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Growing up with Pokémon

A heartwarming story about childhood memories, Pokémon, and how the internet has changed how we're growing up.

Tom Battey, Blogger

October 25, 2013

9 Min Read

It will probably tell you something about the sort of child I was that Pokémon was one of my major formative experiences growing up.

I can quite vividly remember being at a friend's house, aged about 11, both of us sitting there with Gameboys - either a Pocket or a Colour at this point, I can't recall - each with a different copy of Pokémon. The game felt so fresh and new back then, like nothing else out there.

We realised that each of our games had a different version of Nidoran. At that moment Nidoran seemed like the most important Pokémon there could be. My friend fetched his link cable, and we went through the incredibly laborious process of trading Nidorans, so we could both have one of each.

It was a bonding process. I guess some kids get each other friendship bracelets, or bond over illicit cigarettes or sips of smuggled wine. We traded Pokémon.

I remember the classroom at my high school that for a few months was reclaimed as a Pokémon room. The nerdy kids would gather at break times armed with Gameboys and link cables and Pokémon cards to trade and do battle and generally share the solidarity of our collective pastime. It was awesome.

There was a brief period when everyone collected Pokémon cards - even the cool kids who would never deign to play Pokémon the videogame. For a brief but glorious moment a nerdy kid could gain a vital shred of 12-year-old social acceptance by, say, owning a shiny Charizard. For those few weeks, Pokémon the card game seemed like the most important thing in the world..

In those days the old clunky social interface of Pokémon made complete sense. It was absolutely right that in order to share our Pokémon journeys we had to physically sit together, wired up with a link cable, because that's how friendships worked. Your friends were, by default, a selection of the people you knew by the necessity of being in the same school, the same class, the same set of rooms on a regular basis.

In 1997 the internet wasn't really a thing yet, or at least nothing more than an vague concept that had no real value to us as kids. Telephones were still largely big plastic things that were wired into your wall and presided over by parents. There weren't many ways for us to meet other kids, other than those we were forced to see on a daily basis.

So we picked our friends from the group of people we had little choice but to see every day, seeking out kids that shared our interests and hoping that this was enough to sustain a friendship. When you're 12, it usually is. And because of the kind of kids we were, we'd head up to the 'Pokémon room' at break time, wire our Gameboys together and evolve our Haunters into Gengars.

Fast forward sixteen years and I've just sent a Bulbasaur wirelessly over the internet to a complete stranger living in Kyoto, Japan - one of the 8,000 people my game informs me I have 'met' since I started playing. He sends me a Scatterbug in return, because as well as being a complete stranger he's also an asshole.

I'd be more annoyed about this if I could actually do anything about it. I suppose I could challenge him to battle and humiliate him in front of nobody, but that's too much effort, and besides, this interaction is fleeting, unimportant, quickly forgotten.

The internet is vast and full of people, all of them apparently playing Pokémon now. Many of them are assholes, but many of them are also kind and generous souls. There will always be another Bulbasaur.

It's easy to say the Pokémon games haven't meaningfully changed since their inception, and superficially they haven't. We're still picking one of three types of grass/water/fire based starters, we're still trudging through the same grassy fields and forests doing the same turn-based fire-beats-grass-beats-water combat.

But socially, Pokémon has kept right up with the times. Pokémon X/Y might be the most socially relevant multiplayer game I've played to date.

We now live in a world where it's entirely possible to 'meet' 8,000 people and have your only interaction be the transferring of a few bytes of data over the internet. People's friendship groups are no longer a few carefully selected friends sitting around a table wired up with link cables - they're networks of hundred of individuals listed on one social media site or another, some of whom you might never see, some of whom you might never have even met.

I have friendships I now conduct exclusively online, with people I may not have seen for years, people whom without the internet I'd wouldn't be able to call friends anymore. And this is great; these are people I genuinely care about, but can't see due to distance or time or work or reasons, and thanks to the internet we are still able to be a part of one another's lives.

And with the new Pokémon games, Nintendo has tapped into this new vein of society perfectly. I can battle with a friend I haven't seen in five years, I can trade with a friend who lives on the other side of the world. I can connect with a random stranger in a random place somewhere in the world and send him a rare Pokémon in the hope of receiving something awesome in return.

For Nintendo, a company for whom online multiplayer still seems like something of an abstract concept, this is a remarkably forward-thinking feature.

I think about the kids for whom Pokémon X/Y is their first Pokémon game, whose first ever Pokémon might be Froakie and who won't understand why getting a Charmander after the first gym is so awesome. These kids won't have to pick their friends exclusively from the select few people they see on a daily basis; most of them probably tweet as naturally as I speak, which gives them access to vast online communities and fandoms full of like-minded people, any of whom can be simultaneously friends and strangers.

I wonder how I'd have fared growing up in a world like this, a world where Bulbasaurs are traded across continents as readily as insults across a playground. I'm not sure it would have suited me. Social media still presents me with a certain level of anxiety, a need to check myself to ensure I'm being authentic without being an asshole, and I can't imagine having to deal with this extra level of social angst heaped upon all that which comes with just the raw fact of being a teenager.

Then again, I'm past it now, certainly too old for Pokémon, though I keep playing the damn thing anyway, and I missed being part of the Facebook generation by a scant few years. Kids just adapt to things - we adapted to the culture of developing little friendship circles out of a limited available pool of people, and I bet kids these days have adapted to using Facebook and Twitter to connect with one another in a way I never will.

Still, the entire internet is a big social platform to have to grow up on. I'm quite glad to have grown up in a world where our social interactions were tethered by link cables - not because I think those early friendships were any more meaningful for being physical, but just because I'm not sure how I, as a 12-year-old, would have handled the ability to address the entire world all at once.

I wonder what the equivalent experience is today of two kids sitting down on a sofa and swapping Nidorans like it's the most important thing in the world. I wonder how the internet has changed that. I hope that whatever has replaced this experience will remain as strongly and fondly in the minds of today's kids when they're grown up and sitting down with their new copies of  Pokémon Excelsior,  or whatever we're calling the damn thing by then.

I can't imagine what that will be like, but by then we'll probably be trading Bulbasaurs through wifi-enabled nano machines grafted into our brains. And it will be glorious.

Tom Battey is an author and person who sometimes writes about videogames. He writes at tombattey.com and does the Twitter thing @tombattey.

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