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Pokémon Go’s surprising roots: bug catching

It may not be at the front of everyone’s mind as they play Pokémon Go, but the idea behind Pokémon is a bit odd: Humans are essentially enslaving animals and then using them to fight one another.

So where did the concept come from? It actually comes from bug catching, a popular activity — especially among kids — in Japan, where Pokémon originated.

As gaming websites Kotaku and Retronauts explained, Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of the Pokémon series, loved bug hunting as a kid. In fact, he was apparently fanatic about it — classmates called him "Mr. Bug," and he wanted to be an entomologist (who studies insects). But as Tajiri grew up, he also fell in love with video games. So Pokémon was a response to both interests — an intersection between video games and bug catching.

As a result, there are a lot of similarities between bug catching and Pokémon. With bugs, it’s not just about catching a bunch of random insects; kids in Japan go after a variety of certain bugs — dragonflies, cicadas, crickets, and kabutomushi (Japanese rhinoceros beetles). Similarly, in Pokémon, players don’t just want a Pikachu but a Dragonite, Psyduck, Articuno, Mew, and Mewtwo, too. As the franchise’s slogan says, "Gotta catch ’em all."

Some bugs even directly inspired certain Pokémon. Caterpie, for example, is based on caterpillars and evolves into a butterfly. Kabuto and Kabutops are based on — and get their names from — kabutomushi. The examples go on.

But it’s not just the collection aspect that inspired Pokémon. In Japan, kids and adults will sometimes make bugs fight each other. Crickets and kabutomushi are particularly popular to this end — and there are even gambling rings for insect fighting. (Breeding is also big, which was added for Pokémon in later games, after the original Pokémon Red and Blue.)

In both bug hunting and Pokémon, the collection and battle aspects come together to make a fun, long-lasting activity. Collecting adds a long-term goal to catch ’em all. And the battles let you show off your collection — on top of, for Pokémon in particular, adding some deeper interaction, variety, and strategy to the game itself.

Pokémon Go, then, is a bit of a throwback to the franchise’s roots: Just like bug hunters in Japan, Pokémon Go players are now running around streets, parks, forests, and creeks to catch ’em all.

For more on Pokémon Go, check out Vox's full explainer.