The Pokémon Invasion
by Nancy Justice
(Article from Charisma Magazine)
Is Pokémon just a harmless game for kids that toymakers imported from Japan?
Some parents say this latest craze has opened the door to spiritual danger. You've probably seen them--kids huddled after church, oohing and aahing over each other's Pokémon
cards. Or bleary-eyed parents driving around town with troubled-looking tots, looking
for a toy store that still has the latest entry in paraphernalia for this game craze. Maybe you've learned the hard way to avoid the mall on a Saturday morning when the Pokémon TradingLeague is in session and thousands of kids and parents are showing up. Pokémon [pronounced PO-kay-mon] is the latest fad-phenomenon among the4-to-14 set. Creatures
such as Charmander, Nidoran and the cute yellow mouse like Pikachu--there are 151 in
all and soon to be 200--debuted inJapan in 1996. They quickly won the hearts of youngsters there via Nintendo Game Boy, a TV cartoon-show and inevitably a slew of products.
In 1998 Nintendo introduced Pokémon in the United States with an Americanized
version of the daily cartoon show. U.S. boys and girls soonpropelled it to the No. 1 spot in Saturday-morning and weekday-afternoon slots.Since then, U.S. Pokémon Game Boys, retailing for $29.95, have sold more than 4 million units. Pokémon: The First Movie raked
in $100 million injust 15 days. Sales of Pokémon games and products have reached the $1 billion mark for Nintendo of America. Yet most adults admit that when it comes to this game with the odd name and even stranger characters they just don't get it. The thrill of the game must operate on a child's level only, they decide. And most parents conclude that Pokémon appears harmless enough compared with other products on the market, so why not let kids have their fun? Increasingly, however, some of those same parents are saying they dislikethe disturbing behavior they are seeing in their youngsters after extended times of Pokémon -playing. Alarmed as well by rumblings about the game's association with Eastern religions
and corporate ties to occult standards such as Dungeons & Dragons, some Christian parents are choosing not to play games any longer with this latest rage.
A Monster of a Game? Most of the attention being heaped on Pokémon centers
around the kingpin of the craze: its trading cards. The role-playing, interactive card gamealready has grossed about $225 million in sales.Kids buy a starter pack of cards,
not so they can play the game, really, but so they can collect all 151 cards. Additional booster packs may have only a few of the most coveted cards, a handy omission that sends kids
off to trade with one another. Even though the official Japanese translation of Pokémon
means "pocketmonsters," many parents probably agree with columnist Joyce Millman--who says it's a loose translation for, "Empty the pockets of your hapless parents." But many parents don't mind spending the cash and are as pleased as punch to have something to motivate kids to do their homework and clean their rooms.
Lots of teachers and educators, however, feel differently. Around the country, schools--both public and private--maintain a ban on Pokémon, refusing to allow it on their campuses. In Orlando, Florida, the OrangeCounty School Board imposed a ban in November when card trading resulted in kids trading lunches, stealing backpacks and threatening
bodily harm for deals gone bad. Nina May, host of a Washington, D.C.-based conservative radio show, says Pokémon engenders an obsessive nature in kids. She observed it firsthand in her own 9-year-old son."He's a sweet boy and had always been very generous with his toys, except when it came to Pokémon," she says. "He became obsessed; that's all he wanted to talk about. We told him he needed to get it under control, or we would take away the cards.""It's unlike anything I've ever seen," says another mom, Linda Mintle, a licensed clinical social worker and columnist for Charisma. She saw the same obsessional nature emerge in her usually well-behaved 9-year-old."His whole demeanor changed. He became irritable, deceptive," says the mother of two. "It was interfering with his schoolwork.
Instead of spending time on extra credit he was drawing pictures of Pokémon. "Mintle
also believes that, contrary to popular opinion, Pokémon communicates greed, fighting
and anti-social behavior instead of engendering social skills and imaginative fun among kids.
Other people, such as Bill Greig--a father, Sunday school teacher and president of Gospel Light Publications--see Pokémon as just one element in a troubling trend among grade-school children that includes popular TVshows like Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the best-selling Harry Potter books,and a card set called Magic: The Gathering, which Greig
says encourages kids to cast spells on others. "I've talked to many children, saved and unsaved," Greig says, "and I continue to be alarmed at what children tell me they're reading and watching on TV and at the movies. Many of them are from good Christian homes. "If parents find it difficult, if not impossible, to "just say no" to the craze, it's because they're competing with a savvy, unrelenting marketing strategy that targets children of elementary school ages.
