) for kindly granting permission to use his photograph of Epargyreus clarus on this article. I would also like to thank Miles Zhang for valuable comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Rebecca Kittel is an entomologist working on parasitoid wasps. She is interested in all sorts of interactions of insects with human beings, regardless of whether they are real-life insects or purely fictional.
 Not all insects have two pairs of wings, though. For instance, the Diptera (flies) have only one, while the Siphonaptera (fleas) have none.
When it was released in 2014, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment) proved to be the game all Tolkien fans had been waiting for. Its sequel, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, released in 2017, improved and expanded the first game. Besides all the orc-slaying action, the game has a bunch of other activities, including the most staple of gaming side quests: collectibles.
Simply put, collectibles are items scattered throughout the game and completionist gamers go crazy hunting them. In most games, collectibles do very little or even nothing at all, but in Shadow of War, they reveal little tidbits of the game’s lore. When dealing with any Tolkien-related story, we fans are always happy to have more information about the setting and this makes the collectibles in Shadow of War rather enjoyable.
One of these collectibles, a fossilized squid’s beak, immediately and inevitably caught my attention. Since this fossil deserves more time in the spotlight than what it got in the game, I have devoted this article to analyze it more thoroughly.
THE MORDORIAN SQUID
The fossil in Shadow of War can be found in Mordor and it represents a squid’s beak (Fig. 1). In the game, the item is called “Kraken Beak Fossil” and is accompanied by the following comment by Idril, the non-player character responsible for the treasury of the Gondorian city Minas Ithil: “Our patrols found this fossilized squid beak years ago. If it is proportional to the smaller squids that fishermen sometimes catch, the sea creature would be several hundred feet long.”
The item is named a “Kraken beak” in allusion to the well-known fact that real-life giant squids were the origin of the Kraken myth (Salvador & Tomotani, 2014). So the characters in the game recognize they are dealing with a “giant version” of their common squids. But what exactly is a squid’s beak? And can fossil beaks really be found in our planet’s rocks? To answer these questions, we will need a little primer in squid biology.
Squids are animals belonging to the Phylum Mollusca, the mollusks, and more specifically to the Class Cephalopoda. Cephalopods are very diverse creatures and the group includes not only squids but also octopuses, cuttlefish, nautiluses and two completely extinct lineages: the belemnites and the ammonoids. Cephalopods live in seas worldwide (from the surface to 5,000 m deep) and are represented by over 800 living species; the fossil record, on the other hand, counts with 17,000 species (Boyle & Rodhouse, 2005; Rosenberg, 2014).
The first cephalopods appeared over 450 million years ago during the late Cambrian (Boyle & Rodhouse, 2005; Nishiguchi & Mapes, 2008). They achieved an astounding diversity of species during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, but some lineages (ammonoids and belemnites) are now extinct (Monks & Palmer, 2002). Today, we have two distinct groups of cephalopods: the nautiluses, a relict group with just a handful of species, and the neocoleoids, a latecomer group that appeared during the Mesozoic and includes cuttlefish, octopuses, and squids (Boyle & Rodhouse, 2005; Nishiguchi & Mapes, 2008).
Squids are soft-bodied animals and their body is divided into three parts (Fig. 2): (1) the mantle, where most organs are located; (2) the head, where the eyes, brain, and mouth are located; and (3) the eight arms and two tentacles (the latter usually look different from the arms and can be much longer).
The mouth of the squid is on the center of the circle formed by the arms. It contains a pair of chitinous mandibles, which together are called a “beak” because of their resemblance to a bird’s beak (Fig. 3). Squids hold their prey with their arms, draw it towards the mouth, and take small bites off it using the beak. The beak and mandibles move by muscular action – they are connected by jaw muscles within a globular organ called “buccal mass” (Nixon, 1988; Tanabe & Fukuda, 1999).
Usually, the only parts of an animal to become fossils are the mineralized (and thus hard) skeletal structures, such as bone, teeth, and shells. Squids are almost completely soft-tissue animals and so are only preserved in the fossil record in exceptional circumstances. The beak of a squid is not mineralized; rather, it is composed only of organic compounds such as chitin (the same substance found on insects’ exoskeleton) and proteins (Miserez et al., 2008). Nevertheless, the beak is reasonably tough and thus, it can become a fossil under the right circumstances. Indeed, several fossil squids (and neocoleoids in general) are known only from their beaks (Tanabe, 2012; Tanabe et al., 2015; Fig. 4) or their internal vestigial shell.
