Look, Kids: A Way to Slip Pokemon Past Mom
New York Times
March 18, 2010
Countless children who do not carry a wallet, do not carry a cellphone and do not even have keys to their own house make sure to carry a Nintendo portable game machine with them wherever they can. And for the few places they can’t (oh, I don’t know, school?), Nintendo has now delivered the ultimate solution — or perhaps the ultimate problem.
Parents, teachers and Pokémon fans alike, say hello to the Pokéwalker. Bundled with the latest installments of the Pokémon video games, known as HeartGold and SoulSilver, this two-inch-wide electronic fob will soon turn up in millions of socks and backpacks, not to mention the pockets all those monsters are supposed to be living in.
With the Pokéwalker, the Pokémon franchise is finally trying to complete the profound leap from mere children’s media property to all-pervasive children’s lifestyle product. With the Pokéwalker, literally every step players take in their day-to-day lives can become part of the game.
The premise of the Pokémon series is this: You are a boy or girl wandering through the world trying to catch as many of several hundred elusive creatures, known singly and collectively as Pokémon, as you can. Once you leash one and it becomes part of your menagerie, you then train it and make it more powerful by carrying it around and deploying it in battles against other trainers.
Until now, all of that has taken place within an actual game machine, like the current hand-held DS line. If you didn’t have the machine with you, you couldn’t play the game. Makes sense, right?
The Pokéwalker, however, is an electronic pedometer. You load one of your assorted Pokémon onto the Pokéwalker, which connects wirelessly to the DS. You can then leave the DS, which is already smaller than a paperback, behind completely. (“No, mom, I’m not taking the Nintendo to school, see?”) You put the tiny Pokéwalker anywhere on your body and it will record every step you take in real life.
Those steps are then automatically converted into points that are used to boost the Pokémon, discover new ones and unearth hidden objects. The Pokéwalker itself has a small screen that can be used to play a limited version of the game, and when you get home you can reconnect the Pokéwalker to the DS to synchronize your progress.
In other words, with the Pokéwalker the game does become part of life. You really are carrying a Pokémon in your pocket and it really does matter how far you take it.
And that, of course, is the only responsible way to approach something like this: What really matters is how far you take it, or allow someone else to take it.
I’ve spent around 15 hours this week playing this new Pokémon and carrying the Pokéwalker around my neighborhood. The little green Grass Pokémon I call Linka is growing nicely and is dominating on the battlefield. I have barely smudged the wax, no less scratched the surface, on what is clearly a world that would take many hundreds of hours to fully master, if one ever could.
As games, HeartGold and SoulSilver are finely tuned and altogether engrossing. (The two versions are almost identical.) And as a player, there is no reason for me not to carry the Pokéwalker around all day. In fact, the psychology of many fans will be that they are falling behind if they are not carrying their Pokéwalker with them. (The positive interpretation is that the Pokéwalker will encourage some children to walk more than they would otherwise.)
Nintendo does not want you to ever finish the Pokémon experience. And certainly it is not the responsibility of any company to make a product that people want to stop using. Quite the opposite. Instead, parents have the power to be involved with their children’s media consumption, just as they are with their children’s food consumption. And just as being involved with food consumption means both monitoring content and actually eating together, being involved with media consumption means monitoring content and sometimes actually playing games together.
Far be it for me, of all people, to find some trepidation in a video game because it is too immersive.
But I can say with complete confidence that it is a good thing for me that Pokémon did not exist when I was a child. When I was growing up, the adults in my life were not inclined to play video games alongside me and so I was largely left to my own devices. At some level I’m glad those devices did not include a Pokéwalker.