Frank has the concentrated look of a life-long gamer: dazed but not quite confused, with that tight and narrow kind of stoned pupil-bead of a 65-year-old dowager pulling slots at 4:00 in the morning in the heart of the Vegas strip. It's the Dungeons & Dragons look; it drills into and then through you. Frank, when I first met him, seemed inordinately suspicious of my motives; as he gazed at me, it felt as though he were sizing me up for hit points, or putting the needle to my life force. Then I began to sense that what I was seeing in his features was simply an expression of intense watchfulness, something alert and opportunistic and even slightly exhausted from an endless processing of the minutiae involved in trading card games, shoot 'em up vids, and various sword-and-sorcery scen-arios. I've seen the same look in the eyes of dentists, used car salesmen, and math teachers. It's intimidating.
I figure it's probably a safe bet that Frank -- who's now 20 and has been gaming since he was 13 -- possesses the keenest insight into why this whole Pokémon thing is so out of hand; why those bright yellow Pikachu (pronounced "Peek," followed by a sneeze) creatures are plastered in every toy shop window and on every toy shop wall, on TV and soon (November 12) on the big screen, with that terse catch phrase: "Gotta Catch 'Em All."
"It's a whole media blitz," says Frank, and this surely accounts for much of the hoopla. It's also true that Pokémon, according to Ranger Angelo, is the first game of its kind aimed at a younger age group -- the kids who've been shut out of Magic: The Gathering, the D&D card game upon which Pokémon is very loosely based. Prior to Pokémon, trading card games were the domain of post-adolescent males (physiologically speaking). So in this regard, the game is a revolutionary idea of sorts, an innovative twist on an existing structure of deep play.
Frank cites other reasons for the Pokémon craze. "It's quick and relatively simple," he says, but "it's got enough finesse in it to attract the adults." And, along with everyone else I spoke with -- the kids especially -- Frank says of the Pokémon image, "It's also cute. The big thing is, cuteness sells. Kids like cartoons."
Pokémon are cute. Okay. Still, this isn't the most satisfying explanation of their monstrous success.
Fact: Wizards of the Coast, Inc. -- the Renton-based company that manufactures and markets the Pokémon card game -- estimates that five million kids are playing the game nationwide.
Fact: Since January 9 of this year, Wizards has sold 2.5 million of the Pokémon two-player starter kits alone.
Fact: The Pokémon animated television series is currently the highest-rated show in children's programming.
Fact: In Japan -- where the Nintendo corporation precipitated a veritable marketing avalanche with all manner of Pokémon merchandise (Game Boy video game, comics, cards, watches) snowballing through the already knee-deep children's market -- the Pokémon subdivision generated $4.5 billion in revenue in its first four years of operation.
Conjecture: There are some chronic Cheshire grins dancing around the accounting departments at Nintendo and Wizards of the Coast. (From a February 1999 Wizards press release: "The new game is selling 10 times better than initial projections. Consumer demand is so great that the company is gearing up for a fourth print after only six weeks on the market in order to keep store shelves stocked.")
Supply and demand, to be sure.
So for one, this ain't no Hoola Hoop, inert or twirling on the hip. This is bigger, huge, enormous, more webby and woven in, and it's got no real swing to it. No boogie. Nor any real precedent, either; only half-assed precursors on the road to cathode thralldom. It's intrinsically different from the Hoola Hoop, as we're now extrinsically warped away from the Ozzie-and-Harriet nostalgia of those dubiously innocent post-war years, when outstretched, outlayed suburbia spread like ballooning caps of fungoid, and young Hoola-Hoopsters became -- Eureka! -- big-eared constituents of the disembodied peddler's demographic. These kids are pawns in the game, for in this New World Mall -- risen like a two-fisted phoenix from the ramshackle markets of old America -- everywhere's an outlet; everyone's a buyer; everything's for sale. It's a whole different ball game, really, because national commitment to the nascent idea of the universal supermarket has become hard-core reality, and we suddenly -- at this globalized juncture -- breathe our infrastructural, mass-mediated commercial of a neon culture right through the gills. And, like, go ask a fish about water. What's the answer?
Pokémon is the Gulf War of kids' toys: bright, yet hard to see; something flashy and new and unsettling; explosive, corrosive, and media-savvy.
