With the release of Pokémon Red and Blue in the United States in 1998, “Pokémania” swept the nation. The video games, the anime, the board games, the Pokémon stuffed toys and action figures, the licensed Pokémon cups and bowls and macaroni and cheese – the craze lasted into the early 2000s as Pokémon movies saw release in theaters. As with any sudden pop culture craze, many parents were suspicious of the influence these popular monsters might have on their children. As Times reporters Howard Chua-Eoan and Tim Larimer wrote in 1999, “the key principle of the Pokeocracy is acquisitiveness… 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-acquisition lawyer.” Others expressed fears that Pokémon were demonic, especially psychic-types like Kadabra. And who can forget the debate over whether the Pokémon Jynx represented racist blackface?
Chua-Eoan and Larimer’s article focuses on other concerns of the parents of the 90s. Though the writers expressed discomfort at the way child players have adapted to the technology – “seven-year-olds navigate unerringly through the miniscule screen that is the porthole to Pokedom, punching two tiny buttons and a cross-shaped cursor bar to find their way. It’s a much difficult task for adults” – their prime criticisms focused on the obsession that the game engenders in its players. Creator Satoshi Tajiri is described as having “obsessions, more dysfunctional than Disneyesque.” His early passion for arcade games made his parents worry that he’d become a “delinquent,” and he and his likeminded friends are called “junkies” as they start to build what would eventually become a multimillion dollar franchise. This wording reflects the concerns that many parents had: that Pokémon would convert their child into an obsessive, video-game-playing shadow of who they once were. But don’t worry, Chua-Eoan and Larimer wrote – “parents who have had to suffer through the games, the TV series and shopping trips can take some comfort in the fact that the Pokemon demographic is the same one that has abandoned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers.” Pokémon never disappeared from the pop culture and video game scene – a gigantic version of franchise mascot Pikachu graces the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to this day – but it did, at least, leave the limelight.
Pikachu continues to loom over Americans. Source: the Macy’s Day Parade Wiki.
Until July of 2016, when Pokémon Go was released. Pokémania was back.
Taking control of a gym. Screenshot of Pokémon Go gameplay from Niantic.
Created by Niantic, the smartphone game utilized augmented reality to place pokémon in the world around gamers and to turn local landmarks into Pokéstops where you can get items. You walk down to the corner store, spin an icon marking at as a Pokéstop, and get items: cool! You swipe to catch an Eevee: neat! You power up your monsters and battle hundreds of other players in your area to claim victory for your team and establish dominance for your team: rad! The simplified mechanics of the game, streamlined for mobile playing, irritated some longtime Pokémon fans used to the more complex battling system of the GameBoy and DS games, but generally it seemed like a cute, inoffensive game that encouraged people to go outside. What was the harm?
But just like the original Pokémania, the game set off another storm of controversy. This time, unlike the original Pokémania, critique focused largely on the actual g ameplay mechanics: the smartphone game was allegedly making players (a large portion of which being adults who had played the original Pokémon) inattentive to the world around them, it was a foolish waste of time, it encouraged players to trespass and drive recklessly, and – just like the original criticisms – it was a point of obsession. Click here to view a cartoon by Polish artist Pawel Kuczynski that expresses many of the critiques of the game. I’m sure we’ve all seen the many Facebook posts from older relatives or people uninterested in video games elaborating on their disdain for the whole phenomenon.
And while a large amount of the Pokémon Go hype has faded by now, the game continues strong, with active players across the world and large content and gameplay updates planned for the future. Further, with the next generation of the handheld console games – Pokemon Sun and Moon – planned for a November 2016 release, Pokemon may stay in the news in the near future. What is it about the Pokémon franchise that stirs such strong emotions in supporters and critics alike – its popularity, the perceived childishness of the game? Or is its criticism not at all unique – what larger cultural contexts drive these criticisms? Setting aside the very real issues of safety (such as playing Pokémon Go while driving), are the criticisms of the game the same hostility that video games as a medium face, or is the augmented reality aspect of the game a special marker that sets its cultural response apart from other games?