Tag Archives: rationalist fiction

Chapter 4: Operant Conditioning


“Shit, they’re fast!”

“There’s another!”

“I got it!”

Red throws a third time, letting go too soon and sending the pokeball slightly off target. Not that it matters: the small brown pokemon hops out of the way, wings flapping to send the ball farther out of reach. The gusts of wind send dirt into Red’s eyes, and he covers his face with an elbow while holding onto his cap’s bill to keep it on his head. When the wind stops, he looks up to see the small flock of pidgey swiftly departing.

Blue walks over, breathing hard. “Goddamn birds,” he mutters as he brushes dirt from his eyes, hair a windblown mess. His squirtle approaches from behind, staring after the departed pidgey for a moment before dropping onto all fours and investigating the grass around them.

“Squirtle manage to hit any of them?” Red asks as he walks around to reclaim his pokeballs and shrink them.

“A couple, but they recovered too fast, and then she ran out of water.” Blue pulls a bottle of it out and begins squirting some into the turtle’s open mouth.

Red hadn’t summoned Charmander, wanting to avoid further injury unless necessary. He looks over to where Leaf and Bulbasaur are and sees her pick up one of her own pokeballs before heading to them.

“No luck either, huh?” Red asks.

“Nope. This isn’t as easy as in the sims… or we’re getting the equivalent of a lot of bad RNG. We’re definitely going to need to wear them down first.”

“Which would be simple enough, if they’d stay still and fight,” Blue says.

Red sighs and sits in a patch of short grass, crossing his leg beneath him and drinking from Blue’s water bottle. The other two sit in a rough triangle, Blue rubbing Squirtle’s shell. “Pidgey aren’t as aggressive as rattata,” Red says. “Unless we find a nest and actually start messing with their eggs, they have no reason to stick around rather than just fly off if threatened.”

“Maybe we hold off on catching one for now?” Leaf says.

Blue shakes his head. “I want a Flying type before we reach Viridian Forest, unless you want to risk getting divebombed by some beedrill without a way to fight back.”

“What’s a beedrill?” Leaf asks, and Blue pulls out his pokedex. A large, winged black and yellow insect, all sharp stingers and pointed claws, appears on the screen. “Ugh, yeah, that might be a problem. So… ideas?”

“We could go to Viridian City and get a net launcher, then come back,” Red says. It’s one of the items on his eventual wish-list of gear, and he’d looked at some prices online. “They cost five hundred dollars, but we can rent one for a hundred-thirty a day.”

Blue scratches his neck. “That’s not bad. How much do you have?”

“After buying all my gear, I’ve got $237 left. You?”

“I have about five hundred saved up.”

Leaf holds up her purse. “I brought four hundred for the trip. So we could all pool in to rent one for $43 each, or buy it for $167, give or take a dollar.”

“So it’s an option, though a pricey one,” Red says.

Blue nods. “I was hoping to save for critical supplies until I can earn some cash through catches or matches, so let’s make that Plan B. Any other ideas?”

Leaf looks around at the tall grass, some of it as high as their shoulders while seated. “A trap of some kind? I can hide with Bulbasaur in some tall grass, try to grab one with vines if it gets close.”

“Might take hours of waiting,” Blue says. “What if we lure them? Dig a hole, make a false cover and put some berries on it?”

Red runs his fingers through the grass. “Even if they were heavy enough to break it, they’d just fly out before we got close. I like the berry idea though. Maybe combine it with Leaf’s? Bulbasaur sits under the trap?”

“Or better yet, we can find a berry bush to hide him in,” Leaf says.

They agree, and get up to look for a good spot. It isn’t hard to find berry bushes, but most are stripped of ripe fruit by wild pokemon. A few rattata and pidgey run from the trio as they walk through the tall grass, and eventually they find a berry laden bush with three rattata around it. They seem willing to stand and fight at first, until Leaf brings Bulbasaur out. They flee before Red can bring out Charmander, and Blue throws a pokeball at the retreating rodents, missing one by a hair.

“Not a word,” Blue says.

“It’s a lot easier when they’re knocked out,” Red offers with a grin.

“Okay Bulbasaur. In you go.” Leaf points at the berry bush. Her pokemon walks over to it and begins to feed. “No! Stop!” Bulbasaur hesitates a moment, then continues, and Leaf pulls a spray bottle out of her pocket and squirts a mist of water in Bulbasaur’s face, saying “Stop!” again. He recoils, blinking in surprise, and looks at his trainer with a mournful sound.

“I guess we didn’t think this through,” Blue says, balancing a spinning pokeball on one finger. “He’s going to just eat the berries when we move away.”

“Give me a bit, and he won’t,” Leaf says. “This is a good training opportunity.”

Blue looks skeptical. “You’re going to train him not to eat berries? Might want to make sure he’s full first.”

“It’s not too hard. I just have to reward him with something he wants more.”

Red turns to Leaf, impressed anew. “You’ve studied operant conditioning?” He’s starting to appreciate that Leaf had probably worked at least as hard to prepare for this journey as he and Blue.

“That Pavlov thing?” Blue asks.

“That’s classical conditioning. Operant conditioning deals with positive and negative reinforcement.”

Blue stares blankly at him.

“I’m pretty sure we covered it in school together…”

“Oh?” Blue spins his pokeball again, arm moving slightly to keep it balanced. “I must have been sick that day.”

Red sighs as Leaf smiles and put her pack down to dig through it. “Okay, so Professor Skinner was studying behavior theory, and was focused on the way pokemon learn. He put rattata in a box which had a mechanism to release food, along with a lever, and a light display or speakers.”

“This is fascinating,” Blue says in a monotone.

“Do you want to know what she’s going to do, or not?”

“I was hoping for a ten second answer, not an hour long lecture.”

“It’s been twenty seconds, if that, and only counting your interruption.”

“What, I said it was fascinating, then you get all huffy-”

Anyway,” Red continues, deciding to simplify. “He was able to train the pokemon to press the lever after seeing the right light display or hearing the right sound, but not when seeing or hearing the wrong one. The lever would only dispense food if they pressed it after the right signal. That was their reward, to reinforce the desired behavior. If they did it after the wrong one, they would get a small shock or something. That aversive stimulus was the punishment.

