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Look out, there's a Pokémon about

Boz magazine, 70: 11, August 2000

Brian J Ford

The schoolroom fell silent as Miss Grimthorpe entered, surveyed the acneyed rows with a quick glance, and laid her vinyl briefcase on the desk. She licked her lips, pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, and started. "Good morning everyone. Today's classes start with Pokémon, level two. So switch on your consoles - and let's boogie!" That's what I want to see in schools across the land.

We should not ban Pokémon from the classroom. In my view it should be a highlight of the current curriculum. The craze had not been in Britain for more than a month before head teachers began to ban it. Children are no longer supposed to take the cards to school, and are certainly not encouraged to swap them in the playground. The facts look grim, I agree. Children have become lost in the world of the mythical monsters. Some have been robbed for their cards. One was even held up at knifepoint. Some children have stolen money to buy more packs of cards, descending into a spiral of deceit and dishonesty. Pokémon is an obsession. Kids seem to want Pokémon more than anything else.

I know what you're thinking - it's because of clever advertising. Those smart executives who gave us pester power and swamped America with Beanie Babies have been at work again, moulding the minds of the young and capturing their loyalties with slick advertising. Obviously.

It isn't true. Nobody has advertised Pokémon cards. Beanie Babies weren't advertised, either. These new crazes are launched on the back a popular demand created by magazine articles and word of mouth. The greatest boost that Pokémon received came from the schools. The moment they started to object to the game, Pokémon was guaranteed maximum media coverage. It was splashed all over the papers. Better still, some schools announced a ban. Fantastic! The coveted number one slot was guaranteed.

What schools should be doing is teach children about Pokémon. Indeed, we should have begun classes the moment the craze appeared in the United States a couple of years ago. Those little monsters Pikachu, Squirtle, Aerodactyl and Chansey should be in the syllabus.

I'd have recommended lessons in strategy, tests on how he lovable little creatures evolve (Squirtle turns into Wartortle, Wartortle into Blastoise) and to which categories they belong - such as Psychic, Water, Fire, and the rest.

Children would learn so much about probability theory and practical mathematics if the teacher spent time showing how you could calculate the chance of finding new characters in a pack of random cards. You could learn more about strategy by studying the product than you'd ever gain from playing the game.

But that would only be Phase One. Phase Two would involve a look at the marketing strategy, and at the way an American company like Wizards of the Cost, Inc. (who make the cards) costs up the production of the product.

There are three results from all this. First, the kids learn about a major craze before it hits. There is no better way of putting the product in perspective. It's like a preventive vaccination. Many children, were they aware of the high profit margins, would have been less inclined to be taken in. The American obsession would become an object lesson.

Second, it would make them actually like school. Little children usually love going to school, because it is full of fun and adventure. Bigger kids hate school, because by then it is bureaucratised, remote from life and boring. Third, it reveals how marketing works. That wouldn't have offered a guarantee of indifference to the game when it landed in Britain, but it would have meant that nobody was being fooled.

Everyone seems convinced that modern children have a short attention span, and hate learning anything by rote. It's nonsense. Children love to learn. Indeed, learning is an inbuilt imperative. Pokémon proves my point. They are learning about that game because nobody is teaching them anything else. Children's brains are like blotting paper with a built-in suction pump.

What of the future? The current total of 150 characters is set to increase to 250, and the designers have already finalised the new cards. Children will learn every name, every character, and every possible transformation. Don't ever tell me they don't like learning. That's why they have traditionally liked dinosaurs. It wasn't simply the size of the beasts, but the length and complexity of their names.

Meanwhile, let nobody imagine that youngsters instinctively identify with Pokémon characters in some magical way. The kids did not invent Pokémon. The characters were created by Satoshi Tajiri, now 32 (twice the age of the target audience) and the whole game exploits a youngster's deep-seated desire to learn, to acquire, and to know more every day.

 Much is made of the catchphrase at the heart of the Pokémon phenomenon: "Gotta catch 'em all!" People think it encourages the kids to collect every card in the set. That's only half the truth - it is also the marketing mantra of the publishers, who want to catch every child they can.

The adult world has been caught, too. By disapproving we have guaranteed the whole enterprise a uniquely successful future. By teaching about it in school we could have defused the panic, and taught children something about the real world.

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