Beware of the Pokemania

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Illustration for TIME by David Cowles
courtesy: Hasbro, Nintendo, Tiger Electronics, Toy Island, Viz, Warner Bros., Wizards of the Coast

Monsters make for disquieting playmates. No matter how toylike and frivolous they may appear, monsters are unnatural and, in the end, deal in unresolved fear. But monsters also have a way with children. Consider the suspicious charms of the Pokemon creatures--Gengar, Cubone and Chansey, for example. The first is a ghostly purple ball with a devilishly cute smile, horns to match and a crocodile spine. The second is a sort of bear cub with a skull over its head--or is the whole thing its actual head? The third is a vaguely dinosauric pinkish cloud. Their equally bizarre compatriots range in height from a foot (that would be a Pidgey) to 28 ft. (that's an Onix) and in weight from 2 lbs. (Diglett) to 1,914 lbs. (Snorlax). Their fighting skills are as feral as ramming (that's Rhydon), as yucky as a tongue wrap (Lickitung--ugh!) or as childish as a tantrum (Primeape). There are more than 150 Pokemon species, and almost any child of 12 or younger, wired with a child's propensity for order, can recite a substantial lineup, complete with arcane attributes and an individual monster's ability to evolve into higher forms. Welcome to the new Mesozoic. The check-out line forms to the far right.

Parents who have had to suffer through the games, the TV series and shopping trips can take some comfort in the fact that the Pokemon demographic is the same one that has abandoned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers. What may be harder to survive is the relentlessness of Pokemania, a multimedia and interactive barrage like no other before it, with children mesmerized into cataloging a menagerie of multiplicative monsters, with trading cards linked to games linked to television shows linked to toys linked to websites linked to candy linked back to where you started--a pestilential Ponzi scheme. Smelling profits, America's conglomerates have pokeyed up to cash in. Hasbro paid $325 million to market the toys. The WB network (owned by Time Warner, the parent company of this magazine) swept up exclusive rights to the top-rated animated TV series. Warner released the Pokemon movie (see review, right), which opened on Wednesday last week and saw thousands of children calling in sick from school with the "Pokemon flu." Warner ran out of the trading cards it was giving away to ticket buyers. Meanwhile, Burger Kings in California and Texas had toy shortages for their Pokemon giveaways, leaving scores of children in tears.

The four-to-12-year-old set can exhibit the most troubling fanaticism about Pokemon. Children have written hate e-mail to movie critics who have panned the film. After a screening and being mesmerized by Pokemon battle after Pokemon battle, an excited little boy told his father, "That movie makes me want to fight." Not words parents want to hear.

The Pokemon trading-card craze is at the center of much of the controversy. Colm McNiallais, 11, of New York City is a good guide to frenzy. Passing kids looking to trade, he says, "We don't want them. They cheat." He gravitates toward others who have brought out binders filled with hundreds of cards. A dangerous thing, he says. Some of the stuff is rare, and who knows what other kids will do to get it. Colm has only the cards he is willing to trade. "Hey, you have a Magnemite!" someone squeals. "Oh, I need that Drowzee," says someone else. "Look at these holographic ones." The presence of a elusive Dragonite provokes gasps.

Some behavior has been delinquent. A six-year-old logged on to a Pokemon website and printed counterfeit copies of the cards to trade with gullible schoolmates. Other behavior can be criminal. Last week a nine-year-old boy on New York's Long Island stabbed an older schoolmate in a dispute over cards. A principal explained why her school, like many others, was banning Pokemon cards: "Children who don't have Pokeman cards feel left out. When children bring the Pokeman cards into the lunchroom, they often spend time looking at the cards instead of eating lunch." A group of parents in New Jersey has sued the trading-card manufacturer for intentionally making some cards scarce to force children into buying more and more packs of Pokemon cards. "Racketeering!" the parents cry.

It's not really the violence that scares parents--they've lived with and tolerated intimations of horror for generations. In Grimm's fairy tales, what does the wolf do to Red Riding Hood's granny or the witch plan to do to Hansel? When kids collect dinosaurs, parents, blinded by science, simply shrug when their children yell in the museum, "Look, mom, that allosaurus is eating the brachiosaur's baby!" After that, what can be objectionable about the too-cute-to-live Pokemon named Jigglypuff, a ball of fluff whose greatest power--not to be scoffed at--is a stupefying lullaby?

But there is a problem: the key principle of the Pokeocracy is acquisitiveness. The more Pokemon you have, the greater power you possess (the slogan is GOTTA CATCH 'EM ALL). And never underestimate a child's ability to master the Pokearcana required to accumulate such power: the ease with which they slip into cunning and thuggery can stun a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer. Grownups aren't ready for their little innocents to be so precociously cutthroat. Is Pokemon payback for our get-rich-quick era--with our offspring led away like lemmings by Pied Poke-Pipers of greed? Or is there something inherent in childhood that Pokemania simply reflects?

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