Leaf finds and takes out a small box of PokePuffs. The round cakes are colorful, and their scent fills the air as soon as she opens the wrapping. Bulbasaur and Squirtle sniff, their gazes locking on the brown and orange pastry Leaf holds up.

“Ok, that’s starting to sound familiar,” Blue says. “It’s like how we link new commands with pokemon attacks.”

“Right, but the principle works with more than just battle commands,” Red says. “In fact, it works for pretty much anything, and even the least intelligent of pokemon respond to it to some degree.” Nor are humans exempt: Red had made the connection to his own learning not to touch a hot stove as a toddler before finding the studies that supported it. “According to behavior theory, pretty much all learned behavior is the result of reinforcements and associations.”

“So that water bottle, that’s the punishment,” Blue says. “And the PokePuff is the reward.”

“Right. The water bottle is a positive punishment, because it adds an experience to minimize a behavior. The pokepuff is a positive reinforcement, because it reinforces a behavior. ‘Positive’ and ‘Negative’ are used in a technical sense here, to mean add or subtract, and not to place a subjective judgement on what’s being added or subtracted. A negative reinforcement would still be something that reinforces a pokemon’s behavior, which means whatever was subtracted was noxious, or made it more difficult to do it.

Leaf positions Bulbasaur in front of the bush again, and waits until Bulbasaur begins to stretch his neck out for a berry, then says “Stop!” Bulbasaur hesitates again, and when he resumes reaching for a berry he gets another spray of mist. It takes another few repetitions of this until Bulbasaur stops reaching for berries on his own.

“Isn’t this going to make him stop eating berries altogether?” Blue asks.

“It could, with enough reinforcement,” Red admits. “But she can fine-tune it. Watch.”

Leaf offers Bulbasaur a berry from her hand, and after a moment he eats it. He doesn’t get squirted, and after she offers him another one he’s faster to eat it, which earns him a scratch behind his ear.

“The real behavior she’s trying to teach him doesn’t have to do with berries, but to respond to her saying ‘stop’,” Red explains. “He recognizes the word to some degree thanks to previous training, but isn’t used to hearing it when doing mundane things. He’s also learning not to eat berries unless it’s offered to him.”

Leaf stays still and silent for a long time, and Bulbasaur doesn’t reach for any berries. Finally he begins to stir and stretch his neck out for one, and when Leaf says “Stop!” he does so right away.

“Good boy!” Leaf breaks off a piece of the pokepuff and feeds it to him, then scratches him behind the ear. “Who’s a good bulbasaur? You are!”

Squirtle is watching the interaction attentively, and eventually walks over to Blue and looks up at him expectantly. “What?” Blue says, sounding defensive as he catches his ball to stop its spinning. “I don’t have any PokePuffs. I’ll pick some up in Viridian.”

Squirtle doesn’t seem particularly assured, and makes a gurgling sound, plodding off toward the berry bush to eat some. Bulbasaur watches Squirtle, but doesn’t join her, earning him another piece of Puff.

By the time the PokePuff is gone, Bulbasaur is obediently sitting in the middle of the berry bush without reaching for any of them. Part of it might be that he’s less hungry, but Red knows that PokePuffs are designed as treats, and aren’t particularly filling.

Leaf brushes her hands off on her pants. “Now we just need to train him to grab anyone that tries to eat the berries.” She eyes Squirtle, then Blue, and both trainers speak at the same time:

“Bulbasaur, Bind!”

“Squirtle, Withdraw!”

Bulbasaur’s vines wrap around Squirtle, but have trouble keeping a grip on the smooth shell.

“Bulbasaur, stop!”

“Squirtle, back up.” Blue slowly circles the berry bush with Squirtle, then points to a clump of berries. “Eat!”

“Bulbasaur, Bind!”

Squirtle dodges the vines and grabs a mouthful of berries, but has to jump back to avoid them again. When Bulbasaur moves forward to pursue, Leaf tells him to stop, and Bulbasaur does.

“Good job Squirtle!” Blue rubs the turtle’s smooth shell while Leaf feeds Bulbasaur part of a new PokePuff, then hands the rest to Blue to feed Squirtle. Red watches them for a moment, then unclips Charmander’s pokeball and looks at its smooth surface.

Inside, he knows Charmander’s physical state is suspended while his mind is busy with the pokeball’s virtual reality, a preprogrammed experience akin to dreaming. He pulls out his pokedex and aligns their lens so he can see what Charmander’s doing.

The screen displays a stadium. Charmander is facing down an assortment of pokemon, as Red, or rather the recording of him that had been programmed into the dex at Professor Oak’s lab, gives Charmander various commands. It won’t make the pokemon any stronger, but Red knows the virtual training will subconsciously help Charmander become even more used to his instructions and fighting in general.

He reclips Charmander to his belt and pulls out his new rattata’s ball, doing the same thing. Instead of the more advanced scenario Charmander is experiencing, the rattata isn’t facing any foes, but simply learning basic commands. Red watches her tackle a mannequin, then begin biting it as his virtual self instructs her to. This sort of virtual training doesn’t form as strong a bond as training in person, and there’s less room for creativity or learning for the trainer, but it’s a convenient method of allowing virtually anyone to capture and train pokemon of their own.

Red remembers learning about pokeball technology at school. Most of the students had just followed the lesson and taken notes at various levels of attention, but Red could barely listen and write at the same time, mind racing with possibilities. He’d finally raised his hand to interrupt the teacher, and asked why people couldn’t just go into a pokeball and learn everything through virtual lessons.

The class had gone silent, many kids turning to give Red a strange look. People can’t go in pokeballs, dummy, his classmate Becka had said. The teacher had reprimanded her, but then reiterated the well known point: pokeballs were for pokemon. They wouldn’t work on people.

