Pokémon Comes to School
Marketing products to children has reached a new high, as Pokémon (short for Pocket Monster) has expanded from a Japanese Nintendo video game; to trading, playing, and collectible cards; to a highly successful film, worth upwards of $100 million in revenues; to T-shirts and other children's merchandise peddled by a variety of stores and businesses. It's all pitched to the nation's youngest consumers (even kindergartners), who now command millions in sales through the effort of parents to please their kids.
For those not in the know, Pokémon is a Japanese cast of monster characters that can be collected as color cards sold for about $3.99 for a set of five. Cards accrue value by the rarity of certain figures: A single card showing Hitmonlee, for example, as a collector's item, is worth $10 on the trading market, and a few of the rarest species have sold for as much as $100 or more. The goal, in part, is to accumulate all 151 of the monster cards, an effort reminiscent of collecting baseball cards.
Pokémon is having fascinating, complex effects on the education of children and, potentially, on their schools: some good, some bad. Elementary school administrators and teachers are complaining, for example, that Pokémon cards are creating a number of problems: First, collecting the cards has an element of gambling to it (a kiddy Lotto) since, when buying packets of the Pokémon cards, children are not sure which characters are included. Some cards are much more valuable (rarer) than others, tempting kids to keep buying more packages in the hope of landing the scarcest and thus highest-valued cards.
Second, like all kiddy- fads, Pokémon takes on special meaning, requiring knowledge and expertise not usually known to adults. How many teachers or parents have memorized the names of all 151 monster characters, their prowess and characteristics, and most important, their monetary value?
Finally, keeping up with the latest version—whether it's toys, cards, videos, films—costs lots of money. Collecting appeals to kids, costs families more and more money, and lines the pockets of the fast-food restaurants, toy stores, and the film industry, with no apparent educational value. Parents find themselves under mounting pressure to bankroll their children's Pokémon habit. Contrast that to the collection of cards devoted to baseball stars, who at least are real people who have earned their status on the ball field, while often serving as role models for students.
Teachers are concerned that children are investing more and more money, time, and energy memorizing and acquiring the Pokémon characters. Their powers, values, weights, weaknesses, categories, and sub-categories form a veritable mini curriculum. The character Charizard, for example, is a dragon with a burning tail that flies; Snorlax, an over-energized cat; Pikachu, an Asian version of Pooh Bear; and there are a host of nonghost characters, such as Blastoise, Doduo, Seel, Tangela, Goldeen, and Weezing.
These characters come in various forms: cards, of course; balls; and more than 1,000 registered toys. Already, a 7-year-old has choked to death ingesting a Pokéball (his parents have sued the toy maker and toy store) and at least one violent encounter between older children has been attributed to Pokémon card collecting.
Teachers report that recess, once a time when children would run around, play sports, and let off steam, is being transformed into frenetic trading sessions that resemble the New York Stock Exchange. Children suddenly burst into tears when their 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.
While some kids could not name state capitals if their lives depended 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, which can be good and bad for schools. As with any other collectible, Pokémon cards, balls, toys, films, videos, and whatever other "products" the industry will create, become symbols of unity and inclusion among young children, even as they become sources of conflict and chicanery.
The ability of a 10-year-old to "palm" a card without a 7-year-old knowing the card is gone leads to fights and frustration. One parent reported a late-night knock at her door; another parent was standing there, returning a rare Charizard worth $35 that his child had ripped off from hers. "Learning to share" doesn't work very well in the competitive world of Pokémon paraphernalia.
A number of schools have already banned Pokémon cards as disruptive, unhealthy influences on children. And others are sure to follow. Even with the restrictions, some teachers report catching students making card transactions in classrooms during lessons, in bathrooms, hallways, and even during fire drills. Students caught with the cards in restricting schools are reprimanded and may be required to bring a parent to school. A second offense leads to card confiscation until the end of the school year.
Unlike baseball cards, which are typically traded, Pokémon cards are often sold. Since Pokémon series are discontinued, one by one, the cards gain value over time and are peddled to the highest bidder.
The Pokémon phenomenon is disturbing on two levels. Some critics are bothered that companies have learned to 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 themselves, selling and trading with the same intensity among their peers as the manufacturers and advertisers who push these cards, videos, games, and other junk to youngsters.
But observers who bring a longer perspective to assessing the craze highlight the benefits of Pokémon. They look at the history of children's products (for example, Barbie dolls, Beanie Babies, and Superman videos), and conclude that "this too will pass"; that children need something special to them, something that grown-ups can't control. Lynn Darling, writing on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times last November, declared that 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.
Pokémon is also an incredibly elaborate card game, using complex rules similar to bridge or hearts. Students put cards on the table as an ante (prize), 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.
The excitement of the game—and the skills, knowledge, and finesse it requires—should be a lesson to educators. Surely, curriculum designers should be able to harness the game's concepts and strategies and apply them to learning, 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; they are not violent like some games and toys; they do test children's skills to categorize, value, and buy and sell; and they can challenge educators 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 day traders, stock-option experts, and global business leaders, exhibiting early skills needed in our fast-paced, Pokémon-eat-Pokémon, capitalist society.
Vol. 19, Issue 17, Pages 35, 38Published in Print: January 12, 2000, as Pokémon Comes to School