Years of being told that video games are a lesser art form has made many gamers unduly defensive, particularly when they feel games are being blamed for things that are out of their control. So naturally the response isn’t super positive when PETA’s crosshairs settle on video games. Not that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals cares; the infamous animal rights group is notorious for triggering controversy.
In recent years PETA has taken to producing protest games that are playable on the web. The latest, Pokémon: Red, White & Blue, attacks both Pokémon and McDonald’s over toys being included with Happy Meals to promote last weekend’s launch of the actual new Pokémon games, Pokémon X and Pokémon Y. Selling burgers to kids is not a new concept, but PETA sees it as exploitative, and as the group’s Director of Marketing Innovations (and writer of the game’s script) Joel Bartlett told ANIMAL, “it’s such a ripe, interesting thing for us to explore.”
In the parody game players direct bloody, scarred Pokémon in battles against an overweight McDonald’s customer who tries to eat them on the spot, villainous factory butchers, something that resembles the Hamburglar, and a sinister Ronald McDonald himself. No one’s arguing that animals deserve to be treated poorly, but it’s hard to deny that PETA’s games are in poor taste when you’re telling Pikachu to hug, electrocute and murder a person for eating meat.
“We create a spectacle. We need to get people’s attention. And so the games are purposely provocative, and that’s unfortunately necessary in order to get people to think about these issues,” Bartlett said. “I see comments like, ‘You know that Pokémon aren’t real, right?’ It’s like yes, we know that.”
“With a game like this we’re in the business of planting seeds,” he continued. “I don’t expect people who are playing this game to go vegan, to stop eating animals, right then. But if someone who plays this game or watches the video in this game—factory farming in 60 seconds flat—then the next time they sit down to eat, they think about who they’re eating, for just a moment.”
But how is what PETA is doing any different from McDonald’s attempts to use Pokémon to sell burgers to kids? Isn’t PETA just exploiting Pokémon to get its own message across? “There’s a difference between using a cute thing to get kids to want to eat that and using Pokémon to get people to think about animal rights more,” Bartlett said.
But why target Pokémon at all? The way PETA portrays the world of Pokémon is in stark contrast to the realities of those games, in which people and their Pokémon companions live mostly in harmony and friendship. It’s some really family-friendly shit, and PETA knows it—Bartlett said condemning Pokémon is not the point, just a byproduct. But that wasn’t the case with PETA’s last Pokémon parody game, 2012’s Pokémon: Black & Blue, which condemned the series for glamorizing glorified cockfights and carried the tagline “Gotta free ’em all.”
Again, that’s not meant to be taken literally; “PETA does not believe that people should free their pets,” Bartlett explained. “With Pokémon: Black and White—that’s the real one, not our parody—the game introduces the idea of Pokémon liberation, and that theme throughout the game of, like, ‘Do Pokémon want to be free? Do they belong to humans to fight?’ And we sort of took that as a jumping off point.”
But part of the trouble with PETA’s protest games is knowing where the fun ends and the literal message begins. In the 2011 game Super Tanooki Skin 2D PETA portrayed Nintendo’s beloved Mario character wearing the bloody, flopping skin of a real life Japanese raccoon dog. The 2008 parody Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals took the series’ eponymous protagonist to task for cooking with meat, showed her brandishing a bloody knife, and made players eviscerate a bloody, squelching turkey. A 2010 parody called Super Tofu Boy cast soy bean curd as the hero and Meat Boy, who in the actual game Super Meat Boy is a human boy with no skin who treasures pain-relieving bandaids, as a jealous and rage-filled meatball. None of these make a lick of sense to gamers, but Bartlett said they reach audiences nonetheless.
All of PETA’s games are interspersed with optional videos showing animals being treated inhumanely. Bartlett said as long as they get people talking about these things, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of PETA itself. “People who play Mario have no idea that a tanuki is a real life animal and that tanukis are one of the types of animals that are skinned alive in extremely horrific ways,” he explained. “In the video that we released with that game, it’s shocking to people, and I’ve seen people posting about it like, ‘I think this game’s outrageous, but I learned about the fur trade because of it.’ And it’s that buzz that we’re interested in.”
From PETA’s perspective if some innocent games get smeared with blood in the process of sending their message, that’s no matter. They’re just more casualties in the war, and PETA generates a great deal of publicity, for better or for worse.
“We’re not attacking Pokémon. We don’t think that Pokémon is evil,” Bartlett said, adding that there are Pokémon fans at PETA and calling the parodies “a labor of love.” He continued, “We’re saying, ‘Hey, there’s something to think about here. Let’s stop and explore that.'”
“PETA’s not in the business of just getting people to be a little bit nicer to animals,” he said. “We want to change the way that people perceive animals. We believe that animals are not ours to eat, to wear. And to get people to really think about that we need to get their attention.”
Well, they’ve certainly accomplished that.