Beware of the Poke Mania

Can such cute critters be bad influences? How one misfit's quest turned into a global bonanza

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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?

The answer may lie in the origins of the phenomenon. Despite the publicity generated by the trading cards, the heart of Pokemon is a handheld game. Start by picking up a palm-size Nintendo Game Boy, insert the proper cartridge and switch it on. Soon, a creature with a lightning-bolt tail bounces through an animated sequence, pops a cute grin and yelps, "Pikachu!" You have met the most popular of the Pokemon, a creature--part cherub and part thunder god--that is the most famous mouse since Mickey and Mighty.

Seven-year-olds navigate unerringly through the minuscule screen that is the porthole to Pokedom, punching two tiny buttons and a cross-shaped cursor bar to find their way. It's a more difficult task for adults. But if you choose to play, you assume the role of a Pokemon trainer. Your goal is to travel the world collecting one of every Pokemon species. To acquire that collection, you need Pokemon to subdue Pokemon (they are then stored in handy containers called Pokeballs, hence the etymology of Pokemon, short for Pocket Monsters). The battles are mediated by the electronics of the Game Boy. But don't worry: Pokemon do not die. When they lose battles, they faint. And if that happens to your Pokemon, you can take it to the local Pokemon Center, a high-tech spa where it can be restored to "fighting fit."

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