There was a moment early in the pandemic when I decided I would become someone who could identify birds. At the lake in my local park, I recognized mallards, swans, and some kind of crane, but the trees were full of birds I couldn’t name: tiny black and white striped ones that hopped and whistled, soft gray ones that sang sweetly, blackbirds with bright red racing stripes on their wings. I started taking notes and realized, with a jolt, that I was birding.
A second later, I realized that birding was just an analog form of gaming. Digital, too, if you download an app to help identify and log your sightings.
My birding phase was quickly succeeded by a more encompassing and enduring interest in identifying trees. I joined a volunteer corps to plant and tend city trees, and have started filling a notebook with sketches to help me identify different species even in the winter, with only bark and leaf scars to go by. Creating my own personal tree index—and treesplaining to any patient friend who will accompany me on a walk—is both recreational and a scholarly commitment.
I don’t need to explain that duality if you, like me, have completionist tendencies in gaming. There are only a handful of titles I play—and replay, unlocking every possible dialogue tree and armor type and alliance—but even when I try out a new title, I play to complete. I consult maps and guides. I look in every crate and barrel and gather as much loot as I can carry.
For me, the impulse to collect doesn’t extend into physical reality—just pixels and trivia. So I’ve always assumed it was some kind of brain chemical loop: open chest, press X to take all, feel a momentary reprieve from existential dread and angst, repeat. I only recently considered that the enterprise might have intellectual or aesthetic value.
In pursuit of looting knowledge, I picked up a book called Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai by Michael Dylan Foster. Yōkai are monsters, spirits, and other eldritch beings in Japanese folklore; there are hundreds upon hundreds of them recorded in literature and art and reference books of different eras, all different kinds of things that exist at the border of “mysterious” and “weird.” Foster begins his chronology of yōkai-gaku (monster-ology, more or less) in 18th century Japan, when the evolution of printing technology converged with the rise of both encyclopedia production and leisure culture and resulted in yōkai bestiaries that captured images and descriptions of strange creatures without distinguishing between spooky but verifiable animals (like foxes and raccoon dogs, both said to possess mischievous magic) and fantastic creatures. One such folklorist was Toriyama Sekien, whose first “monster parade” bestiary was so wildly popular that he published several more, and who may well have made up some of the yōkai from whole cloth rather than drawing from folklore and local traditions.
According to Foster, the impulse to collect images, stories, and facts about yōkai represents the convergence of what he calls the “encyclopedic” mode and the “ludic” mode—the drive to know and the drive to enjoy, respectively. While those modes might seem at odds, he writes, they are perfectly aligned when it comes to collecting yōkai. After all, no aspiring naturalist is going to find a jinmenju in the wild, or catch foxes and raccoon dogs in the act of shapeshifting; there is already an element of creativity and play in committing yōkai imagery and behavior to paper. And to look at it another way, the drive to know the unknowable is what drives humans to imagine and define monsters and spirits in the first place. The impulse to categorize and understand mysterious beings gave rise to yōkai-gaku in Japan; in the West, we have our own widely-known (if highly variable) rules for how vampires, ghosts, and other monsters behave. Collecting knowledge about unknowable beings not only satisfies those ludic and encyclopedia drives, it’s also self-perpetuating; knowing the old stories makes consuming new stories about monsters more accessible and engaging.
You can probably see where this is going. The contemporary heir of yōkai-gaku is Pokémon: an absolute parade of pocket monsters, some directly descended from traditional yōkai, and all studied and classified by in-game specialists and institutions devoted to Pokémon-ology. In a collision of the encyclopedic and ludic modes, one plays not just by collecting unique Pokémon but by collecting details and trivia about their abilities and preferred habitats in order to optimize Pokémon capture and deployment.
Why do we do this—and why do we like it? Foster has a few different theories. For one, he quotes literary critic Susan Stewart on the aesthetic value of collecting. When you create a Pokédex or arrange trophies in your digital house or build a cabinet of wonders in your own home, you are taking objects out of their original context—out of different periods and places, sometimes—and placing them in a new order of your own making. Collecting itself is creative play.
For another, Foster points to the human condition that leads to the invention of yōkai and monsters in the first place: a longing for a universe beyond what is immediately visible. Augmented reality games like Pokémon Go particularly make that longing plain: even without owning Pokémon Go myself, I collected photos of Pokémon lounging in my living room next to my unaware cat, and kept peeping at my friends’ screens while we took Poké-walks.
Or, writes Foster, perhaps the attraction is in escapism. Pokémon posits an alternate reality that is like ours except that the unseen has become seen, the unknowable organized into a system that can be known with a little time and application. The very otherworldliness of Pokémon (and other yōkai that have been reimagined as adorable and friendly mascots) makes them safe and gives them popular appeal; there’s no political or perverse darkness to uncover in the games themselves, just more Pokémon facts. Setting aside the reality that games themselves are collectible artifacts that are very much tainted by inequities and injustices of the outside world, I can see the appeal of the smaller, controllable world within games, a sufficient inventory to engage but not so much as to overwhelm.
I’m making the unseen seen, I tell myself in the daytime, as I walk around my neighborhood and mentally match the bursting pink and white cherry blossoms with their striped and spotted gray bark. I’m doing this for the aesthetic, I tell myself at night, collecting and arranging pixels that will one day disappear as completely as this spring’s blossoms.
Sara Davis is a recovering academic and marketing writer who lives in Philadelphia. Her PhD in American literature is from Temple University. She blogs about books, games, climate change, and other obsessions at literarysara.net.