Therefore, it is plausible that a fossil beak of a squid could be found in Mordorian rocks. It could be argued that the fossil presented in the game is not morphologically accurate, especially the frontal part of the beak, which seems to be a single piece instead of two (Fig. 1), but we can disregard this here and accept the Mordorian fossil for what the game says it is: the remains of a squid that lived long ago. The game’s description of the fossil implies that the animal would be huge – but how can we know the size of the animal only from its beak? And how big can a squid get anyway? I will try to answer those questions now.
Besides Idril’s comments about the fossil in Shadow of War and how large the actual animal must have been (“several hundred feet”), we have no real indication of the fossil’s size – no scale bar alongside its depiction, for instance. Knowing the actual size of a squid’s beak allows scientists to estimate the animal’s size, based on data from recent species. For instance, Tanabe et al. (2015), described a new squid species based on a fossilized beak (Fig. 4). They named it Haboroteuthis poseidon and, by its lower beak of roughly 7 cm, estimated it to be the size of a Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas d’Orbigny, 1835), with a mantle length of 1.5 m – a giant in its own right. However, nature does not disappoint us in this regard and we have two amazingly huge species, aptly named Colossal squid and Giant squid.
The Colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni Robson, 1925, is the largest living cephalopod species in terms of body mass. It is very bulky, weighing up to half a ton and maybe even more. The Giant squid, Architeuthis dux Steenstrup, 1857, is actually the largest invertebrate alive – it can reach up to 20 meters (about 65 feet) in length, from the tip of its mantle to the tip of its long tentacles. However, Architeuthis has a slender build and even though it is larger, it weighs less than Mesonychoteuthis. Centuries ago encounters on the open sea with Architeuthis left Nordic seafarers in awe, giving rise to the legend of the Kraken (Salvador & Tomotani, 2014).
But since Idril did not take her time to actually measure the fossil, we cannot estimate the body size of the Mordorian squid. Her estimate of several hundred feet is way larger than the “modest” 65 feet of Architeuthis and extremely unrealistic for any kind of animal (both soft-bodied and with a hard internal skeleton); thus, it can be dismissed as a guesstimate of someone without training in zoology. However, given the large “prehistoric” proportions of other animals in Tolkien’s legendarium, such as wargs and oliphaunts, we could expect the Mordorian squid to be really big – but good old Biology would not allow a much larger size than Architeuthis.
But what about the Middle-earth canon? Did Tolkien provide us with some nice Kraken-like legends to settle this matter?
SQUIDS IN TOLKIEN’S LEGENDARIUM
Judging by videos and forum discussions on the Internet, most of the players that found the fossil in Shadow of War just considered it to belong to a monster akin to the “Watcher in the Water” from The Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien, 1954a). Of course, that simply cannot be, because the Watcher is not a cephalopod; for starters, he is watching from a pool of freshwater. Its physiology and behavior do not really match those of cephalopods. The Watcher’s physical description (Tolkien, 1954a) is vague enough to match virtually any kind of “tentacled” monster; people just assume it is a cephalopod because of the tentacles (e.g., Tyler, 1976).
In his Tolkien Bestiary, Day (2001) took a huge liberty and gave the name Kraken to the Watcher. Tolkien, however, never mentioned a Kraken (or cephalopods) in his writings – and surely did not relate that name to the Watcher (even in manuscript; C. Tolkien, 2002a).
As Tolkien scholarship is very complex, I reached out to the American Tolkien Society just to be safe. They confirmed the absence of krakens and squid-like beasts in Tolkien’s works (A.A. Helms, personal communication 2017).
We must remember, however, that the video games (including Shadow of War) are not part of the accepted Tolkien’s canon, which includes only the published writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and the posthumous works edited and published by his son Christopher. Games like Shadow of War are thus allowed to deviate from the core works and invent new things to amaze and surprise its players. And one of these things seems to be the fossil giant squid.
Therefore, we can think of Shadow of War’s squid as a new discovery: a new species hitherto unknown to Science. New species discoveries always get the public’s attention, but few people actually know how scientists are able to recognize a species as new and what they do to formally describe and name it. So let us take a closer look at the whole process.
DESCRIBING A NEW SPECIES
The beaks of recent cephalopods have been widely studied by zoologists (e.g., Clarke, 1962; Nixon, 1988) and so they provide a good basis for comparison when someone finds a new fossil. By comparing the morphological features of the new find with previously known species, it is possible to decide if it belongs to one of them or if it represents a new species.
