Game Boy Satire: On Political Pokémon Memes

A week ago or so, I got bored while watching Douglas Sirk’s 1956 melodrama There’s Always Tomorrow and started trying to carve bits and pieces of what I was seeing into something meme-like. My doodles were mostly unsatisfactory, but I was moderately pleased with a gif of the unfaithful father starring in the film as he disdainfully uses his newspapers to cover a photo of his family, so hell-bent in standing in the way of him enjoying an extra-marital affair with an old flame. “Farewell my Crotchfruits” said the caption, the word “Crotchfruits” lingering on screen as the camera transitioned from the man to the old cleaning lady of the house giving him a doubtful side-eye.

The gif already felt lame shortly after I had produced it. A friend of mine told me that the text and images were poorly timed and that it was not very decipherable for anybody who had not seen the film; the choice of such remote a source was also clearly a problem. It was not my first attempt at something like this, either, yet I seemed destined to fail to provide any remotely passable meme material. The artisanal knack for it escapes me.

Flashback to a few months back – on Sunday, the 24th of March – when I stumbled on the news of thousands and thousands of protesters taking to the streets of several German towns to oppose the imminent vote on a new Europe-wide copyright reform. The demonstrations were the last chapter of a heated year of campaigning and lobbying conducted by desperate actors – activists, civil society and tech giants all lined up against the directive using their preferred methods. The new legislation – which, despite the public outcry, was officially approved on the 26th of March – sparked indignation chiefly due to two controversial clauses contained in it, respectively labelled “link tax” (Article 11) and the “upload filter” (Article 17, formerly Article 13). If you are still blissfully unaware  of what they entail, you can read up about them on the website of the European Parliament (if you want the fine print) or an any given news outlet like The Verge or Deutsche Welle (if reading the fine print has left you with an understandable headache).

On the photos from the demonstrations of March 23, you can see several attendees holding up placards with handmade, rather aptly-drawn renditions of famous memes on them–surprised Pikachu and doubtful Fry stare at you from the sea of people like familiar faces, analogue and uncensored while their digital counterparts are allegedly under threat of extinction. In social media, Article 17 was often jocularly referred to as the ‘anti-meme law’ – after all, it is perfectly conceivable that a relentless upload filter targeting copyrighted material would significantly hinder the dissemination of memes on the Internet (including my Sirk/crotchfruits gif and other unfunny monstrosities I have dropped here and there, in the comfort of anonymity), since those are mostly based on the re-purposing of such material: film stills, videogame screenshots, copyrighted pictures and whatnot (we would still have that large subset of memes based on the janky, absurdist world of stock photos, though).

The association had its strength: it could exemplify the potentially negative effects of a legislation for users who were either apolitical and/or largely passive in their use of the Internet. Memes are everywhere and their uses vary greatly. They might expressively embody a reaction where the written words or emoji would fail; they act as visual shibboleth to guard the gates of a community; they are created or repurposed for satire and political commentary by users of all ideological persuasions. In the hands of the right people, memes can be ingeniously funny; they can also be the easiest way to help spread cheap consensus and unverified bullshit. Popular memes function like micro-events that cut across different sections of fandom, social media and chat messaging.

Music critics who were socialized in the 1970s have a way of lamenting the demise of pop music as a more or less universal signifier that could speak at least to a broad swathe of young people and symbolize a peculiar zeitgeist or way of seeing (new) things. In a recent podcast, Paul Morley – of NME and Art of Noise fame – mused on a time when catching David Bowie performing as Ziggy Stardust on TV would be a momentous happening experienced in myriads of homesteads nationwide, discussed on countless school playgrounds the following day, captured by a music press that would then dissect what had happened, putting into words a strange thing that adolescent minds all over the country were puzzling and gushing over, still too flabbergasted or inarticulate to find a language to express what it meant to them. On the other hand, there’s the less cutesy side of the story which the nostalgic seem all too eager to gloss over – but you can still find out about it if you happen to have older friends who grew up pre-Internet: a time when the mainstream was just that, mainstream as a nearly undifferentiated cascade of saccharine crap mainlined to you via TV, radio or print, direly limiting your choices as a consumer. The only alternative was jump to the weird, the niche and the fucked-up, flaring up in your daily media slop or fished out of a magazine you liked or a hard-earned record from a strange band that might still disappoint you. Netflix viewers that go down the 80s memory lane (which is almost always the realm of the tourist) after chancing upon Stranger Things would do better not to unearth the yellowing photos of their parents’ graduation days or their less alluring cassette tapes on which a sloppier handwriting then the ones they know from adult mama or papa once compiled the names of bands and tunes that should best go unarchived and un-uploaded to your favourite retro music blog. The horror there is real – pure Stephen King without the Spielberg treatment.