Then again, it is possible to step back a bit and role-call distant kin, the fetishized links in a primitive ancestry of adolescent crazes: the Hoola Hoop, to start, then probably Beatlemania, My Little Pony, My Buddy, Dungeons & Dragons, Pac Man, Cabbage Patch, Beanie Baby... Pokémon. Shit happens. Hey, presto! Or something like that. And then you can ask, do commodities evolve and speciate, after all? Cross-pollinate and communicate with each other? If so, what's new and improved about this brand new shine on our supposedly same old muddy capitalist tadpole, this age-old orgy of buying and selling (to crib Marx)? Maybe we should exhume Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Adam Smith -- ask 'em about toys for tots and Big Bros. marketing and super-duper industrialization. Hold a panel discussion. Or maybe just pick on Kissinger, who yolked and yakked the Commander in Chief into carpet-bombing Cambodia. What a coup! (Or possibly Pol Pot, who survived it, somehow.) Because, despite the bloodlessness of the analogy, it sometimes looks just like that: strategy, pinpoint, saturation, fireworks, bingo. And they all fall down.
But despair not. The kids are... alright. And if they aren't -- too late for you. They're hooked. And why not? It's just a toy, isn't it? Oh, all this fuss! Everywhere you turn, it's Pokémon! Pokémon! Pokémon! They just love it, eat it up. Throw tantrums and shit fits. We might roll our eyes, give a tight-lipped sarcastic grin, pish-posh, but what can you do? Ever try to teach a kid about the inherent machinations of malevolent mass marketing? "Listen, kid, you're being yanked, plain and simple. Calm down. Get a grip. Pokémon, Schmokey-mon. Grab a good book instead. Here -- Treasure Island. There ya are. You don't really need all this sugar-shot glitzy-glam cartoon stuff, do you? It's just sound and fury, baby doll. Lining the pockets, you know? Big cheese in the corporate office. When I was a kid...."
I've watched the game being played, and I've played it some myself, and for all that, I'm no less the discombobulated gawker standing rubbernecked at the screeching tires of a fad passing on the breakneck autobahn of a reified culture. Who cares about one more wreck? My response to the craze is equal parts exhaustion, resignation, and morbid fascination. I feel alien to all this. After hours of banging around inside it -- the Pokémon thing -- I have no more sense of proportion than poor Tashtego when he belly-flopped into that metaphorically charged tun of whale blubber roped alongside the Pequod, and as to my sense of legitimate entrée into the gnarly world of Pokémon: Think of Kafka's wretched K -- banging on the locked door, whimpering, whispering, seeking from the bureaucratic riddler that esoteric code that finally let's him through. Only to find another door. And another riddler.
Well, it's not so bad as all that, I guess. Frustrating, yes. A little scary, too, the scope of saturation, the level of hysteria, the all-fronts marketing juggernaut. Even Jenny Bendel, a P.R. wag for the Pokémon division of Wizards of the Coast, admits, "I don't think you can really explain this kind of enthusiasm for a product." It's tough to wrap around and get a hold of. The simple question of why leads you directly into the swirly core of the big system, and then its implications: giant economies, midget psychologies, behavior, ethics, human nature. Lord of the Flies-type stuff. The Wonderful World of Children's Commodities. What now? What's sacred; what's shallow; what can you explain; and when do you throw up your arms?
So after all this looky-loo, do I know one or two things for sure? I've heard Pokémon referred to as "kiddie crack" -- which is pretty funny -- and it's easy to understand the impetus to reduction implied by the phrase (like the junkie, who turns all his little problems into one big problem). The term certainly captures the blurry aspects of pandemonium that have seized America's -- and apparently much of the planet's -- pre-adolescent population. Outwardly, the Pokémon craze does at times exhibit the rapid, hallucinatory flow of hot goods and cold cash which marks the speedy desperation of our back-alley channels in narcotics. But unlike crack, this is all perfectly legit; as above board, across the counter, and socially sanctioned as any free market frenzy can be. Sure thing. So consider it like this: upright legal crack for young 'uns, if crack were funneled like breakfast cereal through the ubiquitous strobe of frenetic imagery; Japanimated chaos, everywhere at once; an ad campaign to end all ad campaigns, written on the wall; crack cartoons; crack video games; crack card games; crack hats and shirts.
