Pokémon Has A Lot In Common With Confidence Games

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 philosophize about their choice. They can choose the version corresponding to their preferred color. 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.


Also! If you personally liked, commented, and / or subscribed to our YouTube channel, that would definitely fuel my habit of making a lot more videos like this. I promise you might love it.

There’s even a playlist of all my other videos. Wow!

I make videos for Kotaku. I make video games for myself and my friends. I like writing fiction. Someday I will publish a novel. Who knows!



Pokemon doesn’t work as a sport because it’s impossible for it to be fair: if people bring their own pokemon, their going to bring some perfect mess of a monster you can only acquire through hours upon hours of grinding, and victory will go to the person with the lucky enough not to get a bunch of bad match ups. But if the pokemon are all assigned, you lose out on most of what makes the game unique and fun.

The Esport games that get popular have no such gate: when we lose to a pro, we know it’s because he’s just that good, and there’s always the thought that *we* could be that good if we just put in a bit more effort. But Pokemon presents that massive wall of time, an obstacle we can *never* get over by being clever, or good, or lucky.