Now let us imagine that the Mordorian fossil was compared to all known cephalopods and we discovered it is, in fact, a new species. How do scientists formally describe a new species and give it one of those fancy Latin names?
The science of defining and naming biological organisms is called Taxonomy and it deals with all types of living beings, from bacteria to plants to animals. Zoologists have long ago come up with a set of rules for describing new species; it is called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, or ICZN for short. We are now in the 4th edition of the ICZN, from 1999. The “Code” gives us guidelines for naming species and for what is considered a good (or valid) species description. For a new species to be recognized by the scientific community, its authors (i.e., the scientists describing it) have to provide a set of crucial information: (1) a description or a diagnosis of the species; (2) a holotype specimen; (3) the type locality; and (4) a scientific name. So let me explain each of these.
The description of a species is very straightforward: the researcher lists all the features (called “characters”) from the species. This includes morphology (e.g., shape, color), anatomy (e.g., internal organs), behavior (e.g., feeding habits, courtship), ecology (e.g., preferred prey), habitat, etc. As Mayr et al. (1953: 106) put it, the characters listed in the description are limited “only by the patience of the investigator”.
The diagnosis, on the other hand, is a list of just those characters that distinguish the new species from all the other species in the same group (like a genus or family). The word “diagnosis” comes from the Greek and originally means “to distinguish between two things” (Simpson, 1961). Both description and diagnosis are written in a peculiar telegraphic way, which will seem very odd for people not used to it.
The holotype is a single physical specimen chosen by the author to be the name-bearing specimen of the given species. That means the scientific name of the species is forever linked with that specimen and this will form the basis for the definition of the species. The holotype should ideally represent the species well, but this is not always the case: it can be an entire animal, such as a squid preserved in a jar of ethanol, or just part of the animal, such as the squid’s beak. The latter case is especially true for fossils, where the whole animal is not preserved. Finally, the holotype should be preserved and kept in a museum or university collection, thus allowing access to anyone interested in studying it.
The type locality is the place where the holotype comes from; the more precise the locality (e.g., GPS coordinates), the better. For fossils, it is also common to indicate the type stratum, that is, the layer of rock where the holotype was found.
Finally, the author gets to choose a scientific name for the species. The scientific names of species are formed by two parts; let us have as an example the species Corvus corax, the common raven. The first part is actually the name of the genus, Corvus, which includes not only ravens but also species of crows, rooks, and jackdaws. The second part of the name (corax) is called the “specific epithet”. However, one should always remember that the species name is not simply corax. The word corax by itself means nothing unless it is accompanied by the genus name. Thus, the complete name of the raven species is Corvus corax.
When choosing the specific epithet, the author can use anything he wants, but most commonly people use a word that denotes: (1) a morphological feature, such as Turdus rufiventris, the rufous-bellied thrush (naturally, rufiventris means “rufous-bellied”); (2) the place where the species can be found, such as the Abyssinian thrush, Turdus abyssinicus (Abyssinia is a historical name for Ethiopia); (3) an ecological or behavioral trait, like the mistle thrush, Turdus viscivorus (viscivorus means “mistletoe eater”); or (4) a homage to someone, like Naumann’s thrush, Turdus naumanni, named in honor of the German naturalist Johann Andreas Naumann (the suffix “-i” in the specific epithet is the Latin masculine singular form of the genitive case). The explanation of where the name comes from is called etymology.
Furthermore, when writing a scientific name, it is good practice to also include the authorship of the species; this means including the name(s) of the author(s) who originally described it. In the example above, the complete species name would be Corvus corax Linnaeus, 1758. Linnaeus is the scientist who first described the species and 1758 is the year he published the description.
So now that the formalities of taxonomy were presented, let us see how our new Mordorian species could be described. If the species in question cannot be placed in an existing genus, a new genus might be described and the same ICZN rules above apply. So let’s start by naming the genus Mordorteuthis n. gen., which reflects the place where the fossil was discovered (“teuthis”, from the Greek, means “squid”).