For starters, then, suppose that a child's mind contains a vast quantity of raw, organic data that Ping-Pongs around at the speed of light, awaiting governance by that synthesizing mechanism whose evolution signals our so-called maturity. Everything in this obscenely clamorous universe begs a child's attention; couple this with a high-octane, laissez-faire consumer society that instills in its victims -- by every eye-grabbing, ear-splitting means -- an insatiable desire for continuous product consumption, and it's no wonder the youth of America are endemically hyperactive and flighty. All they're doing is what's asked of them. They respond to the consumerist goad with unhindered enthusiasm. But somehow it frightens us to see our deepest secret values given unironic expression through the inclusive, incisive, and yet incomplete comprehension of kids -- because children, unlike most grownups, are capable of bestowing the most incredible level of concentration upon multiple objects in the throes of chaos without losing the rhythm of movement. They are impressionable and undiscriminating and insistent all at once -- willful and perceptive and oblivious to all but the emotional content of our adult cynicism and despair.
In other words, children are the ideal customers.
Enter Pokémon. Modern children's games -- perhaps the ideal products -- seek to capture that quicksilver attention and pin it down, like a butterfly's wings, through the combined effects of fascination, familiarity, and repetition. Fascination. Familiarity. Repetition. Pokémon is no different in this regard. When children play the Pokémon card game, their eyes flit and dart with the pulse of their thoughts -- zigging and zagging between potentiality and outcome, between the adoration of appearances and the analysis of probability. They become focused and alert and somewhat contemplative. If it's true, as social scientists like to assert, that children's toys recapitulate dominant social themes and structures as tools of socialization, then you might say that Pokémon resembles the wheelings and dealings of the stock market; in miniature, in toto: There's that same seductive lure of competitive gambling and property accumulation.
In fact, a legal firm in San Diego recently filed a class-action lawsuit against the makers of Pokémon, charging them with the operation of an illegal gambling ring. The suit was dropped like a hot potato when someone at the law firm realized -- surely with the image of an infinite string of precariously poised dominoes foremost in his mind -- that said firm already represented another branch of the very corporation they were intent on suing.
Better yet, the drive behind the Pokémon card game -- where children are placed in the powerful role of master-trainer over a stable of spunky Pokémon -- is in many regards similar to that of animal husbandry. Really. Pokémon, stripped bare, is a quick-paced game of primitive proprietorship, a Day-Glo waltz around the two-tiered dance floor of show and competition. According to the mythic fantasy of Pokémon -- as promulgated by whoever -- the feral little creatures are captured, broken (with a gentle hand), and put to work in the service of rote accumulation and military victory. In this, the game perhaps also resembles other profitable institutions of our early American agrarian economy, by which I mean to imply nothing in particular. Just putting it out there.
So listen. It looks something like this: To the uninitiated observer beholding the spectacle of a game in progress, the encyclopedic rules of a Pokémon match -- vertiginously predicated as they are on the schizophrenic proposition of an alternate universe -- can be quite disconcerting. Standing outside the fold of a Pokémon game in full swing has a sense of the Borgesian about it -- like stumbling in medias res into a parallel universe, with an oddball language and a cast of characters and a set of funky codes all its own, all of which appear to have been in place since time immemorial. It's such a busy universe, too. You wonder how a six-year-old kid could possibly keep track of everything going down. In the heat of battle, the goofy laws of the Pokémon world appear ad hoc and scatterbrained all at once -- totally off the cuff. Can a Pokémon, for example, be both poisoned and paralyzed at the same time? How much and what type of energy does it take to evolve Pikachu into Raichu, and why on earth would you want to do such a thing? If Water has a weakness toward Grass, does Grass have a resistance to Water? So who's this Professor Oak fellow? And what sort of attack is an "Onion Slap?"
In principle, Pokémon plays out like a round of War, that oldest, simplest of children's card games. But as it's manifested on the field of combat (the kitchen table, say), in tournament action, with all its accoutrements and flourishes and all those damn rules, it proceeds like a supernatural cockfight: a two-dimensional grudge match commissioned by Dr. Seuss, staged by Rube Goldberg, promoted by Willy Wonka, and fought between a colorful bunch of psychedelic homunculi with names like Poliwhirl, Dewgong, Wartotle, and Jigglypuff. It's a complex, or at least complex-looking affair, and it's easy for the beginner to get bogged down in the details. The devil's in the details.
Remember that -- the devil's in the details.
