35 Going On 13

To the random internet guy who made this picture: You're my best friend.I can’t tell if I’ve lost any last shred of shame I was holding onto, or I’ve reached some kind of clarity that only comes from true maturity. Either way, I had no problem buying the latest Pokemon game last week.

Common decency suggests I should’ve furtively taken it up to the register, hidden underneath a DVD of some mid-80s-to-early-90s man’s action movie, or some kind of power tool, or at the very least Medal of Honor or Call to Arms or World War II First Person Shooter Tycoon. And then muttered something about how it was for my son or nephew and make some comment about these wacky kids today with their “pokeymans.”

But come on. The whole idea of “hardcore” videogames is pretty absurd. When you’re still in arrested development mode enough to spend your time playing games, it’s a pretty fine distinction between legitimate “bad-ass” games where you’re shooting computer-generated Nazis with virtual guns, and “totally gay” games where you’re catching computer-generated Jigglypuffs and forcing them to fight each other for your own amusement. Let’s face facts, guys: looking to establish gradations of “coolness” in a hobby where you push shiny colored plastic buttons to make imaginary people do imaginary things, is an endeavor just doomed to disappointment.

So yeah, the Pokeymans. The guys making those games obviously know what they’re doing, or else it would never have become such an international phenomenon.

I remembered that I played one of the earlier versions (presumably, after sneaking it in with a purchase of Quake or something) but didn’t get very far in it. Looking through my old games — because you can trade between versions holy cow how awesome is that! — I found not one but three earlier versions of the game. And one of those versions had hundreds of the little bastards collected on it, an “achievement” which must’ve taken hours of effort on my part, but I couldn’t remember a single bit of it.

Characters in movies are frequently waking up from a blackout to find dead bodies hidden in the trunk of their cars, or newspaper clippings of super powers and/or killing sprees, or mysterious suitcases filled with millions of dollars in unmarked bills. I find old E-rated games with hundreds of monsters in virtual imprisonment and I’m left with the inexplicable but very vivid memory that water type moves are super-effective against rock types.

The new version of the game adds a ton of mini-games and even more stuff to do, because apparently it wasn’t enough just to have the normal stuff that it would take you 70 or so hours to unlock. They clearly know enough not to mess with a good thing; all the changes are just refinements and minor improvements, mostly to the interface.

I am really surprisingly pleased with the new global trading system, though. Pokemon has always been about trading with people, but seeing as how I’ve always been at least 20 years older than the target audience for the game, I’ve never had a good chance to try it out. A 30-year-old man hanging around schoolyards asking kids to hook up to his cable and trade pocket monsters is frowned upon. (Of course, I have worked in videogames, and I have had opportunities to trade with coworkers, but the initial novelty always wore off pretty quickly. It became too much effort to go around my place of business asking friends and bosses if they’d be willing to give me a Clefairy for my Geodude).

With this one they’ve added the ability to trade over the internet. You can use your DS to connect to a wireless access point and do auction-style trades. And that ends up being much cooler than it ought to be, for reasons I can’t adequately explain. To try it out, I got one of my lower-level, throwaway monsters and sent it out, asking for one of the starter creatures in return. Within an hour, one came back to me. It was from a player named “Miyuri” and had the name “Pochama” written in katakana. I imagined some little kid lovingly raising her little virtual pet from an egg and sending it off to America, and how delighted she was to see the English name of the one she received in trade.

The reality, of course, is that you can breed the things specifically for trading, and “Miyuri” is probably some shut-in who’s just trying to get an entire set for power-leveling and selling on ebay.jp. Or hell, I don’t know, it could even be some weird fetish thing — now that the vending machines selling schoolgirl panties has ruined all the mystery, maybe repressed Japanese businessmen can only get off paying big bucks to see an innocent young schoolgirl with an English-named Bidoof.

Plus, I’ve played international online games before, and had conversations with real live Japanese people, and that was five or six years ago. So it’s not just the novelty of it. But I think that simple trade was so simple that it implied a lot more. It was like a combination of the end of the Spaceship Earth ride at Epcot, where the American boy and Japanese girl talk about baseball; or that Cisco ad where the elementary school classes have a staring contest over videoconference, all made reality. We are all one people, united. United in our cultures of excessive wealth and copious leisure time so that we can spend time and expensive computer equipment doing something as frivolous as exchanging virtual monsters, but still: united.

So they got the connectivity exactly right, and I can’t begrudge them that — I’m sure others will, as it effectively eliminates the last bit of genuine social interaction involved in the game. Every other aspect of the game, it’s fine to begrudge. It’s not the phenomenon it used to be, and the parents have moved on to wailing about Grand Theft Auto and the Harry Potter books, but they’re still marvels of brilliantly marketed social engineering and control. Every bit of it is designed to tap into the obsessive compulsive parts of the human psyche. And I lapped it up and will likely continue to do so at any opportunity.

It’s easier to see just how manipulative Pokemon is when you see other companies try to imitate the success of it. Viva Piñata was Microsoft’s attempt to cash in on the whole thing, and it was all every bit as transparently marketed as Poochie. It had the cartoon series tie-in. It was targeted at as wide an audience as possible. And they even took it a step farther with the aggressive marketing, trying to give themselves some “edgy” cache by having cute monsters that you beat open and let cannibalize each other. It couldn’t have been any more blatant and obvious an attempt to cash in. And still, I bought it and played the hell out of it.

It wasn’t the first, and Pokemon won’t be the last. Any game that requires a minimum of effort and thought, but taps into my OCD and provides a steady stream of objectives and rewards, will have me in its thrall for a month at minimum. If it’s got gardening, I might as well just lock myself in the house and turn off all outside communication. (I could never figure out why exactly the SimCity games could have me playing for 12 hours straight, until I read an interview where Will Wright said it was less a city-planning game and more like gardening).

And the next time I complain about how I never seem to have enough time to accomplish anything, you can ask me what level my Chimchar is up to. And I will punch you in your stupid mouth.