According to TheNew York Times, Nintendo spent $20 million on publicity--four times its normal budget for new products--and that was just to introduce Pokémon to American kids.The campaign included sending a free 15-minute Pokémon video to 1 million youngsters, dropping 1,000 stuffed Pikachus from the sky over Topeka, Kansas, and painting 10 Volkswagen Beetles to look like Pikachu and sending them around the country to show the cartoon on portable TV sets at shoppingcenters. Still, kids like 9-year-old Anthony Caldwell of Englewood, Florida,represent a growing number of youngsters who are dropping their Pokémon toys into the trash rather than out of the sky. Their decisions to breakrank,
however, usually haven't come without the guidance and help of mom and dad.Anthony's
mom, Michelle Caldwell, is the children's pastor at Suncoast Worship Center in Englewood, near Tampa. She says she immediately felt a sense of caution when her son brought Pokémon cards home from school, but she got busy and forgot to look into it. Soon Anthony was trading favorite toys with schoolmates for other cards."He was so excited, I knew it was having a powerful effect on him,"Caldwell told Charisma. One day, while driving Anthony and sister Erica home from school, Caldwell listened as Anthony read aloud what was on his cards:
"Kadabra is called 'Super Psy,' Mom, and he 'emits special alpha waves from [his]
body that induce headaches even to those just nearby.'" Caldwell glanced at the card and
was troubled to see the illustrated creature "making the satanic symbol--a ram's head--
with his thumb, pinky and index fingers." Caldwell took the cards away, telling Anthony
he couldn't play with them."I tried to explain why I didn't like them," Caldwell says, "but I could tell he wasn't accepting what I was saying. Later on, the Holy Spirit began dealing
with me. I handed the cards back to Anthony, saying, 'All I ask is that you seriously pray
about this and have the Lord show you the truth.'"Anthony emerged from his bedroom a
short time later and gave his mom the cards."I don't want these anymore," he said. "I don't like the way they make me feel."The next day he told a couple of buddies in his fourth-grade class at Vineland Elementary School why he had given up Pokémon. Surprisingly, the boys followed Anthony's example and soon the three youngsters were eagerly telling others, including their teacher, what Anthony's mom was discovering about Pokémon on the
Caldwell learned that the maker of the U.S. Pokémon trading cards is the Seattle-based company, Wizards of the Coast, owner of the Dungeons & Dragons game and creator-
owner of a card game called Magic: The Gathering, which is played by an estimated 6
million people, many of them preteens and teens who cast spells and summon spirits. In September the Hasbro toy company bought Wizards of the Coast for $325 million.
Caldwell was astounded at these and other discoveries and also how anyonewho visits
the popular Pokémon Web sites, including young children, can easily open descriptions
and how-to information about these and other occultic games. Soon Anthony's teacher
ended up banning the cards from the classroom. Now almost all the teachers in the school
have done the same, Caldwell says.
Pokémon's Pop Power
While other Christian parents share Caldwell's concern about Pokémon, they don't necessarily handle it the same way. Nina May, for instance,occasionally allows her 9-year-old son to
watch Pokémon. But she watches it with him."I'll watch it with him," she says. "One
episode actually taught transcendental meditation and how to channel your anger, mind-over-matter stuff." Afterward May discussed the show with her son and his friend
and discovered that "the meditation and guru stuff went right over their heads.""They
were focusing on the Pokéball," she says. May sees Pokémon as an opportunity for her
and her husband to teach their child about spiritual discernment and how to do things in moderation."There was a time when all he wanted to talk about was Pokémon," May says.
"I had never seen him acting that way before. We talked to him about being obsessive
and that he needed to get it under control."As parents, we don't want to become the
thought police, but we need to bring certain things to their attention." Now her son collects the cards--just for fun." We set a timer, and when the timer goes off they move on to playing something else, so they don't get carried away," she says. May believes many parents don't realize there's a danger in Pokémon."They just aren't familiar with the power and spiritual force operating in other religions," she says.When Pokémon cards come into the May
home, she prays over them and binds any spirits in the name of Jesus. "Whoever plays
with them and sees them is protected. They basically become harmless cards," she says."
As a Christian parent I don't want to send the wrong message to my child about religion,"
May adds. "We teach him how to deal with it--how to respond. We can teach our children
how to discern what is good and what is evil. It teaches our kids how to truly be in the
world but not of it."
