Most parents would have had to have been in outer space for the past few months to have completely avoided Pokémon. Virtually everywhere we have gone we have seen kids talking about Pokémon or trading cards. The television show is considered a "must see", and at the theatre its first big screen movie boasted lines-ups of kids wanting more. The craze, while still strong, seemed to have reached it's frenzied peak leading up to Christmas. Our mail echoed this with letter after letter asking, "what about Pokémon?" Rather than rush into an answer we have chosen to take the extra time and evaluate it (hopefully) better. Of course, we are looking at this topic from a distinctly Biblical perspective. So here goes...
What is Pokémon?
The name "Pokémon" is short for Pocket Monsters and is the name of a game and show originating in Japan in 1995. It is the success story of a young Japanese boy named Satoshi Tajiri who liked to catch insects, save them in jars, and try to make them fight like giant B-movie monsters Godzilla and Mothra. Tajiri went on to form a video game company and produced a game for the Nintendo Game Boy. Hoping for a much needed boost in sales for its game system, Nintendo released Pokémon: Red and Pokémon: Green in Japan. The game promptly sold 4 million copies, breaking numerous records.
The little creatures, or monsters, featured in this game have now become global super-stars, spanning numerous languages and nations. It's virtually unprecedented jump from Japanese culture to the western world has been fueled by multiple Nintendo video game versions (for Game Boy and N64), cartoon shows on television, a movie, comic books, toys, clothing and footwear, CDs, videos, DVD's, plush toys, posters, stickers, collectable figures, model kits, stamps, coloring books, key chains, pencil cases, bandages, backpacks, lunch boxes and even toasters which will brand characters' images onto your bread. Not to be left out of this long list is the real superstar their wildly popular collector card game: Pokémon: The Card Game (TCG). By design, children can't seem to get enough. Their mantra, "Gotta catch 'em all!" has become the rallying cry of preschoolers to college kids.
Set in a mythical realm, here people live together with exotic creatures of all shapes and sizes. Some are somewhat familiar like creatures of our world (cats, foxes, turtles, fish, mice, birds and dogs) the remainder being totally mythic (intelligent plants, living rocks, troublesome ghosts, and fairies). These creatures are the "Pokémon." According to the story line, Pokémon "trainers" capture and train these creatures to fight. The trainers then pit their host of creatures against competitors for honor and "trainer badges." The goal of every trainer is to capture each and every Pokémon in existence and become a Pokémon master hence the "Gotta catch them all!"
The popularity of television Pokémon helped the WB network to win the ratings war for the first Saturday of the 1999-2000 season (among kids age 2 to 11). While the totals continue to add up daily, published numbers we have seen for the first three or four years of this craze run into tens of millions of videos games sold and over $5 billion in direct revenues.
What's it all about?
"Welcome to the world of Pokémon, a special place where people just like you train to become the number-one Pokémon Master in the World!" -- a web site greeting.
Fighting. This one word describes the entire focus of Pokémon. To become the most powerful you need to fight more and more battles and, of course, win. If you think this is a harmless topic, you might as well stop reading right now. Like so many of today's popular video games, comic books, fantasy role playing card games, etc., the battle is a captivating theme. Win. Win at all cost. Don't let anyone, or anything stand in your way. Get what you want. When our children are exposed to these messages over and over again, we shouldn't be surprised when it translates into how they think and act.
A few have trivialized the fight aspects by claiming that no one gets killed. "In Pokémon, no matter what happens, they only get knocked out." In fact, that makes this game perhaps even more dangerous. Imagine the message children are being given when they believe that no matter what you do, in these fights, it never really hurts someone. This becomes a contributing factor for children who have become (or are becoming) desensitized to violence, and often don't understand the consequences of their actions. And no matter what they claim, many kids talk about the knockouts as if they were murders. One excerpt from an on-line talk forum ("Pokémon Board") illustrates this well...
(The ...'s are in the original, nothing has been removed). Now my Pokémon was Tangela... I was against Mewtwo in the nation championship. I lost the championship... but this battle was awesome...
My enemy had only Mewtwo left... I had Jynx and Tangela. Jynx was badly hurt... and Mewtwo took her down without breakin' a nail! I sent out Tangela... Mewtwo used psychic and Tengela was barely hurt at all! I was surprised! I used a solar beam and charged up... Mewtwo used HyperBeam and Tangela was hurt... Mewtoo had full life and mine was below half! I used SolarBeam... and it killed Mewtwo in 1 hit!!!!! That's cool.
Another person's posting reflects the fighting as well...
Hitmonlee is the best fighting Pokémon (he has the best attacks like hi jump kick, mega kick, rolling kick, jump kick) he can beat any other fighting Pokémon.
One more excerpt will suffice...
What are your favorite Pokémon who need an evolution stone? I like: Vulpix, Eevee, Staryu, Weepinbell, and Gowlithe. (Another response follows...) Nidorino evolves into a great Pokémon named Nidoking with the moonstone.
Mystic powers, magic stones, evolving all a regular part of this game. A bottom-line summary of Pokémon is that one needs to fight to win, use supernatural powers if you have them or can get them, or evolve into a strong, better, creature as needed. It's "survival of the fittest," of course.
With more than 151 Pokémon creatures available (and at least 100 more slated for 2000), it takes a guide or an average 10-year-old to keep track of all the names and details. Committing this stuff to memory is badge of honor amongst the fans. For the fascinated, tag lines like, "Carry your pokemon with you, and you're ready for anything! You've got the power in your hands, so use it!," can become advice to live by.