At its most rudimentary level, what happens in a Pokémon battle is that two players (or "trainers," or "masters") face off with their respective stables (usually represented by a thick stack of 60 laminate cards) of cute, cuddly, but incredibly bellicose Pokémon. These creatures politely take turns walloping the stuffing out of each other with various spells, incantations, and attacks (like the dreaded "Bubblebeam" or the equally frightful "Horn Drill"). Victory is achieved by any one of three slightly different ways. While it's not particularly important here to describe all the possible paths to triumph, it is crucial to note that there is never any actual killing of the Pokémon. No way. Pokémon don't die. They just get the wind knocked out of them. They "faint."
Does all this hocus pocus smack of the occult to you? That's a tidy explanation: You can always haul in Satan and call it a righteous day. It worked for Pastor Mark Juvera of Grace Fellowship Church in Colorado Springs. On Wednesday, August 11, he received some pretty incendiary e-mail. Attached to the body of the correspondence, like a time bomb awaiting detonation by the right pastor's furious comprehension, was an Internet posting written by the online theologian Berit Kjos, of Kjos Ministries. The essay is entitled "The Dangers of Role-Playing Games: How POKÉMON and Magic Cards Affect the Minds and Values of Children," and its tone is one of righteous disgust occasionally levitated by spasms of apocalyptic anxiety. This is an interesting, if somewhat cross-eyed essay. The polemic is predictably top-heavy with demonizing mumbo jumbo and the rhetorical bombast borne of an inveterate persecution complex, but Kjos does, here and there, rip off a doozy of a line. She's got a real knack for the purple pique of the autodidactic pundit.
It's instructive to take a brief look at this essay. Kjos' analyses of cultural phenomena -- and specifically, the mechanics of the Pokémon craze -- are accidentally brilliant. She writes of "the psychological strategies" that underlie the "seductive mass marketing ploys" of the "massive global entertainment industry" -- an international mega-cartel for whom the "means often justify the economic ends." She considers Pokémon mania to be an entirely manufactured and malicious event -- with "clever ads, snappy slogans, and the 'Pokémon rap'" -- a conspiracy which inevitably "supports a financial conglomerate that knows how to feed the frenzy." Is she so wrong? If Kjos could just put a cork in all that hot-and-bothered occultist scapegoating, she might prove herself a rather trenchant market analyst.
The really great part, though, is this: The very night after he read Kjos' essay, Pastor Juvera -- along with his senior colleague, Pastor Mark Cowart -- felt compelled to spark up the holy blowtorch and send a tongue of blue flame licking across a stack of Pokémon trading cards, reducing them to ash. This remedial Pokémon holocaust was enacted for the benefit of a very specific slice of Grace Fellowship's congregational pie: 85 children, ranging in age from 6 to 12. These young candidates for brainwashing were the sole witnesses to Juvera's fiery extermination; Juvera and Cowart were the only big people present. ("You need to get them when they're young," said one parent who approved the sequestered torching. "They can't be worshipping these things.")
The show didn't stop there. In order to better drive home Pastor Cowart's assertion that Pokémon "eggs on youth violence," the children were treated to a quick lesson in ritual dismemberment, as a Pokémon action figure, strapped to the sacrificial altar, was systematically hacked to pieces with a 30-inch broadsword. According to one account, the kids chanted, "Burn it! Burn it! Chop it up! Chop it up!" throughout the ceremony.
And then there are the funny and maybe sad stories coming out of the besieged customer service division of Wizards of the Coast. Like the one about the completely distraught kid who phoned the 1-800 number in a tizzy because he'd jumped into the swimming pool with all his Pokémon cards in his ass pocket, and he wanted to know if they could be replaced gratis. Then there's that ominous correspondence, scrawled in the large block letters of an eight-year-old hand, which threatened nebulous legal action unless Wizards sent "my brother Paul" and "my brother Kevin" and the wily author of the letter a large sum of Pokémon cards, pronto. Some kids call up asking what to feed Pokémon; others, when their completely outrageous requests are summarily denied, unleash a storm of naughty language.
Maybe the most revealing tales are the ones about those big brown-paper packages that regularly arrive at the office, stuffed with crumpled bills or gold necklaces and rings filched from Mom's jewelry box by hyped-up little kleptos. The notes in these packages demand an equitable trade for the adored product; e.g., "How many packs of Pokémon cards can I get for this solid-gold brooch?" Needless to say, many of the thousands of hyperventilated calls that pour into Customer Service are from very upset, very confused, and sometimes very, very angry parents.