Pokémon's creator, 34-year-old Satoshi Tajiri, told Time magazine that the game
is his fulfilled childhood fantasy and that he spent his boyhood collecting and studying
insects and engaging them in battles. Tajiri rebuilt an old Game Boy into a Pokémon game and eventually got Nintendo to release it. Tajiri said that in creating the game, it was important that the monsters be "small and controllable" and that they come "in a capsule, like a monster within yourself, like fear or anger." Official Pokémon Web sites spell out the
player's purpose in language that hints back to Tajiri's boyhood game."Welcome to the
world of Pokémon, a special place where people just like you train to become the No. 1 Pokémon Master in the world...Your incredible task is to capture, train, and fight with all
of them!...Each Pokémon has its own special fighting abilities...some grow or evolve into
more powerful creatures..."Carry your Pokémon with you, and you're ready for anything! You've got the power in your hands, so use it !"
Rachel Wachter, a homeschooled sixth-grader in Frederick, Maryland, was on her
way to becoming a Pokémon "master" after receiving a Game Boy Pokémon for her
birthday. She was immediately hooked."I liked it because it was cool and popular. And
it's pretty challenging,"she says. "There's so much you have to know and learn--certain
things you have to do to get to certain places in the game."Rachel's parents wouldn't buy her any cards. Instead, Rachel and her classmates talked their Sunday school teacher into
giving out Pokémon cards as prizes for Scripture memory and attendance. When her mom, Pam, read the cards and learned that certain creatures used psychic powers, she and
husband David decided to do some research. They came across an Internet article by
pastor Brett Peterson of Coastland Ministries, who explains how Pokémon is heavily influenced by Eastern religions, such as Shinto and Buddhism, which are predominant in Japanese culture."That was what we needed to confirm our suspicions,"
Wachter says. "These are belief systems not compatible with Christianity."The couple asked their daughter to read the article and think about it."We wanted her to come to her own conclusion and let the Lord speak to her heart about it," Pam Wachter says. Within a few days Rachel told her parents she wanted to get rid of her Pokémon stuff." I realized it wasn't...something that honored God," Rachel says.The family burned the cards and took a hammer to the Game Boy."We didn't want to just throw them away and risk someone else getting their hands on them," Wachter says. The family then prayed together, renouncing any ungodly connections.The next day at church, the 11-year-old decided to explain to her church, 200-member Cornerstone Fellowship, why she had given up Pokémon.
Rachel described the mesmerizing process of playing the Game Boy version, learning to navigate through mythical towns and fighting ghosts by using channelers and white magic. It all was news to her parents. "I had no idea all that stuff was in thegame," Wachter says. "She never told me, probably because she knew I wouldn't let her play it."About 20 or so youngsters joined Rachel at the altar that day to take part in a group prayer and to make a decision to no longer play Pokémon. "There was no pressure, no guilt trip--just whoever wanted to come and pray about any addiction to Pokémon," Wachter says.The whole experience taught the Wachters a valuable lesson."So many times we think we have to tell our kids what's right and wrong," Pam Wachter says. "But I think if you present them the facts,
they're more willing to follow the Lord's leading and do what they feel is right." Deciding What's Best Nintendo and the 100-plus licensees of Pokémon products are fond of saying
the game fosters youngsters' imaginations, strategic-thinking capabilities and social skills.
But psychologist Linda Mintle takes issue with those claims."Kids are not interacting with each other when they're playing the card game," she says. "They're talking about the cards, not about themselves or their personal lives. It's not what I call developing relationships --they're not even really 'playing.'"Trading cards is another unhealthy aspect of Pokémon, Mintle says, because it creates bad feelings among friends."Older or more knowledgeable kids kind of play off the younger or less knowledgeable ones. When a child doesn't get the card they want, they feel bad; when they do get the card they want, they feel superior. I
don't see this as the big social activity that people keep saying it is," she says.Instead
Mintle believes Pokémon fosters greed, combativeness, competitionand obsessiveness, traits she noticed almost immediately when her son got hooked on the game."We ended up taking the cards away," she says. "But first we sat down withhim and explained why. We talked to him about the lack of balance in his life and how all he wanted to do was play or talk about Pokémon.
Mintle says her son, who attends a Christian school, was fine with the decision because the couple had talked with him sensibly about it. He toldhis friends simply that he was no longer into Pokémon. It's apparent that more and more parents do see Pokémon as something thatdoes not edify their child's life. Especially since they're already bombarded with images of
violence in so many ways--through television, movies, video games, even music lyrics."As moms, why do we have to pick a game about fighting?" Mintle asks. "Why can't we pick something good, something with redeeming qualities that teaches our kids to be empathetic?"
*Nancy Justice is a free-lance writer based in Oveido, Florida.
Her 6-year-old son decided in October to turn in his Pokémon cards after playing the game for 3 months.