April 9, 2010
Still Catching Them All: Determining the Social Impact of Pokemon

Back in 1998, I was the first student in my middle school to buy Pokemon, the hit video game starring a young boy on a quest to collect and fight 151 animalistic creatures. Twelve years later, my passion -- and the passion of millions of Pokemon fans, both young and old -- is holding steadfast.

Today, I want to discuss the social aspects of Pokemon and video game culture, but specifically some current developments in the industry (from Nintendo) that have largely impacted how Pokemon gamers interact. First, I want to talk about my recent experiences at Penny Arcade Expo East and Anime Boston, two fan conventions that have become sites of media participation particularly around a new Pokemon technology called the Pokewalker. And second, I will look at an incident of fan suppression, when Nintendo sent a cease-and-desist to a team of fans creating and coding a Pokemon MMO (massively-multiplayer online game).

More after the jump!

Only this past March, the English version of the remade fourth-generation Pokemon video game, a franchise that began in Japan on the Nintendo Game Boy back in 1996, was released to the American market. The Pokemon franchise began with the "Red" and "Blue" versions of the role-playing game, on which other versions have been built, updating the graphics, gameplay, and number of Pokemon characters. The recent release, Pokemon Heart Gold and Pokemon Soul Silver, are remakes of the 1999/2000 release of the "Gold" and "Silver" versions of the game for Game Boy Color, and is available on the Nintendo DS.

Now, while the game itself it a remake and thus includes only a few new Pokemon that appeared in subsequent games, there was one additional piece of technology -- hardware, actually -- that came bundled with the game: an item called a Pokewalker. The Pokewalker is a small, round pedometer that can be attached to the gamer's belt, which when walking calculates steps and awards prizes. The Pokewalker can also be used to carry Pokemon from the Nintendo DS game, which can then be transferred back.

The Pokewalker in one step in a tradition of making peripheral hardware for Pokemon games, starting back in 1999 with the Pocket Pikachu.

However, the availability of the Pokewalker (being included with the purchase of the Pokemon game, which the Pocket Pikachu was not) and large events where gamers converge to create social spaces have facilitated a continued aspect of social gaming that goes beyond the original hardware.

The point of the original game, of course, is -- as Mimi Ito recently explained -- to "[place] portable gaming formats of game boy and trading cards at the center of game play." She explains that Pokemon as a game infiltrates "more social settings and relationships" than just physical settings (such as at home, school, the playground, etc.).

The Pokewalker, though, has created an additional factor in the social ecology of Pokemon gamers. Through the ubiquity of the Pokewalker at fan conventions like PAX East and Anime Boston (where many gamers meet up), just the sight of a Pokewalker would bring two fellow gamers together to zap each others' machines for a small prize. PAX East, which attracted approximately sixty thousand (60,000) attendees, certainly creates a novel space within which the technology can be used for previously unforeseen social interactions. The social currency of possessing a Pokewalker also helped assist in creating impromptu conversations. Furthermore, walking around a large event to meet fellow gamers allowed Pokewalker users to gather large amounts of steps, with which they not only gain prizes but open up new levels in the original Nintendo DS game. Thus, the Pokewalker acts as a game in-and-of itself, but also as a transmedial extension of Heart Gold and Soul Silver.

The social aspect of Pokemon, specifically that beyond the hardware of the game (I mean, owning a copy and meeting another gamer who owns another copy), has always been an integral part of the Pokemon experience. Trading between players created one layer of social gameplay not ordinarily part of other multiplayer games; additionally, the necessity of meeting other gamers that had the paired game created an element of social need (eg., some Pokemon were only available on Red and others on Blue, so in order to "catch them all," players had to think beyond the digital gamespace).

In 2009, the What They Play blog interviewed the creators of Pokemon Platinum -- game director Junichi Masuda and designer Takechi Kawachimaru -- about their approach to the Pokemon franchise. Their responses echo the social economy at work around Pokemon:

We asked Masuda if there was any chance that we would see the next major Pokemon game on the Wii and whether the series might go fully online, as many fans have expressed a desire for. He seemed skeptical. "At this point, we're not thinking of going in that direction. Trading is a core concept of Pokemon. So when you're trading, you meet with a friend and decide which one you want and which one they want. I would like to emphasize real-world communication. You don't see each other online." He pointed across the table and then back to him, and the translator laughed before explaining, " It's like right now - we're meeting each other in person and asking questions instead of chatting on the phone."

While the Pokemon games for Game Boy and Nintendo DS have fulfilled their wishes, most gamers have continued to yearn for an online system in the Pokemon franchise, either on a major console (like Nintendo Wii) or in the online environment (MMORPG).

To make up for the absence of Nintendo-produced large-scale online Pokemon games, fans have taken it upon themselves to create code and worlds in which fellow fans can immerse themselves. A number of Pokemon MMORPGs have cropped up over the years, such as Pokemon World Online. The below video is gameplay from the fan-developed Pokenet (which mirrors the original game pretty well). Pokenet is a unique case, however, because the developers released the code openly for players to debug themselves whenever a problem arose.

Ultimately, though, the problem with Pokenet was not in the platform, but in the intellectual property. Joystiq reported last week that Nintendo issued a cease-and-desist notice to the programmers to remove the website from operation. Even though Pokenet had already garnered about seven thousand players, this community of fan celebration for the Pokemon franchise as well as creative development and a new space for social interaction around the media had to be taken down as it conflicted with Nintendo's ultimate vision of social gaming.

Joystiq also reports that Activision has also recently attacked a fan-produced game that benefits from the fans of its King's Quest title. However, with the Pokemon MMO, I find it difficult to argue that the reason for the cease-and-desist was in response to an ideology around gaming practices and instead represents another instance of franchises putting fan fervor out of commission simply because some aspect of the intellectual property was utilized for a creation that probably helps more than hinders the property.

Still, with the recent announcement by Nintendo that a fifth generation of Pokemon games -- Black and White -- will be released for the Nintendo DS in the near future, with an emphasis on innovating the gaming elements of the franchise, we can only hope that the producers will look more toward only interactivity as an important and critical force in the social livelihood of gaming culture.