Pokemon proved itself more than a fad. Back in 1999, at the height of popularity, Pokemania caused parents to fear for their children. Pokemon was an odd mix of good moral principles like friendship and compassion with acquisitiveness. Gotta catch ‘em all! (Chua-Eaon, 1999; Kehoe, 2000). The fears of parents had little to do with the video games or cartoons. Parents feared the cards (Kehoe, 2000; Cook, 2001).
The Beginning of Pikachu
By all descriptions, Satoshi Tajiri was an otaku. As a boy living outside of Tokyo, he spent is time collecting insects and other small critters in the fields, ponds, and forests. Tajiri refused to conform; he spent six years developing a video game idea. No one thought the idea would go anywhere. Tajiri was a deadbeat who wasted his days at the arcade rather than work. He was such a regular that the arcade gave him a Space Invaders machine.The idea was an effort to preserve his childhood. The main character was even named after its creator: Satoshi. We know the character as Ash in the States.
Tajiri, with his fellow otakus, created a magazine called GameFreak in 1982 to publish cheats and tips. He approached Nintendo with an idea for a Gameboy game. Over the next 6 years, Shigeru Miyamato mentored Tajiri in his effort. Nintendo released the game without any expectations.
Pocket Monsters, as it was known, sold slowly and steadily. It kept selling.
Tajiri had an ace in his hand. Unknown to Nintendo, he programmed a hidden mysterious monster that could only be found through the game’s trading feature. People had to trade monsters between their Gameboys. As rumors increased, the sales skyrocketed. The cartoon, trading cards, and empire followed shortly after.
Ties with World War II
Pokemon centers around cute creatures being forced to fight each other. The morality of this is questionable. At least the critters only fight until they are too exhausted to move. Many parents are concerned that Pokemon encourages violence as a means of solving problems. However, most of Ash’s Pokemon fight out of friendship and a desire to help others.
This cricket fighting can be traced to World War II. Children would catch crickets, raise them, and teach the insects to fight. Boys then would challenge each other. Crickets gained fighting experience and improved over time. This allowed young Japanese boys to distract themselves from the fighting of World War II (Chua-Eaon, 1999).
The Lure of Pokemon
Pokemon goes beyond cute monsters that appeal to children. Pokemon has moral messages and touches on many emotional needs. Of course, all of this is tapped to drive sales. Nintendo has been accused of tying love, family life, and emotional development with profit making mechanisms. The game creates a product that seduces children into buying mastery that cannot be fully obtained.
Nintendo does not claim the commodification of family values and friendship as the company’s goal. The company does use the brand to make profit but states the value of family and friendship is the core of what the company wants to share with the world (Jordan, 2004).
Filling Children’s Emotional Needs
The Pokemon cartoon touches on many emotional needs children have. The series provides many opportunities to explore parent roles while still remaining a child. Ash is 10 years old in the original cartoon and game. The child cares for his Pokemon and helps them grow just as a parent would care for a child. Misty is overtly a mother figure toward Pokemon. She carries around a baby-like Pokemon called Togepi. Misty and Ash often act as a mother-father couple as they learn to care for their Pokemon. At times, Brock and Misty act as father and mother to Ash has he learns about how to be a Pokemon trainer from them. (Jordan, 2004). This changes as the cartoon progresses.
Ash also learns how to handle loss as a parent. Several episodes involve him letting a “child” go because it is best for that Pokemon. He lets the first Pokemon he catches, Butterfree, go, for example. These episodes of loss helps a child understand her feelings of loss whenever a loved one dies or moves away.
Pokemon also has many non-traditional families. None of the main characters come from nuclear families. Brock, Misty, and Ash all create a family. They each also come from non-traditional families. Brock acts as a father to 9 siblings until his father returns from a journey to be a Pokemon breeder. There is no sign of his mother. Misty lives with her 3 sisters. Misty has problems with those sisters until she later reconciles by demonstrating her knowledge and care as a Pokemon parent. Family break up and reconciliation is a common thread in the cartoon. Usually it is handled through other people’s families. There is little sign of Misty’s father or mother. Ash comes from a single parent family. There is no sign of his father in the early cartoon (Jordan, 2004).
