Modern Primate

man, that's deep

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I recently signed the lease on my first non-roommate apartment, and in an attempt to get truly settled in, I began unpacking a lot of boxes that I’d been lugging along with me for years. This included a box full of about 600 Pokemon cards that I collected in middle school, and a bunch of various plush dolls of Nintendo characters. One of the perks of this apartment is that it’s a few blocks away from my best friend’s apartment, and he’s having a baby any day now. Well, his girlfriend is having the baby. (An intentional baby!) So I donated all of my Nintendo dolls to their kid’s toy chest, which was a little more of a “Toy Story 3 moment” than I’d like to admit.

Because there’s not a lot of quiet things you can do while waiting for a baby to fall asleep, my friend and his girlfriend were considering taking up Magic the Gathering, but they didn’t want to have to buy the cards.

Since I already owned tons of Pokemon cards and we’re both super into the Pokemon video games, I decided to make a few decks for them. Then, of course, I got re-obsessed. I started looking into the rules and researching tournament legal cards and local Pokemon TCG meet ups. I even started buying recent booster packs, making tournament legal decks, and constantly admiring a $25 Regigigas Ex card but refusing to go so far as to buy it.


And through my research I was reminded of how lame gamers can be about the abstract concept of “maturity” when it comes to the aesthetic direction of a game. I found a lot of people claiming that Pokemon TCG was “for babies” and that Magic the Gathering was a “more difficult” game for “grown ups”. The concept of one two player zero sum game being “more difficult” than another similar game is strange – is chess more difficult than poker? Is soccer more difficult than football? There can be a difference in potential depth in strategy, but not so much in ‘difficulty’. And as far as I can tell, the two games have very similar gameplay and depths of strategy.


I actually don’t fully understand the Pokemon TCG yet, and I don’t understand Magic much at all, but from what I can gather the two games offer similar strategic depth in different ways. Pokemon TCG focuses more on building a balanced deck that contains several different threads of multi-turn strategies that complement each other and anticipate potential threats. Whereas Magic the Gathering is apparently comparatively more focused on execution than deck-building, and longer-form strategies tend to take entire matches to pull off. (But, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong about Magic!)

I’ll give Magic the Gathering the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s level of strategy is deeper than Pokemon. But the depth in the Pokemon TCG metagame already makes my head hurt, so I’m not sure if I would categorize it as being strictly “for kids”. I guess my actual point here is that the underlying gameplay of these two games is so similar that I suspect the “Pokemon is a game for babies” stigma comes more from the aesthetic flavor and marketing than the gameplay itself. I’m not saying that playing Pokemon is not classic manchild behavior, because it totally is, what I’m saying is that playing more aesthetically ‘mature’ games is in no way less manchildish than playing ‘kids’ games.

I always see similar complaints about the Pokemon DS games on gaming news sites under any Pokemon-related article. Even though the Pokemon games are absurdly complex, non-fans will see the surface simplicity and write-off the series as being “for kids”. But hardcore players are aware of the subtle customization options provided by a Pokemon breeding system based loosely on Mendelian genetics and an EXP system where a Pokemon’s stats are affected by the types of enemies they defeat and nutrients that they consume. These aspects of the game have actually been there since the original Game Boy version, and were always intended to allow advanced strategic customization for hardcore players.

I think gamers will often mistake the limited options (i.e., the fact that a Pokemon can only remember four attacks) in the Pokemon franchise as an indication of shallowness. But multiplayer games can be incredibly complex with very few options, even with as few as two options. For example, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, is a pretty complex two player game where the player has only two options.

The player only has two options, but they must choose those options based on what they predict the other player will choose. Mutual non-cooperation has a bad outcome for both players and mutual cooperation has a slightly better outcome. But the best outcome is to be non-cooperative while the other player attempts to be cooperative, and the worst outcome is to attempt to be cooperative when the other player has chosen to be non-cooperative. When played over a series of several turns, one gets the upper hand by predicting what the opponent’s next move will be based on their previous moves. There’s a sort of abstracted communication that happens between players where their previous turns forecast their next turns, and reading these patterns is often the key to winning.

The Pokemon video game’s multiplayer metagame works in a similar way. The initial rock-paper-scissors elemental weakness concept (fire beats grass, grass beats water, water beats fire) becomes the foundation for a much more complicated rock-paper-scissors game that’s based on social prediction rather than memorization. In competitive play it’s assumed that both players have already memorized their Pokemon’s weaknesses and potential threats. At that point the game becomes mostly about predicting your opponent’s next action based on their previous action. And your options really boil down to three potential actions: Attack, switch, or predict a switch.

If you think that your Pokemon has the upper hand and ALSO that your opponent incorrectly thinks their Pokemon has the upper hand then the best option is to attack. But if you think you don’t have the upper hand, then it’s best to switch to a Pokemon that counters your opponent. And if you think your opponent is going to switch to a counter, then you need to predict the switch and use a set-up move, a move that punishes switching, or a move that would do more damage to the incoming counter. There’s also a fourth scenario to consider: If your opponent thinks you’re going to switch to a counter, and is going to try to anticipate a switch, you can throw them off by NOT switching. It all becomes a hectic mind game of pre-empting your opponent’s next move.