Red had barely paid attention the rest of the day. He’d never really thought much about the distinction between people and pokemon, but in those moments it had seemed trivial to him. Surely some day, he’d thought, they would refine the technology to upload humans as data as well. His mind kept coming up with new things such a breakthrough would allow: near instant travel, protection from imminent danger, the ability to stay suspended the same age for decades and jump ahead in time…

Red smiles now, remembering his naïveté. It wasn’t until years later when he was reading one of the books Professor Oak had given him that he’d learned the truth: they can create pokeballs that work on people. The technology had been available from the very beginning. But the atomization and compression isn’t quite so simple for creatures with higher cognitive functions. The first humans who had volunteered to be stored in a pokeball and then reformed had emerged physically healthy, but severely brain damaged.

The book hadn’t elaborated further, and Red had done some independent research online to learn the full story. Over the years, the matter compression technology had continued to advance, and occasionally human testing was tried again. Criminals facing the death penalty were offered the choice of entering a pokeball instead: if they survived with their wits intact, their sentence would be lowered to mere life imprisonment.

Time and again, the results were the same: at best, a regression of mental state to a toddler’s level. At worst, permanent catatonia. Ultimately the decision was agreed by all levels of government: pokeballs were for pokemon. The creation or use of devices that would recognize and store humans became a felony of the greatest magnitude, on par with going renegade, allowing law enforcement to go all-out against anyone suspected of doing so. All further research on the topic was put to a halt.

Red sighs and puts his rattata’s pokeball away, the screen of the pokedex going still as the lenses unalign. As amazing as technology is, he can’t help but wonder what new things humanity could accomplish, if they were willing to take more risks…

“Alright, that should do it,” Leaf says. She feeds her pokemon the last bit of another puff through the bush’s branches, and gets to her feet. “Let’s get some distance and let Bulbasaur do his thing.”

They find a grassy knoll not too far from the bush and lie or crouch behind it, heads just high enough to watch the bush. Blue rolls three shrunken pokeballs around on his palm by flexing his fingers, while Leaf scans the skies. Red scans through his pokedex’s map, looking ahead at the locations they would soon travel to and refreshing his memory of the pokemon native to there. Some mankey to the west of Viridian City, would be useful to catch one, though they’re rare… lots of weedle in the forest, not to mention kakuna and beedrill… better stock up on poison antidotes…

The sun continues to inch along the sky, and eventually Blue excuses himself to duck behind some trees. While he’s gone, Leaf turns to Red. “So what does it take to become a Professor in Kanto?”

Red scratches his chin where a blade of grass is tickling. “First, to become a registered Pokemon Researcher, I need to contribute an independent article based on my observations and experiences with one of my pokemon. I can submit it through the pokedex, but I have to wait for it to be peer reviewed to be accepted.”

“Can it be on anything?”

Red nods. “Pretty much. I just need to discover or verify something new. Once I’m a Researcher, I can advance by increasing my h-index.”

“That’s the relationship between number of papers published and the times you’ve been cited, right?”

“Yeah. So the more papers I publish, the more chances of being cited by others, but high quality research will likely shoot my score way up. Eventually I’ll become an Instructor, then an Associate Professor, and be able to work in the lab under Professor Oak.”

“And then? When do you get your own lab?”

Red shrugs. “Could take years. I need to demonstrate knowledge of every major species in the region to apply to become a Professor, and once I pass that test, my dissertation has to disprove or overturn a previous theory that has already been established.”

Leaf gives a low whistle. “Every species in the region. That’s a lot of work.”

“Yeah, but I can start making money for articles I contribute or review once I’m a Researcher, so it’s incrementally rewarding long before I reach the end.”

“Do you make a lot?”

“It depends on the discovery, but not generally. The rewards are structured more toward verifying and disproving than submitting.”

“And you weren’t able to do any as part of your apprenticeship? Get a head start on it?”

“My work in the lab involved a lot of paperwork and assistance of others in their research. So I got a chance to observe first hand the proper procedures and format and standards, which will help a lot in doing my own research and getting it accepted.”

“So to keep publishing papers, you’ll have to study and catch a lot of pokemon. More than Gym Leaders have, even.”

“Or spend a lot of time with a few dozen, yeah.” He smiles. “Discovering new species would put me on the fast track though, so let me know if you spot any.”

She grins. “For a cut of the funds, sure.”

“Sounds fair. I-”


Leaf points as a rattata approaches the berry bush. They watch as it inches closer… closer… then Leaf yells out “Bind!” as it begins nibbling at some berries.

Bulbasaur’s vines whip out and catch the startled rattata, holding it up off the ground to prevent it from running. Leaf and Red dash to the bush, where the squirming rodent is trying to twist around and bite the vines holding it.

“Bulbasaur, tackle!”

The vines slam the rattata down and unwind just as Bulbasaur rockets out from the bush and tackles it. It tumbles away in a daze, and Leaf’s pokeball quickly scans it, then flies through the air and snaps it up. The lens blinks red, then stills.

“Nice job,” Red says. “You trained him really well.”

“Thanks. I used to practice with my mom’s pokemon.” Leaf picks her new rattata up with a grin, then pulls her pokedex out and registers it. Once it’s programmed to her Trainer ID, she clips it to her belt, where it will begin the basic training program Red’s rattata is going through.

Red brushes his fingers over his own rattata’s ball. “At least one of us should nickname ours, in case we have them out at the same time.”

“Good idea. I’ll try to think of one.” Leaf crouches down to rub Bulbasaur’s head and feed him another pokepuff. “Good boy Bulbasaur! Such a good boy!”

They hear running from behind, and turn to see Blue, one hand holding up his pants as the other grips a pokeball. “What happened? Did I miss it?!” He looks around wildly, breathing hard.

Leaf and Red glance at each other before collapsing in laughter. Blue blinks at them, then scowls, cheeks darkening as he puts the pokeball away and finishes zipping and buttoning his pants. Eventually Red recovers enough to explain, and they retreat to the hill after Leaf instructs Bulbasaur to return to the bushes.

“So now I’m the only one without a second pokemon,” Blue grumbles as he settles down again.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get the pidgey for sure,” Leaf says.

Red grins. “Unless you have to go pee again. You did get the chance to finish, right?”

