Kids are learning to read earlier and do math earlier than a generation ago in part because of games like Pokemon and Minecraft, according to avowed game nerd Mark Brand.
I remember the exact moment when I realized that I was getting too old for toys. I was in college (hey, stop laughing!) and I took ten seconds out of my busy day playing lawn darts and drinking beer to see what all the fuss was about surrounding a new toy/game franchise: Pokemon.
You will recall that from about 1990 to right around 1997, there wasn’t much released in the way of medieval role-playing adventure games on most consoles. After the initial Legend of Zelda NES games and the first three or four Final Fantasy games, there was a big dry spell. Final Fantasy VII for the Playstation finally broke that drought, but in the meantime us fantasy RPG dorks migrated in large numbers to a customizable card game, one of the first of its type, called Magic: the Gathering(MTG).
Magic had the dubious distinction of being the thing us unpopular nerdy types clustered around in conspicuous public fashion, but it was also—and I maintain this to this day—incredibly addictive and fun. It’s a game for smart people with as many rules as it has cards, and the combination/collection aspect of it sealed the deal for my consumerist 80’s kid heart.
Enter Pokemon, what I thought at the time was just a badly conceived toy franchise all around. Pokemon was a similar game, with similar rules, but it was cartoonish, and clearly aimed at grade-schoolers. MTG cards used art that resembled the 70’s and early 80’s art of high-fantasy legends like Ralph Bakshi, Frank Frazetta, and Boris Vallejo, art that was at the time just starting to gain the patina of retro-cool that it still bears today. Pokemon incorporated instead a cast of characters that were anime-like, which was also sort of cool at the time (remember Fist of the North Star? Ninja Scroll? Akira? Be still my nerd heart), except it was likewise clearly targeted at children and the plotline was, and I maintain still is, completely incomprehensible.
I’m getting too fucking old, I thought at the time, and went back to doing whatever college kids do at 4AM. The Pokemon of 1997 seemed like it was destined for failure, or at least not the lasting monolithic Star Wars-like relevance of the toys of my own childhood. The audience just didn’t make sense: any kid old enough to have the patience and determination to read through the huge list of available cards, figure out the rules, and then do the math in their heads that it required to actually play the game (much less to build the decks of cards that customizable card games allow/demand) would already be too old for such cartoonish, almost babyish fare. Sure, the video games were there to stay, there’d be marketing opportunities everywhere, and merchandising of everything from lunchboxes to plush toys to backpacks, but the card game itself was an idea without a real audience.
Fast forward sixteen years and I’m convinced that the Pokemon card game might actually be one of the best toys of my son’s generation. I’m slowly reversing my previous stance that no generation will equal the children of the 80’s for pure, unadulterated toy glory. I think John’s age cohort might give us a run for our money, which is predictable since people my age are designing the toys these days. I’ve already ritualistically sacrificed my wallet to the alter of franchise-specific LEGOs that I wished for more or less daily as a kid. I’ve dived head-first into the open-ended sandbox glory of Minecraft, which I think may end up being the defining toy of John’s generation, but today I’m adding Pokemon to this list, and here’s why:
One of my most vivid memories of childhood was learning how to read. I don’t remember all that much from those years, but I remember what room I was in, where I was sitting, and exactly how it felt, to be able to read for the first time. I’m not talking See Spot Run, I’m talking the first moment I could pick up anything at all, and pull the words off the page. Linda Dingman (my first grade teacher), if you’re reading this, thanks again for The Children’s Illustrated Dictionary, which you either gave me or I just borrowed and never returned, because I read that giant hardcover doorstop of a book from cover to cover hundreds of times by the light of a flashlight when I should have been asleep. Anyway, the point of all of this is that my son has already had this moment. I’m not sure if I was there for “the” moment, but some time in the past three months, he started being able to pick up anything, any book or scrap of paper, and read it.
I could read like that when I was halfway (more like ¾ of the way) through first grade, but by the beginning of second grade I was into riding bikes and playing with toys that had war and adventure as major themes. In fact, it wasn’t until Super Mario Brothers was released for the NES a few years later that a simple, cartoonish protagonist or set of characters had a chance in hell to compete with the high-tech, gritty icons of the early 80’s like the A-Team, Airwolf, Knight Rider, GI Joes, Transformers, and an army of lesser war/adventure toy franchises.
Here’s where Pokemon comes in: John’s generation can read and do simple math a good solid year earlier than we could. Wizards of the Coast, geniuses that they are, somehow anticipated the phenomenon of young grade-school aged children getting progressively more intelligent at younger ages, and created a toy for an audience that they predicted would eventually exist. Now my son, who is transitioning as we speak into first grade, who still loves stuffed animals and dinosaurs and all of the non-war, non-adventure toys, and who isn’t yet as self-conscious as he’ll be about his toys in another year or two, LOVES the Pokemon card game. He and his little buddies are wild about it. They watch (and make, though I don’t post them) YouTube videos of themselves playing Minecraft and acting out dramas and comedies with their LEGOs, and they carry binders of Pokemon trading cards that they discuss among each other endlessly.
Aside from feeling good about such open-ended intellect-reliant toys being as popular as they are with his age cohort, it continues to astonish me that somehow Wizards of the Coast managed to take one of the guiltiest dork-pleasures of the 90’s and use it to trick grade-schoolers into reading and doing math. My son, who as I said before can read a full year before I could, rattles off multi-syllabic words like “discarded” and “removing” and “paralyzes” and “confused”, and keeps running tallies of energy points in his head as though it’s the most fun thing in the world. Incomprehensible cartoon or no, I am 100% on board with this. I play it with him at the kitchen table (which I have to say is also a great break from too much screen-time), and during downtimes between park trips and the playground he reaches just as readily for a thick stack of cards to read to himself and memorize as he does for the iPad.
So if you’re out there, and like me you’re trying to at least partially curate the stream of crap that comes into your house under the guise of being for your children, don’t fear the little yellow… dog? Squirrel? What the hell IS Pikachu anyway? Some sort of electric panda ferret?
—photo by lydia_shiningbrightly/Flickr