The new species could then be formally described as Mordorteuthis idrilae n. sp., named in honor of Idril (the suffix “-ae” in the specific epithet is the Latin feminine singular form of the genitive case). The holotype would be the specimen recovered by Talion (Fig. 1) that originally belonged to the treasury of Minas Ithil. For safekeeping, the holotype should then be handed over to a decent academic institution, like the Royal Museum of Minas Tirith (yes, I just invented that). The type locality would be Mordor, close to the Sea of Núrnen; the type stratum, however, remains unknown, as this information is not provided in the game (it is suggested, however, that the fossil was found on a beach of the Sea of Núrnen). The diagnosis should give a list of features (such as its large size) that can distinguish it from other fossil squids from Middle-earth; a hard task, given that this is the very first fossil squid described from Middle-earth. The description would be a full account of the fossil’s shape, proportions, and fine structures; this can be boring even for trained taxonomists, so I won’t do it here (for an actual example, see Tanabe & Hikida, 2010).
Finally, we might glimpse some information about the squid’s habitat: the fossil was found close to the Sea of Núrnen, which is an inland saltwater lake, like our Dead Sea (Tolkien, 1954b). Both the Sea of Núrnen and the Sea of Rhûn to the north are thought to be remnants of the old Sea of Helcar from the First Age (Fonstad, 1991; C. Tolkien, 2002b). The Sea of Helcar would be much larger and thus, perhaps a fitting place for large squids to thrive. Besides, its old age makes it a likely point of origin for a fossil.
Of course, a new species description is only valid if published in the scientific literature. Therefore, our little flight of fancy with Mordorteuthis idrilae here is not a valid species description, but it can sure serve as a nice introduction to taxonomy and to how scientists describe new species.
Finally, it is always worthwhile to mention that several taxonomists have paid homage to Tolkien by naming their genera and species after characters and places from his writings (Isaak, 2014). For instance, we have the genera Smaug (lizard), Beorn (tardigrade), and Smeagol (snail), and the species Macropsis sauroni (leafhopper), and Bubogonia bombadili and Oxyprimus galadrielae (both fossil mammals). But there are many others. That may be inevitable in a sense, as several nerds end up becoming scientists. In any event, geeky names such as these sure make an otherwise arid science a little bit more colorful.
Boyle, P. & Rodhouse, P. (2005) Cephalopods: Ecology and Fisheries. Blackwell Science, Oxford.
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Fonstad, K. (1991) The Atlas of Middle-earth, Revised Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York.
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Tanabe, K. (2012) Comparative morphology of modern and fossil coleoid jaw apparatuses. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie, Abhandlungen 266(1): 9–18.
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Wright, J. (2014) The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names. Bloomsbury Publishing, London.
I am deeply grateful to the people from the American Tolkien Society (Amalie A. Helms, Connor Helms, and Phelan Helms) for the information about “krakens” in Tolkien’s works; to Dr. Philippe Bouchet (Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris, France) for the help with ICZN articles; and to Dr. Barbara M. Tomotani (Netherlands Institute of Ecology, Wageningen, The Netherlands) and Dr. Carlo M. Cunha (Universidade Metropolitana de Santos, Santos, Brazil) for the permission to use, respectively, Figures 2 and 3 here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a malacologist who has made his peace with the fact that virtually no one knows what a malacologist is. In case you’re wondering, it means “a zoologist specializing in the study of mollusks”. Despite being a Tolkien fan through and through, he does think that Middle-earth could use more zoological diversity.
 Called “cuttlebone” in cuttlefish and “gladius” or “pen” in squids and octopuses, although some lineages have completely lost the shell. Other cephalopods, like the nautilus, have very prominent external shells, as is the norm for other mollusks (e.g., snails, clams, etc.).
 Since people always get this wrong, just let me clear things up: squids have 8 arms and 2 tentacles, while octopuses have 8 arms and no tentacles whatsoever.
 Day also took another huge liberty in using the opening verses of the poem The Kraken (Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1830) without giving proper credit to the poet.
 Being stricter, the Watcher, like the Nazgûl’s flying mounts, remained nameless.
 Botanists (and mycologists) have their own code, the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants. Bacteriologists have their code as well, the International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria.
 The abbreviation “n. gen.” after the name means “new genus” and indicates that the genus is being described here for the first time.
 Likewise, “n. sp.” means “new species” and indicates that the species is being described here for the first time.
 The nomenclatural acts on this article are presented simply for hypothetical concepts (a Middle-earth squid) and are disclaimed for nomenclatural purposes, being thus not available (ICZN Articles 1.3.1 and 8.3).
 In earlier writings, the names are usually spelled Nûrnen and Helkar.