Leaf buries her laughter in her arms as Blue punches Red in his good shoulder, and the two begin to roll across the knoll scuffling. It’s only when Leaf catches her breath and tells them they’ll scare away the pokemon that they disengage and flop back down beside her. Red nurses a bruised rib where Blue’s knee had caught him, while Blue examines a tear in his sleeve.

The clouds drift across the sun, darkening the fields as wind sends ripples through the grass. Red checks the time, noting that they have another two hours of sun left. Plenty to reach Viridian City by nightfall, though only if the pidgey shows up within the next thirty minutes…

It takes ten, though it’s not alone. Leaf gives a small gasp, then points: three pidgey wheel in the distance, dipping and looping around each other, steadily making their way closer. Within moments they land and begin to hop over to the bush.

Blue curses, and Leaf bites her lower lip. Red’s hand falls to his pokeball. What would the other two pidgey do when Bulbasaur grabs the third? Run, or attack? The bushes would provide some cover, but outnumbered the way he is, Bulbasaur might be seriously hurt before they can reach him.

Red unclips Charmander’s pokeball, though he doesn’t release him yet, as the explosive sound might scare them away. “We’ll throw them,” he whispers to Leaf. “Bulbasaur will grab one, and when Charmander and Squirtle show up, the other two might run for it or get distracted.”

Blue nods, and Leaf takes a deep breath, eyes on the pidgey. They hop closer… another hop… and then one pecks at the bushes, grabbing a berry.


Red leaps to his feet and throws as hard as he can, yelling “Charmander, go!” as Blue does the same with Squirtle. The pokeballs soar through the air as the three pidgey explode into action, flapping and chirping in alarm as one of them struggles against the vines holding it. Bulbasaur keeps his target from flying away, but the other two are already pecking his vines to free their companion.

The wrapped pidgey gets its second wing free and begins to flap, lifting itself a bit. Bulbasaur gets dragged from concealment as he tries to hold onto the pidgey, and the two free birds immediately shift focus to attack him with their beaks and talons.

Red and Blue’s pokeballs hit the ground, bounce, and light flashes as they discharge their contents, sailing back up into the air. Charmander and Squirtle seem a bit disoriented at first from the commotion five feet from them, but quickly shift into combat stances, Squirtle rising onto her hindlegs as Charmander’s claws extend.

“Charmander, Emb-Scratch!” Red yells as he runs, remembering just in time not to use a fire attack. So inconvenient-

“Squirtle, Water Gun!”

Charmander leaps at the nearest Pidgey and begins to claw at it while Squirtle blasts at the other with a jet of water. For a second there Red had been worried Squirtle would hit Charmander, but the turtle continues to shoot jets of water at the unengaged bird as Charmander knocks away the lower one.

“Blue, I’m going to let it go! Be ready!” Leaf yells from behind them as they run toward the bush.

By the time they reach the scuffle, Blue has a pokeball in each hand, pressing their buttons to expand them and pointing their lens at the pidgeys. Precious seconds pass as he tries to keep them steady on the birds, shifting his arms slightly as the two free pidgey fly around and occasionally dive at their pokemon.

Gotta keep their wings busy. “Charmander, Bite!” Charmander latches onto his opponent’s shoulder with his teeth. Stuck, the pidgey pecks at the lizard’s face, and Red’s heart leaps into his throat as he sees blood on its beak. His eyes! “Charmander, Tail Whip!”

Charmander’s tail coils around him and presses against the pidgey, causing it to trill and flail frantically to escape the flames rather than continue its assault. Squirtle keeps the third pidgey at bay with bursts of water every time it attempts to get close, while their target continues to drag Bulbasaur farther away as it tries to lift off. Bulbasaur’s feet leave the ground for a moment before he settles back down, digging his feet in and slamming the pidgey against the ground without much effect.

Finally a pair of dings sound. “Do it!” Blue yells.

“Bulbasaur, tackle!”

Bulbasaur draws his vines in and runs forward as he pulls the pidgey toward him. He releases it just as he hits, but the bird is already airborn, and barely flinches. The tackle does turn it around however, and its first few flaps aim it toward them instead of away.

Blue throws, then shifts the left ball to his right hand and throws again, aiming higher. The pidgey climbs over the first ball, only to be hit by the second.

“Yes!” Blue pumps his fist as the bird disappears in a flash of light. Charmander continues to struggle with the second pidgey, and Red can see both pokemon tiring.

“Leaf, I’m going to tell Charmander to back up,” he says, positioning himself behind the lizard. “Get a ball ready and catch that one!”

“Got it!” She runs forward until she’s just a few feet away and expands a ball, then aims its lens. “Can’t get a lock with Charmander so close!”

“Charmander, back!”

The red lizard releases his target and scampers toward Red, favoring a foreleg as blood runs down his face. The pidgey flaps its wings and tries to gain altitude, but Leaf’s ball pings its lock, and she throws it, hardly needing to aim from so close.

The ball hits the second pidgey and bounces off it before opening and sucking it inside as it falls. The third pidgey chirrups, then wheels around and flies away.

Red is already kneeling beside Charmander, a potion in one hand and a small towel in the other. “Hold still Charmander, you did so well,” he whispers, heart pounding as he wipes blood away from the lizard’s face. He notices his hand shaking, and takes a deep breath, trying to steady himself. Stupid adrenaline, go away, need to focus…

Charmander’s eyes are closed, so he sprays the potion onto the wounds he can see. His pokemon slowly relaxes, and Red pulls out his water bottle, wetting his towel and gingerly wiping around the wounds. One, two… three… Three peck marks, and when Charmander opens his eyes, they’re undamaged. One particularly bad one had hit the lizard’s previous wound, and Red uses the rest of the potion on the spot, watching as the bloodflow slows and forms a dark scab, new pink flesh already shrinking the wound around the edges.

Red lets out a breath and gingerly hugs his charmander, careful of its tail. It snuggles against his chest, claws sharp, but not piercing his skin.

“How is he?” Blue says after a minute.

Red looks up at Blue. “He’s okay. Bulbasaur?”

