I don’t know what’s in the waters round here, but it must be Pokemon because it seems to be the topic of late, at least among the blogs I follow. The folks over at DISK READ ERROR recently did a whole month of Pokemon posts. The guys running At The Buzzer also put up series of awesome posts on the subject in the not too distant past. What’s Your Tag?‘s recent Nerd Wars! polls are all about Pokemon. Sure, I could just ignore it all and go play outside seeing as I’m the farthest thing from a Pokemon fan, but their levels of devotion to the subject have been too incredible to overlook. So I read, I laughed, I pondered, I searched, and then I started writing this. I may not be a fan, but I know about Pokemon and how it has influenced a whole generation of gamers (and collectors, and Japanimation fans, and others.)
So as ye ol’ memory gears started a’rolling, I realized something:
As removed as I may be from the Pokemon universe, it actually played an oddly important role in my life as a gamer. It delivered me to, but more importantly from evil.
Hi, my name is cary, and I’m a hater. Or I was. I once hated Pokemon and all that it stood for. This is my story.
Pokemon entered my world in late 1998. I don’t know which came first, the cards, the TV show, or the game, but the first time I saw Pokemon was on a poster. A poster that my husband (then boyfriend) had gotten from Burger King. Yep, the Home of the Whopper, which, at the time, was offering Pokemon toys along with their kids meal. My husband doesn’t remember exactly how or why he got the poster – it was a novel thing, he remembers. And on this poster was 151 Pokemon – their names and character pictures. It was for me to put up in my apartment. Next to my Star Wars and Indiana Jones posters, of course.
I didn’t know the first thing about Pokemon, but the character designs and names were awfully fun. We both found ourselves wrapped up in picking our favorites and adding their names to our lexicon. We amused ourselves by calling each other “Bulbasaur” and “Jigglypuff” for a few months. “Squirtle” became the most ridiculous thing we could imagine. We came to rail “Pi-Ka-Chuuuuu!!” at each other during fake (maybe drunk) fits of rage. We had fun in our own, isolated world, and didn’t pay much attention to the massive tidal wave that was the handheld game of Pokemon.
But then a couple turning points occurred that affected how I viewed Pokemon. The first point happened during Christmas 1998, when one could not escape the franchise. I mean, Pokemon merchandise was e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. I don’t think I went into a single store that Christmas that wasn’t selling something Pokemon. You couldn’t walk two feet in the world without running into Pikachu mugs or Snorlax plushies or Rapidash towels. Pokemon was in department stores, hardware stores, gas stations, dollar stores, and restaurants. It was on every kid’s back, in their books, on their shoes, and in their hands. Pokemon was inescapable. And I got tired of it, so very sick of it, that holiday season.
But it didn’t end with the holidays. No Pokemon continued to be. It became its own force with its own gravity, its own language, its own culture. And that culture was for kids, as far as I was concerned, because outside of us and our Pokemon poster, I didn’t know a single adult that liked (or would admit to liking) anything Pokemon. And so the distancing began.
My transition from acceptable tolerance to judgmental hatred was quick and it was mighty. And that’s when my core beliefs about gaming were shaken. In that moment when I relegated Pokemon to the something for children, equivocated them to the level of Fisher-Price and Sesame Street, I became a game snob. In retrospect, sadly, I was no better than some parents from the previous generation who believed that video games were only for children, far from intellectual pursuits or rational ways to spend one’s time. Pokemon, as far as video games were concerned, was far beneath my time. That second turning point occurred as I saw more and more kids, mostly young boys, who were completely entranced by the game on their Gameboys. I worked with kids who played nothing but Pokemon – they all seemed so brainwashed! I gained very minor cool points with them for sorta, kinda knowing the different between a Psyduck and Golduck; but to them, I was an annoying anomaly. Their parents didn’t understand Pokemon so how could I really? I was just like all the rest of them…an adult.
And so it went. Pokemon = silly addiction for kids. Let them have it, I thought, all the more Samus and Cloud and Street Fighter for me and my superior twenty-something ways. And I never looked back.
Now, hypocritical me, I still liked my poster. I still thought all the little animal-things were cute and wacky, but I never, ever dared bring it up in mixed conversation. I publicly cast off Pokemon. I derided the addicted players. And worst of all, I flat out refused to ever play a Pokemon game. Because how could I? My place in the world was not with Pokemon, and could never be, and it was never going to be.
Moreover, the term “gamer” became a nasty word. A “gamer” was some Pokemon-addled kid who spent mounds of free time with Charmander and Geodude. Worthless electronic figments, and worthless additions to society. I was not a “gamer.” Yes, I played games, bu they didn’t play me.
Man, was I a dick. I’m sorry Wil Wheaton, but I was. I guess it was a good thing that I didn’t spit my distaste all over the internet like most haters do today. Instead, I isolated myself, and that made me fearful and stupid. But sometimes life needs to happen that way in order for change to happen.
As I grew out of my self-righteous second decade and into my reflective third, my attitude towards gaming changed, but it took some time. It was a good many years before I found tolerance again. My full return to video games later in life was, I think, somewhat hampered by my prejudice not just towards Pokemon, but against any game I deemed too childish. What brought me back around to a state of normalcy, so to speak, was…and here’s the twist of it all…the Nintendo DS. Yep. I got the newest Nintendo handheld and Pokemon stomping ground around 2007. The first DS had an extra slot for playing GB, GBC, and GBA games. So now, my newly-found self could go back and mend my ways and accept Pokemon into my life, right?
Not so much.
I had grown past my Pokemon hangups. Pokemon was a thing. It was always going to be a thing. And I hoped everyone who loved Pokemon and abused the hell out of their new DS’s while playing it had all the fun in the world. I sought refuge in games like Brain Age and New Super Mario World. I loved the flexibility I had with on-the-go play, and I quickly acquired a small stash of handheld games, old and new. And best of all, I saw lots of other people, old and young, having fun on their DS’s. It didn’t matter what they were playing, they were gamers and…yes…so was I. I still didn’t like being re-labeled as a “gamer” at first, but as I found my way back to console gaming and fully accepted the likes of Mass Effect and GTA IV, there was no denying it: I was a gamer.
So I’m sorry Pokemon, for my misplaced anger towards all your cuteness and stuff. My fear and seeming inability to relate to something so grand was what held me back. When it’s all said and done, I could enjoy Pokemon as much as I enjoy polka-dots; anyone can. And gaming’s not about what your playing, but the fact that you’re playing at all. Flaunt it or keep it to yourself. It doesn’t matter. Just enjoy it.