As an avid consumer of Japanese video games during my early teens, particularly of the RPG sort, I could not help but notice that some monsters would pop up in several games and typically had a pretty standard depiction. I have always been interested in mythology and could naturally identify the usual chimeras, griffins, phoenixes, and gorgons.
However, these monsters shared their screen time with more unusual ones (or unusual to me at least) from Japanese myths and folklore. Maybe expectedly, I started to read about Japanese myths and to learn about kappa, tengu and many others. Still, one monster, in particular, was suspiciously absent from the books: a sort of statue-like creature with large round eyes (Fig. 1). I did not know its actual name and could not find information about it anywhere.
Then, I forgot all about this monster when I switched my geek focus to tabletop RPGs and my gaming preferences to Western hits (Bioware RPGs, Gears of War, etc.). This lasted until some years ago when I played Persona 4 and Pokémon: Alpha Sapphire for the first time (I had skipped Pokémon’s Gen III back in the day); there and then, I re-encountered that weird statue-like creature (Fig. 2).
Even so, it was not until a recent visit to the British Museum that my interest was reignited. In their Japanese exhibition, I discovered that this creature was not a mythological monster after all — it was nothing like a tengu or a kappa! The damn thing was a prehistoric clay figurine (Fig. 3). As a category, these figurines are called “dogū”.
Needless to say, I began searching for books and scholarly articles about dogū. Sadly, most of the literature on them (and prehistoric Japan in general) is in Japanese, which I cannot read and do not trust Google to translate it for me. Nevertheless, I wanted to report what I could find, just in case these figurines have captured the imagination of someone else out there (maybe someone like you, dear reader). So please keep in mind that my report here is based on the somewhat scarce literature available in English and thus it may lack some information and/or be overly simplified in some aspects.
Before we start, however, I need to briefly explain how Japanese prehistory is divided. So let’s get down to it.
Japanese prehistory can be broadly divided into two large periods: the Paleolithic and what may be informally called “Ancient Japan” (Table 1). The latter is a mixture of the usual Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age that has defied classification by archaeologists using this standard Western periodization (Imamura, 1996). This span of time contains three periods: the Jōmon, the Yayoi, and the Kofun. Here we are interested only in the first one, the Jōmon period.
Taken literally, Jōmon means “cord-marked”. This refers to the usage of cords to create decorative patterns on ceramics (Fig. 4), which was achieved by simply pressing a cord on the clay prior to firing (Kaner, 2009).
During the Jōmon period, Japan was covered by rich temperate forests (Imamura, 1996). This allowed people to live as hunter-gatherers, although there were phases (maybe seasonal) of sedentism, with some settlements growing quite large and possibly housing a few hundred inhabitants (Imamura, 1996; Henshall, 2004). There is also evidence of slash-and-burn agriculture and limited domestication of plant species, accompanied by skillful management of resources (Imamura, 1996; Habu, 2004). Furthermore, a good portion of the Jōmon people lived close to the coast, exploring marine resources (Henshall, 2004).
The Jōmon period was not, however, a single homogenous thing across all Japan. There was regional variation in habits and material culture, which changed at different paces throughout the country (Henshall, 2004). Furthermore, people from the continent migrated into Japan and added their share of knowledge, culture and genes to the mixture (Imamura, 1996). The Jōmon period ended with the start of rice cultivation and metallurgy.
One important social aspect that gained strength during the Jōmon was how people dealt with the supernatural. Artifacts (Fig. 5), burial practices, and stone circles (Fig. 6) all indicate that religion and ritual were steadily developing throughout the period (Kaner, 2011). One type such artifacts was, of course, the dogū.
Dogū are ceramic figures produced during the Jōmon period. The earliest dogū dates back to the Incipient Jōmon (Table 2) and they remained restricted in numbers during the Initial and Early Jōmon (Habu, 2004). However, from the Middle Jōmon onwards, their manufacture thrived and their design became more elaborate (Kaner, 2009).
Most of the dogū are clearly female (some of them supposedly pregnant; Fig. 7), so some scholars believe they are representations of an earth-goddess. They claim that this mother-goddess worship is common in agricultural societies, but then again, agriculture was only incipient during the Jōmon period. Other scholars take into consideration the prominence of secondary sex characteristics and hypothesize that the dogū are just general fertility symbols, related to fertility rituals and magical protection during dangerous events such as childbirth. This latter option seems apparently more likely, as similar symbols are known from pretty much everywhere.