“Same,” Leaf says, putting her potion bottle away. “They got him pretty bad though, and the plant on his back is shredded a bit. I’d like to get him to a pokemon center to make sure there’s no permanent damage.”

“Yeah.” Red slowly disentangles himself from Charmander and feeds him a handful of berries while Blue retrieves their pokeballs from the grass. He hands Red the one with the flame on it, and the three trainers withdraw their pokemon. Then Blue registers his new pidgey.

Red smiles, the elation of victory filling him now that he knows his pokemon is okay. “Nice catch man. For a second there I thought you’d grab two.”

Blue chuckles. “If Squirtle knocked down the third I’d have gone for it, but I wanted insurance against the first guy. Got a sense for how they dodge balls from our earlier suckfest. Who’s getting the second one?”

“She is,” Red says at the same time Leaf says “Red.” They look at each other.

“I just got a new pokemon,” Leaf says.

“So? I did too, a few hours ago.”

“Charmander’s the one that fought it.”

“I’d be happy to take it,” Blue offers.

Red ignores him. “You and Bulbasaur are the reason we got these guys at all.”

Leaf hesitates. “Are you sure?”

Red makes himself smile. He wants a flier, he can’t deny that, but pidgey are fairly common pokemon, and he’s sure he’ll get one eventually. There are other alternatives coming up soon anyway. “I’m sure. Go for it.”

Leaf grins and hugs him. “Thank you!”

Red blinks, an indistinct and uncomfortable feeling rising in his chest. “Um. It’s okay.” What? “It’s okay?”

Leaf lets him go and collects the pokeball. As it downloads her Trainer ID, she presses a button on the pokedex. “Pokedex, Nickname: Crimson.”

“Pidgey nickname confirmed: Crimson,” the pokedex replies in a robotic, but somehow cheerful voice. “Uploading name recognition exercises. Estimated time to completion: fourteen minutes, thirty seven seconds.”

Leaf puts the pokedex and ball away and looks up at Red and Blue. “Still haven’t thought of one for rattata,” she says with a smile.

Red scratches his hair beneath his cap, then resettles it over his head, feeling vaguely embarrassed by the homage. “Well, we’ve got time to think of names on the way to Viridian.” Should I name my rattata “Green?” No, that‘s stupid

They collect their things and walk on as the sun slowly paints the sky red and gold.

Chapter 3: Memetics 101

Pallet Town has no particular boundary, the buildings simply growing farther and farther apart until the roads fade to hardpacked dirt. Cars continue to pass the three travelers by on the main street, but once they reach the outer edges the majority of traffic is on foot or bicycle, cutting through the grass every which way to reach the various houses and stores around Pallet’s perimeter.

Red’s mother had told him that this was how the whole town was at first, just a collection of spaced out buildings with dirt roads between them. He looks back at the heart of the town now and smiles at its permanence, the Pokemon Lab sticking up bright and shining against the clear blue sky. A half hour later, they’re far from any houses, and the various paths meander over hills and between lakes, the foliage growing wild and free in every direction around them.

Conversation is light for the first couple hours. Occasionally Leaf asks a question about Kanto, and Blue or Red will answer, fully but without embellishment. Red doesn’t know how Blue sees it, but it feels awkward traveling with a stranger, especially after spending so long planning their journey together.

The first bit of excitement comes when a flock of pidgey fly by overhead. Too high for a pokeball to reach, Red and Blue still argue over whether his squirtle could hit one with a Water Gun. Leaf suggests they take measurements of its range, but Red objects that firing upward would be very different than firing horizontally even without taking into account the wind, while Blue says he doesn’t want to tire Squirtle out, and they continue their walk in silence again.

Finally Leaf turns to Red and says “So you mentioned finding fault with the common type charts, back at the lab. Would you mind explaining what you meant?”

“Oh. Uh, sure.” Ignoring Blue’s smirk, Red collects his thoughts. “So how much do you know about the history of ‘typing’?”

“Not a lot,” Leaf says. “I know it hasn’t always been around, but that it’s pretty universal.”

“Right. Professor Dawkins uses the ‘typing phenomenon’ as an example of a meme in The Selfish Gene. A meme is ‘an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person in cultures.’ Unlike a simple fad, memes are like genes in that they self-replicate and adapt to selective pressures.”

“Okay. But the meme of ‘typing’ must be useful if it’s so good at surviving and spreading, right?”

“Sure, at some level. But think of how everyone but professors incorrectly call pokemon metamorphosis ‘evolution’. Even some professors do it colloquially: it’s just too ingrained in the public consciousness. Just because an idea is popular and resilient doesn’t mean it’s correct.”

Leaf looks skeptical. “Ehh. I dunno. I mean sure to that last part, but that example seems like a semantic argument. Words change in meaning over time based on use. Maybe in a hundred years, ‘evolution’ will mean what we now call ‘metamorphosis’ and ‘metamorphosis’ will mean what we now call ‘evolution.'”

Red waves this off. “That’s just an example of how things can spread without being critically examined. The point is that ‘typing’ started in one culture, spread throughout it, and then moved on to every other culture from there. Normally when new ideas get introduced, there’s some pushback, some skepticism. It’s not immediately adopted as the norm.”

“But not the type system,” Leaf muses. “Because it was so useful.”

“Right! It’s such a strong meme because of how interactive and efficient it is. It satisfies the need people have to classify things and fit them into boxes. People like to pick favorites, to identify with whatever type they feel an affinity with, to construct personality types out of them, all that sort of stuff. On top of all that, it satisfies our desire for fairness and balance. With the typing meme, every pokemon has an added layer of strengths and weaknesses, so virtually none are strictly superior to any other.”

“Because they do have strengths and weaknesses,” Blue says, sounding like he’s being pulled in despite himself. “I wouldn’t say that none are purely better, though, I mean I’d never use a corsola over a barbaracle.”

“Aren’t corsola able to regenerate? But I said ‘virtually’ none, that means almost none.”

“Corsola regenerate slow, it’s practically useless in battle, and I know what ‘virtually’ means, Red.”

“Then why did you bother–”

“So the battle scene added to all that meme power,” Leaf interrupts, causing Red to refocus on what he’d been saying.

