Pokémon splashed down on American shores in 1998. Since then, it has spawned a massive multimedia franchise that includes a trading card game, video games, animated television shows, movies and even soundtracks. How massive, you ask? Nearly $50-billion-in-worldwide-sales massive. (Yes, that’s billion, with a B.)
And that figure doesn’t include the recent Pokémon Go video game phenomenon, one that will likely see sales and interest in all things Pikachu-related go through the roof once more.
Given the popularity and influence of Pokémon around the world, it’s natural for parents to wonder what it’s all about. And for Christian parents, a more specific concern is this: What is Pokémon’s worldview? What ideas, beliefs and perspectives might young players encounter if they wander into the world of these imaginary “Pocket Monsters”?
The answer to that question is a somewhat qualified, “It depends.” For casual enthusiasts — those who never go much deeper than games like Pokémon Go — there’s not really a great deal to grapple with. The deeper players do go into this world, however, the longer the list of potential issues that parents may want to address.
The battle’s the thing
The core of the narrative of Pokémon Go is pretty straightforward. Humans, known as trainers, use red and white Poké Balls to capture imaginary creatures known as Pokémon. These lil’ critters take on all manner of fantastical shapes and sizes, but generally reflect things found in nature (animals, plants, natural objects).
Once they’ve been captured, they bond enthusiastically with their trainers, who take them to Poké Gyms to battle other Pokémon. Every Pokémon has specific magic-like attacks related to its type. Success in battle yields increased abilities. Some Pokémon then have the ability to “evolve” into more powerful versions of their kind, a metamorphosis that might best be compared to, say, a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.
No matter which iteration of Pokémon players encounter, that’s pretty much the core of the story. And in some of the simpler expressions of it — such as Pokémon Go, for instance — that’s as far as things ever really go. It’s all about capturing these pocket monsters and giving them a chance to square off against each other in something like a magical karate ring. Obviously, there’s an imaginary world woven into this story, but it doesn’t drift too far toward ideas that would automatically raise red flags for discerning Christian parents.
Young players who become infatuated with the Pokémon world, however, may want to go deeper. And with 20 years of this franchise’s video games, movies, TV shows, comics, books and trading cards available, there’s a lot that they can explore. Those who go deeper — especially if playing the card game — will be exposed to ideas that while not occultic, per se, definitely move in directions Christian parents might be less than comfortable with.
Pokémon are divided into types, for example. Among the 18 types are many that might be described as elemental: fire, rock, grass, water, ground, steel, ice and electric types. Several types are related to spiritual concepts, specifically ghost, psychic and fairy types. Still other types have ominous-sounding descriptors, such as the dark, dragon and poison types.
Each type of Pokémon has specific attacks, strengths and weaknesses. To master the game — especially the card game — players must develop a detailed understanding of how various Pokémons’ abilities interact with each other. Gleaning that understanding necessitates plunging into the many print and internet resources fleshing out the minutia of this multifaceted milieu.
Young players who are prone to getting lost in imaginative worlds have a big one to explore here. It’s as complex and richly detailed as the basic game is simple and straightforward. Enthusiasts with a personality type that likes to “figure it all out” or to develop encyclopedic knowledge of their areas of interest may find Pokémon an endlessly immersive realm, one that can shift from being creatively compelling to becoming unhealthily compulsive or addictive.
And it goes without saying — but I’ll say it anyway — Pokémon can become an expensive realm to explore, too. Because let’s face it, no franchise hits the $50 billion mark without offering stuff that kids want to buy. Pokémon’s frequent content additions — whether it’s new card sets, new games or new books — means there’s also something new to purchase.
Navigating fantastical worlds
Those of us with children who are interested in Pokémon will have to weigh whether the franchise’s inclusion of magical components, as well as its focus on elemental and spiritual ideas (some of which echo paganism’s historical emphasis on the earth and created things), mean that it’s out of bounds. Many parents will decide that’s the only discerning choice to make here. Others may decide similarly given the franchise’s potentially compulsive components, as well as the amount of money it can take to play.
Parents who say yes to Pokémon need to actively engage with this particular imaginative world with their children. Look for ways to compare and contrast the game’s themes with those of Christian beliefs. For example, Pokémon Go imagines a world full of these magical creatures all around us. In a parallel way, the apostle Paul taught the Ephesian church that there’s a spiritual battle taking place all around us (Ephesians 6:10-17).
Overall, the Pokémon franchise probably isn’t the most problematic pop culture property out there. But neither is it completely innocuous. Families need to approach its potential philosophical and pragmatic problems with discernment and wisdom.
Download: A Quick Pokémon Go Guide for Parents
Video game review: Pokémon Go