Nevertheless, considering that figurines such as these have only one function is careless, to say the least (Soffer et al., 2000). As such, other interpretations have appeared in the last decades. For instance, some authors link the increase in the production of dogū from the Middle Jōmon onwards to an increase of agricultural practices and the role of women in this subsistence shift (Togawa, 2003).
The actual functions of dogū remain unknown, but the constant debate makes archaeologists revisit old ideas, propose new ones, and slowly fine-tune our knowledge.
There are several types of dogū, roughly classified by how they look. Because of that, they have some really amusing names (Habu, 2004): heart-shaped dogū (Fig. 8), sitting dogū, mountain-shaped-head dogū, goggle-eyed (or slit-goggle) dogū (Figs. 3, 9), horned-owl dogū.
It is still unclear if these different categories of dogū had distinct purposes or functions. Furthermore, dogū came in several sizes, from palm-sized figurines to large ones more than 30 cm high (Togawa, 2003; Kaner, 2009). As such, it is likely that they had different functions, ranging from personal belongings to probably community-wide ceremonial artifacts (Togawa, 2003).
Today, people can see all sorts of dogū in museum exhibitions around the world, like in the Tokyo National Museum and the British Museum. But they are not merely relics of an ancient past – Japanese people certainly have not forgotten them. For instance, there are some conspicuous monuments in Japan commemorating the most popular type of dogū, the goggle-eyed dogū (or shakōki-dogū).
Two of such monuments can be found in the city of Tsugaru, in Aomori prefecture. The Kamegaoka Site, an archaeological site dating from the Final Jōmon (1,000–300 BCE), is located there. This site is important because it is the place where the most textbook-famous dogū (a goggle-eyed one with a broken leg; Fig. 9) was found back in 1887 (Tsugaru City Board of Education, 2018). One of the monuments is a simple statue (Fig. 10), as could be expected, but the city’s railway station (Fig. 11) is something else entirely!
Box 1. Pseudoarchaeology
Unfortunately, the dogū (especially the goggle-eyed) became victims of human stupidity, just as several other archaeological icons (the pyramids, the Antikythera mechanism, the Nazca lines, etc.). That is, they were linked to alien activity by people who abhor scientific research and methodology and who prefer to make up their own wild stories about reality. Their “explanation” is that the goggle-eyed dogū resembles a person in a space suit. And no, I will not give the reference to their original “works” — these people should not be given the satisfaction of an actual citation!
Given the cultural importance of the dogū in Japan and the increasing influence of television, mangas and video games, it was expected that these clay figures would make their way into pop culture. This is especially true for the fan-favorite type, the goggle-eyed dogū (Rousmaniere, 2009).
The obvious examples, as I mentioned above, come from video games, especially RPGs such as the ever-present Final Fantasy (Square Enix, 1987–present) and Dragon Quest series. The dogū are featured in various games, often just as meaningless enemies in random dungeons. Thus, I will not bore you to death with an extensive list of all dogū appearances. Instead, I will point out just a few examples that I find more meaningful.
One of them is the Pokémon Claydol (Fig. 2), which does not have the most creative name around. It is a Ground / Psychic type and most Pokédex entries on the series point out that it is a clay statue made by ancient people (Bulbapedia, 2018). The entries in Pokémon Sapphire (2002), Black/White 2 (2012) and Alpha Sapphire (2014) date them from 20,000 years ago, which, as we have seen above (Table 1), is a clear exaggeration for the late parts of the Jōmon period. However, the Pokédex entry in Pokémon Ultra Moon (2017) is much more problematic; it reads: “The ancient people who made it apparently modeled it after something that descended from the sky.” Pokémon, of course, is not known for its scientific rigor (Tomotani, 2014; Mendes et al., 2017), but spreading ridiculous alien stories is irresponsible, to say the least (see also Box 1).
Another interesting appearance of the goggle-eyed dogū is in the Shin Megami Tensei series (henceforth SMT; Atlus/Sega, 1987–present), which includes the Persona sub-series. These games allow players to summon mythological monsters (and deities) from virtually all cultures around the world. Since it is a Japanese game, it focuses heavily on Japanese creatures. The goggle-eyed dogū from SMT is called Arahabaki (Fig. 12).