"Ash set out again in search for more of the reclusive, power-filled, little Pokémon. His first step was to find the 'psychic Pokémon' called Kadabra and win it from its telepathic, pink-eyed trainer, Sabrina. With the ghost Haunter on his side, it should have be a cinch! But Ash had underestimated the power of his opponent. When he and Sabrina met for the battle, both hurled their selected Pokémon into the air, yet only Kadabra evolving into a super-monster in a magic flash..." -- a typical episode story line.
Some individual cards are worth over $100. "Catching them all" has led kids (and adults) to counterfeit cards, steal merchandise, and rough up other kids. Greed. It seems the message to win at all cost has found more than a few takers.
"Two boys, ages 12 and 13, were arrested this week after they allegedly stole dozens of Pokémon cards from unsuspecting youngsters." -- Nov. 99 APB news article.
"... an 11-year-old student was arrested and charged with armed robbery after allegedly using a knife to threaten another boy and steal numerous playing cards..." -- Another APB Nov. news article.
"Florida Boy Clashes With Teacher Over Pokémon Cards" -- Nov. 99 Reuters Headline
Obsessed is probably the best word that would describe many fans. The problems created by unruly behavior, fighting, and thefts, has caused many schools and organizations to ban the cards outright.
"A San Diego law firm has filed a class-action lawsuit against Nintendo, with plaintiffs, mainly parents, claiming Pokemon promotes an illegal form of gambling. The lawsuit compares an alleged addiction with the Pokemon Trading Card Game to lottery scratch tickets and slot machines, since each Pokemon card pack has a few high-value cards, supposedly encouraging children to want to buy more Pokemon cards, like adults buy lottery tickets, in hopes of finding a rare holographic Pickachu (the cute, yellow pig-like Pokemon that is also available as a cuddly stuffed animal)." -- Debbie Moore in a Baptist Press article (Nov. 26/99)
Pokémon trading cards are marketed in North America by Wizards of the Coast, Inc., the manufacturers of the infamous "Magic: The Gathering" trading card game and "Dungeons and Dragons" role-playing games. This association is not a coincidence and is being capitalized upon by Wizards. Advertising links are strategically placed in conjunction with Pokémon with a goal of enticing players into these other and even "darker" games. And why not? They're merely a next step in this genre.
"A global games phenomenon, Magic: The Gathering is to the 1990s what Dungeons and Dragons was to the 1980s, but with the added dimension of collectability. Here is the official reference to the biggest new teen/young adult fantasy game of the decade, complete with full-color reproductions of every existing Magic card." -- text from a related ad link targeting Pokémon players.
What's has been the Christian response?
My search for Pokémon on the internet, in addition to personal e-mail and first hand comments, shows that the Christian world judges this phenomenon diversely. I found everything all the way from "nothing to worry about" and "it's only a game," to claims that it leads children into the occult. There's a big difference here and both cannot be right!
Those that tend to sweep away violence, calling this variation "mild", for the most part find Pokémon quite acceptable. Often the supernatural elements and influence are ignored outright. One Christian organization gave the big-screen movie a positive review, for perhaps all but the youngest of children ("possibly frightening"), and another reviewed the same movie's sound track as having "Overall, good messages." This for a sound track featuring a host of groups that regularly sing about sin and degradation. While the organization's review did note this and even pointed out that one of the movie's songs featured a line "[I] had no soul 'til I found myself with rock 'n' roll", many kids and parents used this general endorsement as a reason to accept (or tolerate) Pokémon. Other reviews have gone so far as to try highlight "positive elements," with some even claiming that the movie reflected Christian values.
A few point to supposed educational value, in the areas of math and reading ignoring what else they may be learning at the same time. One of the weakest parental justifications we've heard is "at least it gets [name here] away from the television and video games." This too ignores any potential negative impact. What use is trading one negative influence for another?
On the other extreme, I've read reviews and articles that are looking for hidden demons. One worked to show an influence of eastern religions and mythology. Another compared the strange names of the characters to demon names and false gods. All this, and they seemed to miss the straightforward and overt things. Why look for hidden things when we have to trip over others to get there?
Probably worst of all are those that waffle on the issue, saying
"whatever you choose to do is good for you but may not be for
someone else." This smacks of today's philosophy of moral
relativism no absolute right or wrong.
What should be the Christian Response?
Most of what we could write here is the same as what we've written in regards to other genre's including Magic and fantasy role playing games. Admittedly, this is a lighter variation than most of the others, but that doesn't make it right.
How much violence, how much focus on fighting, how much greed, how much mysticism and how many anti-biblical supernatural themes are you going to allow? If something is wrong, it's wrong on a little scale as well as a large (that's like thinking there's a difference between a little lie and a big one!). If God condemns as wrong psychic powers and mystic abilities ("magic" by any other name), can we say that a little of it is only a little wrong? Of course not! (See Revelation 21:8, 22:15)
The question at hand is, "are we, or are we not, called to be a holy people?" The Bible answers that question with a resounding "yes!" We are to be holy in thought and in deed.
Are we willing to control what we are feeding to our thoughts? Are we as parents willing to control what our children are feeding their thoughts (consider Proverbs 22:6)? Are we responsible for raising our children to do what is right?
As Christians we have no choice here. God has commanded us clearly in what we are to do. To do anything less is sin.