Memes today have become poppier than our popstars. Popstars themselves may inspire memes, but these are mostly crafted to deride them rather than celebrate them; they are often overpowered and outlasted by them. Our most successful popstars are now already born as memes: trap produces them by the dozen with their drank-slurred autotune voices and incendiary Instagram sessions, their music completely redundant, a mere accessory to their career as viral Internet celebrities; their brash and offensive weirdness is more sharable than any song they might dream to put out. Every tweet by the likes of Kanye West (who at least produced his fair share of great records) can be extracted and re-posted for different purposes by tabloid hawks, rabid fans, jeering right-wingers or “dirt-bag” lefties. What is universal here is not so much the content as the form. It is fundamentally irrelevant if we saw or know the Vine, the film, the video etc. the meme was taken from: its capability of catching momentum will largely depend on its quotability as a meme, on its flexibility and compliance to the inner logic of the format (eye-catching, absurd, laughable, embeddable). The origins of a given meme itself can be often so obscure that an ad-hoc database – under the guise of Know your Meme – has propped up to help users retrace the “etymology” behind them. Knowledge of the original (sub)text can score you insider points, but it is by no means a necessity.

Memes can also be more complex and esoteric in delivering their punch line, though. I am reminded of this daily when I scroll through my Facebook feed to find the new posts of Politically Retro, an Italian satirical page created in August 2018 that likes to poke fun at local politics through videogame-related memes. The title of the page speaks for itself: its creators ridicule the most retrograde aspects of Italian politics by deploying a retro videogame aesthetic. When I first discovered the page on a friend’s Facebook wall, its profile pic was a rip-off of the original PlayStation logo; since then, it has changed to a counterfeit of the Nintendo logo, which seems fitting since Pokémon references on the page largely outweigh those to Sony proprietary games.

Politically Retro conducts its meme-fueled satire in a number of ways. Sometimes, a picture of a given political figure will be combined with a grainy textbox reminiscent of the early Gameboy Pokémon titles – a meme from January 2019 saw a screencap of President of the Republic Giorgio Mattarella while he was giving his 2018 end-of-the-year address to the nation, during which he warned his compatriots against the perils of irrationalism and misinformation. The textbox below him read “This world is inhabited by creatures called populists” – a spoof of Professor Oak’s introductory remarks at the beginning of every Pokémon game (“This world is inhabited by creatures called Pokémon”). Or the pixelated likeness of a politician will appear as one of the opponents that the player chances upon in any Pokémon game, the butt of the joke being both the type of trainer and the Pokémon they send into battle: a Vespa-riding Matteo Renzi (“Matteo, rider”) will start the battle claiming, “It’s time to do some real opposition!” only to send in a level 10 Magikarp against the player’s level 100 Dragonite.

All these memes will be fairly decipherable by anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Pokémon games and their mechanics (and some inkling of current affairs in Italy, of course). What I find most astonishing about Politically Retro, though, is the high degree of specificity those memes can reach while still maintaining legibility for a decent number of users (at the time of writing, their Facebook page boasted more than 32k followers, while their Instagram presence had 13,3k). They hinge on the user’s capability of instantly recognizing very specific occurrences and details from the early Pokemon games (mostly gen 1 and gen 2) and connect them with the political event or scandal of the day.

I admit I sometimes have troubles extrapolating the latter – as an Italian living abroad, I am not up to speed with the day-to-day antics of our politicians as I used to be back home, surrounded by the local media or the day-to-day mutterings of disapproval of friends and family. I infallibly recognise all the Pokémon references, though. Like the ones in this meme, commenting on a projected packet of financial reforms that further worsened the pugilistic relationship between the current Italian government and the EU and ultimately proved unsustainable. The caption on the left side reads “Kanto before reform”, the one on the right “Kanto after reform”. Getting the joke on a base level is easy – the buggy-looking game on the right side is a clear signifier of the financial and political destitution expected as an aftermath of the controversial riforma finanziaria. But you can only enjoy it to the full effect if you know what the meme is hinting at: namely the “glitch city” glitch in the first generation of Pokémon games (Red / Blue / Yellow) that can be triggered by performing certain actions in a specific order. The glitch corrupts game data, thereby creating an overworld of jumbled letters and numbers, invisible walls, random tiles and sprites thrown every which way. Glitch city was an integral part of the first Gen Pokémon mythology – you would get wind of it in many of the inane Pokémon-themed publications cropping up almost daily at your local newsagent’s, you would spin yarns about it with your friends – since glitch city could come in different permutations depending on where you activated it, it was easy to convince your mates you had found something they hadn’t, which meant new urban legends were constantly added to the myth. I digress, but I hope to have clarified why the meme is so effective: it activates a prized memory of shared, deep experience of a certain game and successfully twists it with satirical intent.