“Exactly. The commercialization really sped up how far it spread, until virtually every region adopted the same system with little time to critically examine it.” He glances at Blue, who lets the comment pass unchallenged, back to looking exasperated by the conversation. “The metagame revolved around it, and creating or countering a balanced team meant studying established type interactions. Even minor differences got washed away over time in the face of popularity and conformity: here in Kanto, we used to call them ‘Plant’ types before ‘Grass’ caught on, even though it makes less sense.”

“He’s been calling them ‘Plant’ types ever since he learned that,” Blue says.

“Hey, I always thought it was stupid.”

“Sure you did.”

Leaf smiles. “Okay, so there’s probably room for error along the way. But no one claims that the typing system is perfect, it’s still being adapted based on what we observe.”

Blue nods. “That’s what I always say. But small changes aren’t enough for him.”

“Because it doesn’t matter,” Red says. “At its core, the ‘type meme’ is too ingrained to allow fundamental shifts. The details adapt as we learn more, but the basics, that pokemon are of one or two types, that those types are weak or strong against other types, have persisted, even when they don’t always make much sense.”

Leaf is quiet for a moment. “So the whole idea of typing pokemon started in a certain culture, and spread as a concept from one to the next without necessarily being justified. You’re saying the ‘meme’ of pokemon types isn’t critically examined, but you’re not pointing out what it actually gets wrong.”

“Well, if you want specifics… my problem is with how it’s done and the rigidity of the interactions between the types. Like I said, I’m fine with calling my charmander a ‘Fire type’, and obviously he’s strong against ‘Plant types.’ But take those pidgey we saw earlier. What would you call those, if you saw them in Unova?”

“I didn’t get a good look, but probably Flying/Normal.”

“Right. So what does that mean, ‘Flying’?’ What does that mean, ‘Normal’?”

Blue sighs. “Just tell her what you think.”

“No, I like this,” Leaf says with a smile. “It’s how my mom likes to teach.” She thinks about it a moment. “So first off, there’s the obvious: they fly. Not all pokemon do, so it’s an important distinction. And ‘Normal’ means just… normal. You know, baseline. Nothing remarkable. I always figured Normal is what we a call a Pokemon when we can’t figure something else to call them.”

“Okay. So what does it mean to be a ‘Flying’ pokemon, in terms of its strengths and weaknesses to others?”

“Well, it’s strong against Fighting, Grass and Bug types… but weak to Rock, Electric and Ice attacks. Oh, and Ground attacks are pretty worthless against it.”

“What does all that have to do with it being Flying?”

Leaf blinks at him. “Well, birds eat plants and bugs, and Fighting Pokemon can’t really hit them. And since they’re in the air, being knocked down by a rock or lightning is extra painful when they hit the ground… and, well, cold makes it hard to fly…”

Red is nodding. “So let’s deconstruct that a bit. The first thing you said was that ‘birds eat plants and bugs’. Are all flying pokemon birds? Also, do birds actually eat plants, or just seeds and berries, which a lot of pokemon eat? The next things you listed were consequences of being in the air. So is all that part of what a pokemon is, or what it does? If a Flying type has a broken wing, what type is it?”

“So you’re saying that Flying isn’t a type? It’s just… what some pokemon do, so we lump that in with the typing meme? That seems to be splitting hairs a bit. Even if they don’t share universal traits, ‘Flying’ still seems a worthwhile classification.”

“Let’s shift focus a bit. Know any Fighting pokemon?”

“Sure, mienfoo.”

“Is it on your pokedex?”

Leaf pulls it out and shows it to them. A bipedal, weasel-looking pokemon appears, its movements and strikes very balanced and quick.

“Neat. So, are mienfoo Fighting/Normal?”

“No, just Fighting.”


“Because it just… isn’t. Why would it be Fighting/Normal? Is there even a Fighting/Normal pokemon?”

“Bewear, from Alola,” Blue immediately says. “Because it’s weak to other Fighting types, unlike most.”

Red ignores him and takes out his pokedex and shows her a machop. “What’s this look like to you?”


“Not Fighting/Normal?”


“But not Fighting/Fire either, right? Or Fighting/Bug? Or Fighting/Electric?”

“I mean, it’s a normal looking Fighting type, but I guess it just doesn’t make sense to call it Fighting/Normal. It seems unnecessary to add it… unless it’s also weak to Fighting types?” She glances at Blue, who shakes his head.

“Just so we’re clear, ‘weak to Fighting types’ is not measurable,” Red says as he navigates his pokedex to show a poliwhirl. “What about this guy?”

Leaf examines the bipedal amphibian. “That looks Water… maybe Water/Fighting?”

Red switches it to poliwrath, its metamorphed, more muscular form. “And this?”

“Definitely Water/Fighting.”

“What tipped you off?”

“The physique. It’s clearly strong, so I just think it would be a Fighting type.”

“But also a Water type.”

“Well yeah, that’s obviously still a Water type.”

Red nods and puts his pokedex away. “Let’s say you found a new pokemon type.”

“A new type?”

“Yeah. How would you know?”

The three walk in silence, Pallet town a distant, vague shape behind them. Red pulls out his water bottle and takes a drink, the cool liquid refreshing under the hot sun. He offers some to Blue and Leaf, who take it in turns.

“I guess I would have to see it do something I’ve never seen before,” Leaf says at last.

“Okay. Like what?”

“Like… I don’t know. Control… wind? I guess that would be a Flying type, huh? But what if it doesn’t fly itself… hm… maybe if it controlled light. Or if I found a pokemon made of some new material? Though I’m not sure what… like a Glass type?”

Red smiles. “So basically, you would base it on what abilities it has, or what it’s made of?

“Yeah. When you put it like that, it seems obvious. But that’s pretty much the way things are, isn’t it?”

“But we don’t see it so clearly most of the time: we’re so used to thinking of types as intrinsic to a pokemon that we lump what it does in with what it is.

“Okay. I mean I follow what you’re saying, I’m just not sure how that necessarily makes typing wrong. If the effects of what pokemon does and what it is are basically the same, what difference does it make?”