So even though you have four moves to pick from, those four moves essentially represent four different courses of action you expect your opponent to take, and getting inside their head is the hard part. You can use things like their previous performance in the battle, general skill level, or information from previous battles to predict their next move – or, conversely, you can use the same information to subvert your rival’s expectations about your playing style. It’s really fun, especially if you have a natural love for analyzing behavioral patterns.

The assertion that Pokemon is “a kids game” because of simplistic gameplay is silly, because the competitive gameplay scene is surprisingly complex. Just read this overview of last year’s world championship strategies. But the stigma against Pokemon also comes from another, dumber angle: Aesthetics. A lot of people think the cartoony aesthetics of Pokemon make it exclusively “for kids”, to which I have to say:

Pokemon’s aesthetics are fucking awesome. The character design can be hit-or-miss but the core premise of the fictional universe is great and unique. It’s basically set in an alternate reality that’s sort of scifi in this weird specific way. Technology is more efficient and greener, urban areas are universally quaint, and the world is generally pretty utopian. This may be lost on most American players, but every region in the Pokemon games is based on a ruralized version of a real life region of Japan.

The fact that the regions have been given a low-fi rural makeover is not trivial. The creator of Pokemon grew up on the outskirts of Tokyo in the 60s and the series is based on his childhood hobby of collecting insects in the woods just outside the suburbs. Nowadays urban sprawl has consumed those forests, but, in the games, each district of Tokyo is instead a small town in an otherwise wild landscape. The feeling of ‘hanging out and camping with friends’ that you might remember from the anime was not an unintentional byproduct of the TV show, but has always been a core aspect of the franchise. The same sense of outdoor childhood adventure is present in both the games and manga. Pokemon has always been about sleeping bags. The unique nature of this setting should be more apparent to American players in the most recent Pokemon game, which was set in a woodland version of New York City.

As a New Yorker, I really enjoyed playing through this game. Most of Brooklyn is a forest, most of Manhattan is a desert, and most of Jersey is a mountain, but the attention to detail in the towns are pitch-perfect. In one town based on Williamsburg a bunch of hipster Pokemon trainers were living in warehouses that had been converted into apartments but then also running illegal businesses out of their homes. One guy in the Williamsburg area said “I don’t want to get a job, I just want to play my guitar and battle Pokemon all day.” The depiction of New York City and America in general is way more astute than you would expect.

The game’s storyline questions whether or not Pokemon are essentially slaves, and makes some surprisingly on-the-nose references to American history. For example the game’s backstory includes references to an ideologically-based civil war that nearly divided the region. There’s even an in-game representation of ground zero – or rather, ruins of a castle amongst a giant construction site to the western end of the downtown area – draw your own conclusions.

Since this game isn’t set in Japan, and is set in New York City, it features a much more diverse cast of characters. For example, black people, who have been previously non-existent in the Pokemon franchise (unless we count Brock?) make an appearance. There’s also a gay fashion designer gym leader who is a badass and far from a stereotype. Another gym leader appears to be based on Madonna or Lady Gaga who presides over the glitzy Midtown area. There’s even an end-game survival mode challenge called the Battle Subway, accessed through a Grand Central Terminal-type building, where each subway line imposes different rules on the riders.

It’s pretty great. The fictional universe to Pokemon is more than the sum of it’s parts. For some people it legitimately captures the same kind of magic that you might find in the Star Wars franchise. And not just… for weird arbitrary reasons, like when kids get obsessed with Sonic the Hedgehog based on nostalgia alone. There’s some really legitimate creative direction going on here.

It’s not just nostalgia; new games, stories, art, and characters have been coming out of the franchise at a consistent rate since it’s inception. It’s massive popularity might’ve dwindled, but the quality of the content has only improved. And I know a lot of socially-normal people who follow and appreciate that new content. Pokemon is a scene.

I’ve been seeing a lot of great Pokemon fan art lately, too. Some of it actually elevates itself to … well, slightly more than just fan art. For example, the above comic from a zine by my e-buddy Maré Odomo. It neatly illustrates issues from his childhood with one of his favorite childhood characters, by finding a common ground between Ash’s conspicuously absent father and Maré’s own deadbeat dad. Another great example is the upcoming Pokemon Battle Royale art show, featuring renderings of the original 151 Pokemon by 151 different artists.

Anyway, Pokemon is awesome. I’m a 25 year old man and I have a lot of fun battling and trading with other players on the DS game, I’m really interested in the Pokemon-related art my friends are making, and I’m probably gonna start going to a regular Pokemon TCG meet-up run by people my own age. I don’t think I should feel like any less of an adult for liking a franchise that’s primarily marketed towards younger kids. Especially when half the competitive strategy is above my head when so much heart and thought goes into the stories and characters. Pokemon is just a really great thing. It’s the best thing.

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15 Comments

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  1. Brad, this is an awesome article. I’ve been playing MTG (with a few hiatuses) since I was in elementary school. I totally agree with your points about stigma, and how things that appear childish on the surface can have a much deeper aspect of gameplay / metagame. I think a lot of what draws people to one game or another relies deeply on aesthetics, but I agree that one shouldn’t knock something and write it off just because it is delivered in a more childish or less serious fashion. The MTG metagame is kind of insane, especially when you start looking at the different pro-level formats (I don’t know if Pokémon TCG has different formats or not). Now I want to go finish Pokémon Black. Dammit.

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