Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Measuring Pokémon for Kids

What makes a good videogame for children? The answer, of course, depends largely on the interests of parents and guardians, as well as the child. Even children’s literature is notoriously hard to gauge. If we picked an age range, say 10-12, we would still have trouble agreeing on the best books for children to read. Should they be educational? Moral? Challenging? We face the same questions when assessing videogames for children.

Pokémon Black and White surpassed 2 million sales in North America the first two weeks, and the numbers continue to climb. In Japan, they sold over 2 million copies in just two days. The advertisements, toys, cards, and various media tie-ins seem largely targeted towards children. Yet clearly a vast number of adults are finding time to build up their pokedex. The game clearly remains broadly appealing, and has maintained its attraction for years. Yet there is something special about the game as an experience for children. Many adult players continue playing Pokémon today because it rekindles a sense of nostalgia for the first version they played as kids.

Pokémon certainly has many of the trappings of a children’s story. The main character is a child or young adult who leaves home to partake in an adventure. The protagonist is joined by a cast of friends, both human and animal, and confronts various threats during her journey. The pokémon themselves are cute and lovable, and when they battle, they do so harmlessly - fainting, never dying. The entire world, lovingly created, is gentle, joyful, and consistent.

Maybe we cannot agree on what elements make a children’s book great, but we can mostly agree on the value of some of the best. Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are, The Lorax, The Giving Tree, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland are all widely lauded as some of the best children’s books of all time. Narratively, Pokémon is far too sanitary and simplistic. None of the books I just mentioned play it safe. Charlotte’s Web wrestles with death, The Lorax with human greed and environmentalism, and the others with anger, aging, isolation, poverty and more.

I am intentionally using an unfair comparison. Pokémon’s story might not measure up to the greatest children’s literature, but the experience may still prove perfect for children. While the ethics of the game might be dubious, the Pokémon meta-game is uniquely suited for children. As I mentioned two weeks ago, Pokémon is socially appealing. Chatting with friends about the latest catch, trading and battling pokémon with others, and sharing an experience with people across the world is more than fun, it is rewarding.

Partaking in the construction of a personal narrative, the journey through the game itself and the real life experiences surrounding play, is incredibly constructive for children. Pokémon provides a coming-of-age testing ground set in the real world. Children explore the value of personal accomplishment and competition in reality with the help of a digital aid. Similarly, players become self-empowered agents - building their own team of creatures, training them, battling them, and picking their favorites. The game is simple, but the act of public play is complex. Even animosities that arise because of Pokémon confront children with low-stakes learning opportunities, some of which can be settled with a pokébattle or reinterpreted through the eyes of an honor-bound and righteous pokétrainer. In the case of Pokémon, measuring the value a children's game has less to do with the game itself than the real life experiences the game induces.

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