“That’s where the meme problem comes in. Did we invent the typing system ourselves?”

“No,” Leaf says slowly. “We inherited it whole-cloth from another culture.”

“So what’s the question you have to ask yourself now?”

Leaf is quiet for a minute as the three shift onto a well worn side path around a hill, the grass high as Red’s waist on either side. A berry bush grows beside it, and Blue and Red take a few handfuls to fill their pouches, handing some to Leaf.

She thanks them, then answers. “How much did people know about Pokemon when the meme of ‘typing’ them started?”

Blue groans. “You’ve walked right into his trap.”

Red is grinning. “Not just how much did people know about pokemon: how much did people know about anything? I’ve looked into it, and it turns out the answer is ‘not a lot’. The origins of typing are a bit murky, but it definitely started over three thousand years ago. Think about that for a minute: people were classifying types before we even knew about cells or basic chemistry. Some of the classifications adapted as time went on: ‘Lightning’ became ‘Electric’ around the time we managed to harness it. Others got simplified by popular usage: when pokemon like magnemite and klink started showing up from man-made objects, ‘Steel type’ became the norm, even though many metal pokemon don’t have steel in them, and not all metals have the same properties. It was the ‘Grass’ thing all over again. And that’s just the names! We still can’t agree on what a ‘Dragon type’ is. No matter how you cut it, the classification system just isn’t rational.”

“And you don’t think it might fix itself over time?” Leaf says.

Red shrugs. “At some point, given enough time and pressure, maybe, maybe we’ll start seeing people classifying some pokemon with three types instead of two. But even if we do, I bet those types are still based on the current illogical, contradictory system.”

“Contradictory how?”

“Think back to the fighting examples. Why is it acceptable to call some pokemon Fighting/Water, but others just Fighting, when we call nearly every Flying pokemon that isn’t something else Flying/Normal?” He looks at Blue as his friend opens his mouth. “And before you bring up rookidee, if it’s that good at fighting Fighting pokemon–”

Leaf giggles. “‘Fighting Fighting’… now that you mention it, that’s such a silly name for them, isn’t it? It’s not like–”

The grass to her side rustles, and everyone freezes.

Blue’s hand is already on his pokeball. “Careful,” he whispers. “Probably just a rattata, but they don’t normally attack three people traveling together… just walk quietly…” They begin to move again, slowly passing the shaking grass.

The rustling suddenly comes from the opposite side in front of them, and Red’s heart leaps in his throat as three shapes rush out at him and Leaf. He raises a hand to push her out of the way and is surprised to feel her palm against his. He turns a bit and sees the surprise mirrored on her face, and then they’re propelling each other in opposite directions as the rattata jump just where they’d been standing, teeth flashing and squealing in anger.

“Squirtle, go!”

“Come out, Bulbasaur!”

Two flashes of light, and Leaf and Blue’s pokemon are standing between them and the rattata. Another two had emerged from Blue’s direction, and dash at Squirtle from both sides.

“Squirtle, Withdraw!”

The blue turtle pops her head and limbs into her hard shell just as the two rodents tackle her. They knock Squirtle a few feet away, but she pops out of her shell unharmed a moment later, while both rattata appear a bit dazed from the impact.

“Water Gun!”

A brief jet of water smacks one of the rattata into the grass, then the other. It all happens so fast that Red barely has time to throw his own pokeball and yell “Charmander, I choose you!”

His fire lizard materializes a few feet before him, and Red snatches his pokeball out of the air as it rockets back to him, feeling a surge of adrenaline. His brief triumph is forgotten as Charmander rushes to intercept a rattata heading for Red. The two begin to bite and scratch at each other, and Red steps to the side so that the fight is between him and the other two rattata, forcing them to circle around.

“Charmander, Tail Whip!”

Charmander breaks away from the rattata, then whirls around and smacks it with the flame at the end of his tail. The rodent squeals in pain and scampers back.

“Bulbasaur, Tackle, then Vine Whip!”

Red glances to the side to see Leaf dealing with the other two rattata: Bulbasaur meets one of their tackles head-on, knocking the smaller pokemon backward and then using his vines to whip it into the second. Both go tumbling away, but the third that had fought Charmander jumps forward to bite down on the long plant, and Bulbasaur cries out in pain.

“Charmander, Scratch!” Red says, pointing at the rattata. He can’t risk using Ember so close to Bulbasaur, especially with all the grass around them…

Luckily the rattata releases its bite and backs off as soon as Charmander approaches, and a sudden jet of water from the side sends it tumbling head over paws.

The three trainers step back to back in a rough triangle, and their pokemon spread out to cover them as much as possible while the purple rodents warily circle them. A thrill of fear races down Red’s spine as he counts eight of them.

“We must have stepped near a nest,” he says as Charmander growls at an encroaching rattata, halting its advance.

“So close to the road?” Leaf asks.

“Might be new.”

“Squirtle, Water Gun! We need to keep moving till we’re past it then.” Blue tosses a berry at his pokemon after she finishes blasting away another rattata. Squirtle snaps it out of the air, munching and swallowing without taking her eyes off their enemies.

“On it. Charmander, Ember! Ember! Ember!”

Each command is punctuated by a point in a different direction, and Charmander whips his tail again and again to fling fiery oil onto the path ahead. The rattata there dive out of the way, and Red yells “Come on!” and runs for the opening.

Charmander dashes along at his heels, and he hears the others following behind. The rattata run along on both sides and behind them, some getting close enough to leap. Charmander intercepts one mid-air and smacks it away with his tail, while the other lands on Red’s shoulder, its teeth tearing through the protective mesh under his shirt to sink into his shoulder. He yells at the sharp pain that runs through his arm, and bashes its furry body with his fist until it falls off.

“Squirtle, Headbutt!”

“Bulbasaur, Tackle!”

Red keeps running, one hand held over his bleeding shoulder, heart pounding. He reminds himself to breathe as he runs, the months of physical training paying off as they begin to outrun the rodents. One makes a final leap onto Charmander, and both pokemon tumble to the ground, tearing into each other. Red stops and turns around. Leaf and Bulbasaur are right behind them, Blue and Squirtle a bit farther back.