As provocative and funny as it can be, it would still be preposterous to attribute real-life political significance to a Facebook page like Politically Retro – I also doubt it could serve as a tool of information or awareness. As is common with all forms of satire on and off the Internet, users have to be in on the joke already. From a quick survey of the comments normally posted under the page’s content (some of which are almost as funny as the meme themselves), it is furthermore clear that users tend to share its left-wing political slant in the first place – they need no persuading at all.

Politically Retro is rather more interesting as an example of what the languages of the Internet can accomplish when they intersect with pop culture and an intelligent use of meme tropes. It also speaks volumes about the extent to which videogame fictions have colonized our imagination in the same way that literature, cinema and pop music did with previous generations. The techie, the groveling geek of the 1980s and 1990s has given way to the new normie of the post-2000s who doesn’t feel any shame in playing videogames; maybe she will even fetishize the term “nerd” as a beacon of pride. Gamers – and always more people are, to some extent or another, gamers – often talk about games, think about games, think in terms of gaming (gamification is the market trend that squarely places them as consumers who need to be lured in through familiarity). People use online play to socialize and communicate. Game memories interlace with personal experience in the same way other forms of fiction have done in the past: beating the Pokémon League at the end of Gold felt like a real event to my 11-year-old self, probably because I had emerged through my primary school exams just a few weeks before and the two events felt uncannily similar in nature. And speaking of Pokémon Gold: the strolling through its mostly non-urban re-imagining of Japan (Kanto and Johto as a nature-bound Japan purged of Tokyo and its menacing, sprawling urbanism; even bigger cities are rather small affairs that merely gesture towards the idea of a “metropolis”); the boarding of a night-train from one region to another (the darkened track and an illuminated window on the carriage through which my character’s face peered); the idea of boundless travel unhindered from any pressing obligation – all these images followed me through my adolescence and left their mark on the way I saw things: cities, suburbs, trains, holidays, fields of grass.

A phenomenon like Politically Retro is an example of how the currency of videogame culture and worlds can be employed through meme-like language. It goes beyond a mere “continuation” of the main text it’s taken from; contrary to fan art, fan fiction, zines or fan blogs, it does not confine itself to paying homage or simply extending – in a spurious fashion – the plot lines of that world. It creates, rather, a new text altogether – its signs and templates derive from the original, and can only function in relation to it; yet they convey a different kind of information. I find this re-purposing of pop culture more thought-provoking than memes which use a simple visual punch line or – taking up the inheritance of demotivational pictures –propagate a form of easily quotable Internet cynicism. And – as undemocratic as it may sound – I think this use of memes is the only I really care about: these images are at least put together by clever people who have a snappy command of Internet language and aesthetics, a good sense of humour, and a gift for satirical observation. I’ll take that any day over trolls and Twitter denizens recycling the same meme for the umpteenth time because they think they had the best idea ever. That’s a utilization of memes that mainly rests on overabundance: I understand that many people will find it all the funnier precisely because they see the same thing in innumerable permutations and occasions – the more malleable, the better. There’s some genuine glee in that – like a prolonged fart, it can have its provocative value and it rarely fails to make everyone laugh. But personally, I tire of that quickly. At least Politically Retro makes me laugh in a way that does is not complacent or toxic – and it nudges me to check Italian news slightly more often than I would normally do. It’s also a small reminder of the little instances of dissent that stand to be endangered by the upcoming upload filter – certainly not as grievous as pressing censorship concerns advanced by activists and content creators, but probably near enough to common understanding to signify what could be at stake with the new European Copyright Directive.

Giorgio Chiappa lives in Berlin and is currently working on a PhD in theatre history. He hopes his dissertation will one day be available for the Nintendo Switch.

Submit a comment