The secret world of Pok

With a TV show, video game and trading cards, the pocket monsters have come for your children.

Published July 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Maybe you've read news stories about it being banned from elementary schools. Maybe a guy on the street tried to sell you some cheap. Or maybe you've been cornered by a wild-eyed 8-year-old addict -- the kid next door, your cousin, even your own son or daughter -- and subjected to a rambling monologue about "hit points," "damages" and "evolved stages." This is Pokimon, and it's some weird stuff. Imagine cockfighting crossed with Hello Kitty and you're merely scratching the surface. Below the surface, it gets even weirder.

Pokimon originated in Japan in 1996 as a Nintendo game and made its way west in 1998; the Pokimon Game Boy is now the bestselling video game in the United States. Pokimon (I think the name loosely translates to, "Empty the pockets of your hapless parents, sheep children!") has also crossed over into TV, toys, comic books, young readers' books, collectibles, clothing and a rabidly popular trading card game. Pokimon trading card decks that went for $9 a few months ago are now selling for upwards of $35 at some game stores, due to a mysterious supply problem in the Pokimon pipeline. Or so I'm told -- I'm sure that the lines around the block on new shipment delivery day have nothing to do with the inflated prices.

Grade school Pokimaniacs (mostly boys, but some girls too) can usually be found hunched over Game Boys or ogling each others' collections of cards depicting the 150 animal-mutants that make up the Pokimon universe. The object of the game is elegantly simple: "Gotta catch 'em all!" You'd be amazed at how fast kids learn to add and subtract in their heads when they're trying to figure out just how much allowance money catching 'em all will take.

In Pokimon, a player becomes a "trainer" who has to capture one of each species of wild Pokimon in order to advance to higher levels of mastery. The trainer whips his Pokimon into fighting shape, then sends them into one-on-one matches against another trainer's Pokimon. Each Pokimon has a special power of attack, and these attacks are the most endearingly dorky part of the game. For instance, the shrieking pigeon Pidgey blinds opponents with his "gust attack" -- which is a fancy way of saying that he flaps his wings and blows sand in their eyes. Jigglypuff, who looks like a wad of pink bubble gum, possesses a hypnotic "sing attack" that (according to the official Pokimon encyclopedia) can "send even the toughest Pokimon to dreamland." I'm not sure how Bulbasaur, a dinosaur thingy with what looks like a large garlic bulb growing out of its back, vanquishes opponents -- perhaps he overpowers them with a strong batch of pesto. Clearly, we're not talking about "Mortal Kombat" here.

If you don't have a kid handy to explain the labyrinthine rules of the game, the TV show, airing on Saturday mornings on WB and on weekdays on various local channels, is the easiest and cheapest introduction to the Pokimon experience. Yes, this is the same seizure-inducing cartoon that sent 685 Japanese viewers to emergency rooms one night in 1997, but not to worry -- the offending strobe-light effects have been toned down for the dubbed American version.

"Pokimon" is of the "Speed Racer"/"Sailor Moon" school of Japanese anime: Characters have big Keane-children eyes, flickering backgrounds give the illusion of movement and little girls have freakishly long legs and disturbingly short skirts. The hero of the TV show, 10-year-old Ash Ketchum, is undergoing the rite of passage prescribed for all 10-year-olds in Pokimon World -- he journeys the countryside without parental supervision, hunting Pokimon, battling worthy opponents and earning merit badges. As rites of passage go, this one looks pretty grueling. Why not just have a Bar Mitzvah or a confirmation? The presents are better and you don't have to live in the woods without television or Slurpees for months on end.

Anyway, on the morning of his 10th birthday, Ash goes to see Professor Oak, the kindly Pokimonologist, to select his first Pokimon and receive his Pokidex, a Palm Pilot-type gizmo that contains everything he needs to know for his quest. But Ash oversleeps and gets to Professor Oak's lab too late to get a decent Pokimon, so he has to settle for Pikachu, an adorable yellow electricity-spewing rat with behavioral problems. Pikachu in tow, Ash sets out to become The Greatest Pokimon Master of All Time.

As a toy tie-in kiddie show, "Pokimon" (currently the highest-rated kids' program in syndication and the highest rated Saturday morning cartoon for boys aged 6-12) is surprisingly not terrible. It's funny, it stresses friendship, good sportsmanship and kindness to animals and there's no killing -- Pokimon who lose matches don't die, they pass out. Then they're sent off for rehab at the Pokimon equivalent of the Betty Ford Center. The villains of the show, Team Rocket, are bumbling lightweights, an effete, extravagantly coiffed boy and girl who look like they should be performing on a British New Romantics bill, circa 1982, with Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. "Pokimon" is no "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," but it's far from the worst thing a kid could watch.

Indeed, the whole Pokimon phenomenon couldn't be more perfectly attuned to the emotional wavelength of pre-adolescence. As Benjamin Spock wrote in "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care," age 6 to 11 is the time for "starting collections, whether it's stamps or cards or stones. The pleasure of collecting is in achieving orderliness and completeness." Gotta catch 'em all! But what would the good Dr. Spock have made of Pokimon's puberty subtext?

In the games and the TV show, the Pokimon start out as cuddly yet ferocious (when provoked) baby creatures -- they're the ideal fantasy objects for second-graders who act tough but still sleep with Teddy bears. After the immature Pokimon win a few matches, they evolve into bigger, more powerful Pokimon. Did I mention that the Japanese translation of "Pokimon" is "pocket monsters"? Charmander, the cute little lizard with flames shooting from the tip of its tail, becomes the winged fire-belching dragon Charizard. Squirtle the turtle becomes Blastoise, whose shell contains two high-pressure water cannons to blast opponents (thus embodying every kid's dream of owning the biggest Super Soaker on the block).

But, no matter how big and angry the Pokimon get, trainers can still command them to shrink and return to their Pokiballs, the small red-and-white spheres where they live when they're not fighting. When Ash needs a Pokimon, he takes a Poki ball out of his pocket, hurls it at his opponent and the Pokimon bursts out, ready to rock and roll. So, to review: Boy rubs ball, pocket monster pops out. Do I have to draw you a picture?

Nascent sexuality aside, Pokimon is also thick with corporate metaphors. On the show, Ash and the other trainers assemble a corps of Pokimon employees, demand their loyalty, coop them up in undersized quarters and send them out to fight their battles. The trainer's ascent up the "Pokimon League" ladder depends entirely on the performance of his employees. "Pokimon" may be a cartoon, but it's one of the best management-training films you'll ever see. If it inspires a generation of American kids to embark on a quest to be The Greatest Middle Manager of All Time, so be it -- especially if it makes them do their math homework.

I suppose it's a sign of how screwy things are for families these days that, despite its profound strangeness, parents have welcomed the bloodless and strategy-emphasizing Pokimon with open arms. And I agree: Better your pre-adolescent son should be obsessing over non-threatening characters named Jigglypuff and Caterpie than dressing in combat fatigues and terrorizing the neighborhood pets. But, as with all fads that feed on stuff-lust, Pokimon has its Darwinian side. The reason many schools have banned the trading cards is because savvier kids were suckering naive ones into bad trades, like a rare holographic Raichu (evolved Pikachu) for a worthless Diglett (underachieving mole). And it was the parents who complained. Aw, come on, moms and dads -- getting suckered is a fact of life. It's an Arcanine eat Arcanine world out there. Ask any kid.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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