“Bulbasaur, Vine Whip!”

The rattata is knocked off Charmander, who struggles to his feet, bleeding from multiple wounds. Red dashes forward as the rattata attacks Charmander again and kicks at the rodent to make it veer off, right into Bulbasaur’s tackle. The wild pokemon is knocked into a limp heap.

“Thanks,” Red says as Blue and Squirtle reach them, the rest of the rattata giving up the chase and disappearing back into the grass.

“You guys alright?” Blue asks, then hisses in sympathy as he sees Red’s blood-stained sleeve.

“Here, let’s get something on that,” Leaf says, reaching into her bag.

“Charmander first…” Red kneels before his trembling pokemon and reaches back to open a side pouch of his pack, pulling out a small potion bottle by feel. “You did great Charmander,” he murmurs. He sprays the lizard’s wounds, and feels a knot of tension release in him as the painkiller visibly kicks in: Charmander’s shaking stops, the lizard’s eyes slipping closed and his rapid breaths steadying. The medicine begins to coagulate Charmander’s wounds right before Red’s eyes, and after it finishes he stands and points his pokeball at the lizard. “Return!”

Only once Charmander is absorbed back into the ball does Red sit on the ground to catch his breath, resting back on his pack with his legs splayed in front of him. He watches Blue and Leaf pet and feed their own pokemon before withdrawing them, then lets them tend to his wound. Blue carefully bares Red’s bloody shoulder, and Leaf sprays her own potion onto the wound. The pain relief is immediate, and Red lets out a breath, feeling his whole body relax.

The other two sit, Leaf breathing hard while Blue rolls up his long sleeve to spray some potion onto scratch marks on his arm. There’s silence as everyone recuperates, and after a minute Red notices he’s smiling. When he catches Blue’s eye, he sees him smiling too. Their smiles turn to grins, and soon they’re both laughing until Red is clutching his sides and Blue is lying on his back, hands over his face.

“What’s the matter with you two?” Leaf says, though she’s grinning too.

“Nothing,” Blue gasps, wiping at one eye and sitting up. “That was just…”

“Totally awesome.” Red extends a fist, and Blue raps knuckles with his.

Leaf laughs. “You only say that because we made it through alright!”

“Well, yeah,” Red says, still feeling a ghost of the adrenaline rush, remembering the crystal clarity of his thoughts. “After doing it all digitally for so long, it’s just nice to finally pull it off in person, you know?”

Leaf nods. “You guys were great.”

Blue pats Squirtle’s pokeball. “All in a day’s work.”

“You were amazing too,” Red says. “How did you know Bulbasaur would act out two different commands consecutively?”

“I tried it back at the lab. Took a few attempts, but he picked up on it quick.”


“Not everyone wasted their time making discoveries that weren’t discoveries,” Blue says, and ducks as Red throws a pebble at him.

Leaf giggles and turns to Red. “The look on your face-”

“-when we pushed each other? The look on your face!”

Blue grins. “You two looked like dancers whose music got cut off midstep!”

Everyone laughs again, and when it tapers off, they simply sit and listen to the wind over the fields. Red’s nerves still feel amped, and his hand twitches for his pokeball every time the wind rustles the grass particularly hard, in case more pokemon rush out at them.

When his nerves calm a bit, Red remembers their duty. “Hey,” he says as he pulls out his phone and brings up the Coordinated Ranger Response Network site. “How far did we run, about?”

Blue looks up. “You contacting CoRRNet?”


Leaf tilts her head back and closes her eyes. “Say a sprinting speed of nineteen kilometers an hour, couldn’t have been more than fifteen seconds of running, so nineteen by sixty by four would be about eighty meters.

Red opens a calculator app and checks her math, then adds “good with numbers” to his tally of Leaf’s skills as he inputs the rough location of the potential rattata nest. He flags it at the lowest priority, and a few moments later gets back an automated estimation of response time.

“Looks like there’s a pair of Rangers nearby, so they should deal with the nest before anyone else wanders past it.”

“Want to stick around till they get here?” Leaf asks.

“Nah, they’ll have it covered,” Blue says, stretching and sitting up. “We should get a move on.”

Movement at the corner of Red’s eye makes him turn. The rattata that Bulbasaur had knocked out is stirring. “Hey,” Red says, rising to his feet. “It’s waking up.”

“Is that the one that bit you?” Blue asks as he and Leaf also stand.

“No, it’s the one that got Charmander.”

“Well?” Leaf gestures. “Care to do the honors?”

Red glances at Blue, who smiles. “Go ahead, I’ll get the next one.”

“Hell yeah!” Red takes out one of his unregistered pokeballs as the rattata begins to get shakily to its feet, and with a press of the lens-button, expands it. He holds the ball out so the lens faces the rattata, and three seconds later it emits a chime as it finishes scanning its target.

Red cocks his arm back and throws, muscle memory kicking in from hours of practice he and Blue spent hitting cans with rocks. The ball hits the rattata dead on, and sucks it in with a burst of light before rolling along the ground. Red light blinks over the lens as it registers the pokemon inside, then fades.

“Nice job!”

“Congratulations Red!”

Red picks up his first caught pokemon and takes out his pokedex, lining up the lens on both. The screen shows the rattata resting in a grassy glade, its vital data listing beside it:

Rattata: Female. Height: 28 cm. Weight: 3.3 kg. Approximate age, 9 Months. Rattata’s large teeth grow continuously throughout its life, and must be worn down by gnawing. Hardy omnivores, rattata have been known to thrive in virtually any environment. Because it reproduces so quickly, a pair of rattata can quickly colonize an area.

Seeing that his new pokemon is a female sends a note of disquiet through Red’s triumph. He thinks back to what he’d said about them stumbling onto a nest. Had he just caught a mother?

His train of thought is interrupted by Blue’s hand clapping his good shoulder. “Come on, let’s get going. I want to find a pidgey!” His friend picks up his bag, and begins to jog ahead. Leaf smiles and follows, and Red clips his new pokemon to his belt and hurries to catch up.