The entries about Arahabaki in the SMT games’ lore describe it as a god (Megami Tensei Wiki, 2018), which we have already established is the less likely hypothesis. The game also refers to it as “he/him” (at least in the English translation), while clearly depicting it with a female body, like the original clay figurines. SMT uses myths as a basis for its setting and story, and infuse them with fiction, so it is hard to tell if their information came from somewhere or if they just made it up to fill a narrative purpose. In any event, their description of the goggle-eyed dogū is off the mark.
Last but not least, there’s Ōkami (Capcom, 2006). The game is set in classical Japan and mixes lots of Japanese myths and folklore. In Ōkami, the goggle-eyed dogū (Fig. 13) is one among many demons that the player faces. The demon’s entry in the game’s bestiary (Okami Wiki, 2018) handles the matter much better than Pokémon: “Of all the odd clay figures in this land, the Dogu is the strangest. Fascinated people have speculated that they originated on the moon.” Thus, the game makes clear that the whole alien thing is just a story made up by some crazy folk.
Dogū are also featured in several mangas (e.g., Doraemon), typically as the focus of one or a handful of chapters. However, one title features them prominently: it is called “Dogū Family” (translation) and was printed in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. The story focused on the everyday life of a family of goggle-eyed dogū in modern Japan. Unfortunately, I could not find the actual manga to read.
Dogū also appear in Japanese products and TV commercials, and there is even one TV show about them: The Ancient Dogoo Girl (“Kodai Shōjo Doguchan”; Fig. 14) and its sequel The Ancient Dogoo Girls (“Kodai Shōjotai Dogūn Faibu”). The series aired on MBS (Mainichi Broadcasting System) from 2009 to 2010.
The series’ plot is very basic Japanese stuff: Makoto, a hikikomori, finds a weird breastplate buried in the woods, touches it, and awakens a girl named Dogu-chan. She is a yōkai hunter from the Jōmon period and ends up living with Makoto. Dogu-chan has a familiar/assistant named Dokigoro (Fig. 15), which is a sentient goggle-eyed dogū that transforms into magical (bikini) armor for its master. The sequel had another five girls wearing armors based on other types of dogū.
The Ancient Dogoo Girl is a very weird and rather embarrassing show, even by Japan standards, as it involves a lot of breasts-based magic. I just skimmed through the first episode to write these paragraphs and already regret it. So if you are curious to watch it, know that you have been warned.
Aliens and bikini armor aside, it is amazing how Japan is always finding ways to keep its culture alive. Because of that, even prehistoric artifacts such as dogū still have a place in modern Japan – and not only a place in museums, as national treasures, but also as pop culture icons.
Habu, J. (2004) Ancient Jomon of Japan. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Henshall, K.G. (2004) A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower. Second Edition. Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire.
Imamura, K. (1996) Prehistoric Japan: New Perspectives on Insular East Asia. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.
Kaner, S. (2009) The Power of Dogu: Ceramic Figures from Ancient Japan. British Museum Press, London.
Kaner, S. (2011) The archaeology of religion and ritual in the prehistoric Japanese archipelago. In: Insoll, T. (Ed.) The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Pp. 457–469.
Those figures presented here that were extracted from the Tokyo National Museum (Digital Research Archives: http://webarchives.tnm.jp/) and Wikimedia Commons, have been slightly modified (cropped, etc.) to improve presentation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a paleontologist and biologist, but is irredeemably fascinated with archaeology and mythology. Although his main “thing” remains Ancient Egypt, he is becoming increasingly drawn to the Jōmon and Yayoi periods of Japanese history. He has faced Japanese pre-historic monsters in many JRPGs, sometimes even summoning them to fight on his behalf – well, actually that last bit was just in SMT/Persona, because who on Earth uses a Claydol?
 Back then, in my home country, Internet connection was awfully slow and the service very expensive.
 The phallic stone rods seen above (Fig. 5) are also typically regarded as fertility symbols (Habu, 2004).
 That happened to other weird beings, such as the cartoonish Egyptian god Medjed (Salvador, 2017).
 And talking about exaggerating dates, the Japanese archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura claimed to have found Paleolithic artifacts in Japan dating back to 600,000 years ago. However, it was later discovered that he fabricated his own artifacts and planted them on his excavation site so he could “find” them later (Romey, 2001; Normile, 2001).
 Arahabaki’s look was very different in early SMT games, such as Megami Tensei II, where it was depicted as a samurai of sorts. So maybe they just retained the name, alongside the original idea/description, and changed this monster’s appearance to that of a dogū in later games.