Not all parents are freaked out, though. Kathy Gasche, whom I also met at the Games & Gizmos tournament, enjoys playing Pokémon with her seven-year-old son, Vinni. She believes the game is not only benign, but beneficial. Kathy is very articulate, almost electric, when discussing the educational benefits of the game.
Originally, her reasons for teaching herself the game were practical and financial. "If I'm spending the money on this," she says, "I'm going to learn to play." Kathy quickly began to see the multifaceted positive aspects of Pokémon. She says it has had a direct influence on Vinni's reading and math abilities. "This is the first thing that's come along that's really caught his eye," she says. "The game is a challenge. His reading has excelled. You have to be able to read to play."
While she does admit she's "seen a lot of hostility" between kids playing the game, Kathy says that Pokémon has had, overall, a positive impact on Vinni's social skills. Vinni's experiences with Pokémon are "teaching him to be a gracious winner as well as a gracious loser.
"I think it's a very cool game," she says. "It has brought a lot of the kids together."
I asked Kathy what she thought about Kjos' allegations that the game is a kind of gateway to Satanism and the occult. She hadn't heard about Pastor Juvera's learning hour with the blowtorch. "I never had an inkling of that," she says. "That kind of stuff scares me." Neither does Kathy find the game overly violent. "Vinni and I talk a lot about violence. I don't let him buy toy guns, or knives, or swords, or anything like that."
But, she adds, "every parent has their own way of thinking on these things. I really try to get Vinni interested in things that aren't harmful."
As for Vinni, his favorite character is Alakazam, a "Psi" Pokémon who evolves from Kadabra, who in turn evolves from Abra. "He's cool," says Vinni. "He can take one bead (of damage) off and put it on a different guy. And he's funny."
Vinni was initially drawn to the game through the interest of a young female friend. "One of the best players that I know plays the game, and she's really nice," he explains. Then he quickly adds, "I also like to kill people."
Again, there is no such high crime as Pokécide. The most nefarious thing you can do to those pesky buggers is knock the wind out of 'em. On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether or not they are subject to the categorically cruel socioeconomic laws of commodity extinction -- whereby all products senesce through boredom into eternal obsolescence. The free market is amoral and fickle, especially in the case of the kids' toy market. Legos and Lincoln Logs are the exception to the Darwinian rule. If we ignore Pokémon, will they eventually go away? Nobody knows for sure.
So maybe it goes like this: You put one foot in, you take one foot out. Ta-da, ta-dee, ta-dum. Is it crack or is it cute? Does it deserve blowtorching, or should we integrate the game into the educational curriculum of our public schools? Satan or swell? Will it be gone tomorrow, this streaking comet of profitable desire, only to be replaced by the next big thing? Does it matter or does it signify? Or should we take a few more steps out, further and further back, forget the kids, and goose this whole thing sky high with some serious neo-Marxist petulance? This, at any rate, is how you do the Hokey-Pokémon, and personally, I'm sick of it.
Why? I'm old-fashioned. It certainly isn't because I dislike children. I love children, and I'm scared for them.
Stephen Kline -- in his book Out of the Garden: Toys and Children's Culture in the Age of TV Marketing -- writes of the impact of global mass media on the imaginative play of children. With the increasing homogenization and mega-consumerization of society, the total scope of available images suffers a continual shrinkage -- until, in this Orwellian scenario (in which parents and educators are ineffectual dolts), a child's mind is dominated entirely by pre-packaged images of corporate advertising. "Toys are just the first consumer goods given to children," Kline writes. "It now seems evident that the matrix of socialization is undergoing transition in terms of a sequence of objects that we use as the implements of socialization."
The Pokémon phenomenon signals what appears to be the new, millennial trend in children's marketing: an all-fronts, all-media assault, in which advertising, product, and usage are nearly indistinguishable. It's not that the game itself is inherently evil -- it's not, nor is it that fun -- though, at times, it's easy to yearn for the blue heat of Pastor Juvera's blowtorch. Rather, it's the totality of the advertising campaign -- with its conflation of image, desire, and purpose -- which is disturbing. Children, of course, have wills of their own. They aren't utterly malleable pawns being shoved around on the chessboard of corporate greed. But neither are kids fully aware of the implications and motivations of those things perpetually before them, clamoring for attention. They need a balancing influence to such consumerist fantasies as Pokémon, an equal and opposite engagement of faculties and time.