Pokemon’s idea of mastery is the center of many parent’s concerns. Parents like the moral messages of friendship, compassion, and family. Pokemon’s violence is not much of a concern compared to the hyper violence of fairy tales and other children’s media. Pokemon is considered safe with the exception of what it takes to be “the best there ever was” (Kehoe, 2000; Jordan, 2004; Intihar, 2007;
Pokemon mastery centers around “gotta catch ‘em all.” This causes children to pursue forever elusive mastery of the Pokemon world, driving Nintendo’s profits (Jordan, 2004). There is an endless collection of plushies, new game releases, and trading cards. The trading card game has caused trouble. Schools banned the game and led some boys to head for-profit trading card ventures on school ground. Schools also saw an increase in violence and thefts related to the Pokemon card game. Older children would con younger children out of cards worth as much as $30 (Cook, 2001).
I will only touch on this event in the history of Pokemon. The Pokemon Panic is worthy of a full article. The Pokemon Panic was started by 700 Japanese children reportedly having seizures while watching a particular episode of the cartoon. In the episode, Pikachu does what Pikachu does: thwart Team Rocket with a Thunderbolt. However, the resulting explosion was a strobe of colors that supposedly caused the children to have “optically stimulated epilepsy.” The incident contributed to negative parental views about Pokemon and forced the Japanese government to suspend the show for 4 months (Papapetros, 2010). Despite the panic, Pokemon retained it popularity.
Benefits of Knowing Pikachu
Despite the problems with mastery and Pokemon trading cards, Pokemon is considered positive by most of the researchers I read. Pokemon trading cards have been used to study how children learn about plants and animals (Sanders, 2010). Sanders even suggests teachers should relate actual plants and animals to the Pokemon in order for children to better understand the Pokemon’s real world counterparts.
Pokemon has become, at least during the height of Pokemania, a part of the fabric of childhood. The morals of the cartoon, the games, and the trading cards all contribute to the establishment of friendships. Pokemon is forever embedded in the minds of those who grew up during the craze. Older gamers are not ashamed to play the games (Intihar, 2007). Pokemon provides common ground for children and parents; parents grew up with Pikachu and can confidently share that world with their own children.
Pokemon benefits children in several ways:
- It is social fun that parents are generally okay with.
- The cartoon allows children to explore parental roles.
- The cartoon lets children see that non-traditional families are still families that love each other.
- Children can learn how to understand the value of something relative to other items. This is done through trading cards.
- The cartoon and games center around friendship and loyalty to friends, valuable virtues to understand.
- Pokemon provides common ground for parents and children; parents that grew up playing the games can share them with their children.
- Pokemon helps children understand basic ecology.
Pokemon provides far more benefits than problems. The violence in Pokemon is far tamer than what is on television and in fairy tales. The way Pokemon is a fabric of childhood can be concerning. It seems as if morality is usurped in the name of profit. However, the commodification provides a good environment for parents to teach children the importance of making good purchasing decisions. Arguably, the pudgy Pokemon are better for children’s body image than Barbies and Gi-Joes.
The longevity of Pokemon is astounding. Nintendo did not expect much out of a game idea from an obscure otaku. Yet, the idea rose to the point that Pikachu is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse, perhaps even more so than Mickey. Pokemon echoes the same challenges children face as they grow older and change. Pokemon evolve into forms that are much different from their original. We call it puberty. Children and young teens are able to direct that growth; this helps them understand how they can also direct their own. Pokemon houses timeless messages that cross cultural boundaries. I fully expect Pokemon to be around in some form for decades to come. There is always a new generation of children who can rediscover the worlds their parents thought were left behind. Only, for those who grew up playing the games, trading the cards, and watching the cartoon, there is a little Pikachu in each of us.
Cook, D. (2001). Exchange Value as Pedagogy in Children’s Leisure: Moral Panics in Children’s Culture at Century’s End. Leisure Sciences, 23(2), 81-98.
Horton, J. J. (2012). ‘Got my shoes, got my Pokémon': Everyday geographies of children’s popular culture. Geoforum, 43(1), 4-13. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2011.07.005
Intihar, B. (2007). Pokémon…AND ON…AND ON. Electronic Gaming Monthly, (213), 52-53.
Jordan, Tim (2004). “The pleasures and pains of Pikachu.”. European journal of cultural studies (1367-5494), 7 (4), p. 461.
Kehoe, Louise (2000). “Monsters with office morals: Japanese Pokemon cards have been banned by many schools, but they offer lessons for children and adults alike”. The Financial times (London ed.) (0307-1766)
Papapetros, S. (2012). In/Animate Victims: Cultural Reactions to Animation. Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies, 9(3), 300-306. doi:10.1080/14791420.2012.708973
Sanders, Dawn (2010). “‘All netted together': is there a need for cultural consilience in the face of extinction?”. Kew bulletin (0075-5974), 65 (4), p. 677.