The Choices We Make

2013 is the 15th anniversary of the Pokemon games in North America, and it also heralds the release of the sixth-generation set Pokemon X and Pokemon Y. The two games are important not just because of their novelty, nor for their immense profitability to Nintendo and Game Freak, nor even for the fact that they are the first primary-series Pokemon games on the 3DS. There is a much deeper reason for why the Pokemon games are important, and it relates to something I spoke about in Episode 7 of OTDT.

When we recorded that episode, X and Y were still a week and a half out, and we expected to have the episode up prior to the release. A family emergency prevented this, and so it might seem like a little bit of paranoid hysteria when I was so fervently afraid that people were going to spew forth spoiler upon spoiler for the games prior to their release (the games were widely leaked in advance of the October 12th launch date). I do sort of regret being so worried, because it shows off my tendency to overanalyze things, but then again, something miraculous happened: absolutely nothing.

There was no coordinated effort to spoil the game for unsuspecting people. The people who were posting spoilers marked them clearly, so that fellow trainers could choose for themselves whether or not they wanted everything revealed to them. And while Nintendo did come down hard on people who were posting screenshots and revealing information, they only did so as absolutely necessary, and only within their previous patterns of behavior (stores who broke street date deliberately were informed that they would no longer be getting new titles on time for an unspecified penalty period, which is standard industry practice for such an act; the players themselves were not told to return their games). In short, the doom and gloom I predicted didn’t come to pass. And you have no idea how glorious it feels to be wrong about this.

Let’s face it: video gamers have a bad reputation. We’re often seen as whiny, entitled brats who do nothing but complain to the companies who sell us entertainment, if not about the lack of content, then about the quality of it. The free-floating hostility of video game culture is so ingrained that when I worked at a video game store in the early 2000s, I was baffled to learn that parents deliberately avoided bringing kids into the shop because they thought that all of us, to a man, were going to turn their kids into monsters. To be fair, given the predominance of lurid content in games these days, it’s not an unfair assumption: think back to what the last video game advertisement you saw was, and what its ESRB rating was; the odds are good that it wasn’t E.

Over the last few weeks, as I’ve watched the release of Pokemon X and Y develop and kept a browser window open on Reddit, I’ve noticed something really astonishing about how the games have affected the people who play them. Most notably, a thread emerged discussing how people who played the original Game Boy versions, Red and Blue (in North America at any rate), found that their choice of starter offered by Professor Oak fifteen years ago affected them when Professor Sycamore presented them the same choice once again today. A significant majority of people chose the same starter as they did back then, with many citing sentimental reasons as their primary motivator. One person even mentioned that, in the original games, players were cautioned to choose wisely, as the companion they picked “would be with [them] for a very long time”. Prof. Oak wasn’t kidding around.

Pokemon have been a part of our world for fifteen years now. It’s important to stress this: there are people starting high school who have never known a time in their life where there weren’t Pokemon. For many gamers my age, we’re seeing our own children take an interest in the classic game of adventuring through a world full of friends to be made. And, for its part, the original purpose of the game– to strengthen bonds of friendship by collecting, trading, and competing with the people around you– has been continually reinforced with every advancement in the series. Players can today have a battle with someone on the other side of the world just as if they were sitting next to them. They may not speak the same language or have the same physical characteristics, but they are united by a common goal: to win against their new friend.

To think that making digital friends could lead to making friends in the real world is not an unusual thing; we do it all the time through tools like social media. But the thought that a simple game with a four-word pitch– “Gotta catch ’em all”– could bring together millions of people across the world and help them see their commonalities instead of their differences is itself not unique, either. It’s just so vanishingly rare that any time it actually happens, it’s in danger of being subsumed under the deluge of horrific news about the world. We see in Pokemon a better world, one where we can work through our conflicts without resorting to the kind of atrocities that make headlines, and we wonder why we can’t live there instead of here. Maybe that’s the other true purpose of the games: to teach us that we have the responsibility, and the power, to make our choices so that world of peace and adventure becomes a reality in our own.

Choose wisely.