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Published in Print: April 1, 2000, as Pikachu Goes To School

Pikachu Goes To School

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Believe it or not, kids' obsession with Pokémon can be put to good use in the classroom.

Marketing products to children has reached a new high, as Pokémon has expanded from a Japanese Nintendo game; to trading, playing, and collectible cards; to T-shirts and other merchandise; to a blockbuster film. It's all pitched to America's youngest consumers (even kindergartners), who now command millions in sales through the efforts of parents to please their kids.

For those not in the know, Pokémon (short for Pocket Monster) is a Japanese cast of monster characters that can be collected as color cards ($4 for a set of 11 at Toys R Us). There are 151 characters with different powers, values, weights, weaknesses, categories, and sub-categories. The character Charizard, for example, is a flying dragon with a burning tail; Snorlax, an overenergized cat; and Pikachu, an Asian version of Pooh Bear. Some cards are rarer than others and thus more valuable: A single card showing Hitmonlee, a collector's item, is worth $10 on the trading market, and a few of the rarest species have sold for $100 or more. Since Pokémon series are discontinued one by one, the cards gain value over time and are peddled to the highest bidder.

Given the massive assault on our children's senses, we shouldn't be surprised that Pokémon is having fascinating, complex effects on their education and, potentially, on their schools—some good, some bad.

Let's start with the bad: Elementary school administrators and teachers complain that collecting Pokémon cards has an element of gambling to it (a kiddy Lotto) since, when buying packets of the cards, children don't know which characters are included. Kids buy packet after packet in the hope of landing the most coveted cards.

Teachers report that recess, once a time when children would run around, play sports, and let off steam, is being transformed into a frenetic trading session that resembles the New York Stock Exchange. Children burst into tears when transactions go wrong and demand their cards back. Bigger and smarter students prey on the smaller and weaker ones, as the cards become serious sources of antagonism, violence, and exploitation. One mother reports a late-night visit from a parent returning a Charizard worth $35 that his child had ripped off. "Learning to share" doesn't work very well in the competitive world of Poké-paraphernalia.

While some kids can't identify state capitals if their lives depend on it, they can rattle off the names and special qualities of scores of Pokémon monsters. Cards become sources of power, money, and prestige for little children. As with other collectibles, Pokémon cards, balls, toys, films, videos, and whatever other "products" the industry churns out are symbols of unity and inclusion among young children, even as they become sources of conflict and chicanery.

A number of schools have already banned Pokémon cards as disruptive, unhealthy influences on children. Still, teachers report catching students swapping cards on the sly in bathrooms and hallways. Some kids have even been found trading during lessons and fire drills. Students caught with the cards are reprimanded and may be required to bring a parent to school. A second offense can lead to card confiscation until the end of the school year.

The Pokémon phenomenon disturbs people on two levels. Some critics are bothered that companies market so effectively and expensively to children so young. Others worry that these children—bankrolled by their parents and perhaps aping other grown-ups—are becoming avid capitalists, selling and trading with the same intensity as the manufacturers and advertisers who push these cards, videos, games, and other junk to youngsters.

But could there also be benefits from Pokémon? Lynn Darling thinks so.

But could there also be benefits from Pokémon? Lynn Darling, an author and parent writing on the op-ed page of the New York Times last November, thinks so. In her piece, she described how her daughter "sees Pokémon as a world over which she has total control, a place where her perseverance is rewarded" and where she can establish her own code of ethics.

Perhaps educators need to take a closer look at the Pokémon card game, with its complex rules, similar to bridge or hearts. (In the game, students put cards on the table as an ante and, using a 60-card deck to build "tricks" based on the relative power or enhancements of card combinations, "take" the other student's tricks. Winners claim the six-card pot.) Surely, curriculum designers should be able to harness the game's concepts and strategies and apply them to, say, Greek mythology or the periodic table: "I'll trade you two barium cards for three nitrogens." Why not convert engrossing children's games into exciting learning tools?

To the degree that Pokémon cards are a disruption, a source of conflict at home or at school, they need to be controlled, just like any other toy. But they also give young students something in common that's not as violent as other games. And like baseball cards, they test children's skills to categorize, value, and buy and sell. The challenge for educators is to make Pokémon-style learning more of an opportunity for students in the classroom.

And who knows? These cards may actually be training young entrepreneurs to become our future stock-option experts and global business leaders, exhibiting early skills needed in our fast-paced, Pokémon-eat-Pokémon, capitalist society.

Vol. 11, Issue 7, Page 58

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