Pokémon Has a Lot in Common With Confidence Games

By Tim Rogers on at

Pokémon is one of the most popular media properties in the world. In this video presentation, I argue that Pokémon’s popularity owes a lot to its many structural resemblances to classic confidence games. Yes, I’m saying Pokémon’s game design follows the blueprint of a criminal scam, and I mean that as an enormous compliment.

Maybe you’ve heard Sid Meier’s famous definition of games as “a set of interesting decisions.” Pokémon is such an interesting set of decisions that it requires you to make a decision before you play.

Decision Zero in a Pokémon game is “Which version do you buy?” One can endlessly philosophise about their choice. They can choose the version corresponding to their preferred colour. They can choose the version their friends didn’t choose. They can choose the version that has the cooler Legendary Pokémon on the cover. Offering players two versions of every Pokémon game is smart marketing. As soon as you start thinking about a new Pokémon game, you’re thinking about which version you’d buy if you bought one.

If we phrased this as a multiple choice question, it’d look like this:

“Which version of Pokémon is better?”

  • Red
  • Blue
  • I don’t care

Two out of three of those options result in your continuing to think about Pokémon. That’s a two to one ratio. Where I’m from, we call that a two-thirds majority.

From this playful (if mildly fallacious) logic, we can begin to pull apart Pokémon’s sprawling network of decisions – not the least of which is “Which Starter?”

My video goes deep into the game from here. If a confidence game is the work of a con artist, we might as well call Pokémon a work of con art.

With this project I set out to review the entire Pokémon game series. (Spoiler: I determined it’s phenomenally great.)

After finishing this video, I’m now obsessed with the possible future headline “Blackjack: The Kotaku Video Review.” The journey from there to here was wild. Please watch my video to experience it for yourself.