The Craze that Ate Your Kids

The desire to catch 'em all has made Pokémon cards and electronic games hot, and schoolyard disputes even hotter

James Deacon November 8 1999

The Craze that Ate Your Kids

The desire to catch 'em all has made Pokémon cards and electronic games hot, and schoolyard disputes even hotter

James Deacon November 8 1999

In the cluttered heart of The Comic Hunter, a card, game and comic shop in downtown Charlottetown, throngs of kids are rifling through catalogues, examining plastic-sheathed cards and comics, and playing games—loudly—on tables at the back of the store. For 10 years, proprietor Sue Smith has grown used to the after-school crush, but lately it has been worse. A Japanese import named Pokémon has added decibels to the din by attracting younger shoppers into the store. Riding the astounding popularity of the electronic game and TV show of the same name, Pokémon cards bearing the images of the 150 characters have captured the imagination—and allowances—of preteens all across North America. And that has changed the demographics inside shops like The Comic Hunter. “Before, the majority of our stock was aimed at teenagers,” Smith says. “Now, we’re getting two-year-olds coming into the store with their mums. It’s great.”

Parents, get out your wallets. Even though the purveyors of Pokémon—Japanese for “pocket monsters”—have already sold more than $5 billion worth of games, toys and cards worldwide, there is a huge appetite for more. Some analysts predict that revenues will double by the end of 2000, making Pokémon the top-selling toy category ever. Trading and game cards that were first introduced last January are still so popular that North American store owners cannot keep stock on the shelves; in fact, two versions of the cards have been the continent’s top-selling toys in 1999. On the horizon is a Nintendo video game that responds to kids’ voice commands. More immediately, licensees and manufacturers are madly developing new Pokémon toys, clothing lines and games to cash in on Christmas sales.

Those, in turn, will be propelled by campaigns to sell specially designed Pokémon boxes of Kellogg’s breakfast cereals, and pocket-monster figurines at Burger King fast-food outlets. Then there’s the Nov. 12 North American release of the first Pokémon big-screen movie, which some industry analysts predict will be a bigger boxoffice bonanza than last spring’s Star Wars movie, The Phantom Menace. Bolstered by the marketing clout of Hollywood giant Warner Bros., the biggest multimedia kiddie craze ever, which first hit North America just over a year ago, is not going away—at least, not anytime soon.

Which isn’t entirely good news to school administrators, who in many districts have banned or at least restricted the use of cards and handheld Game Boys to keep the recess peace. Most of the time, the trouble results in tears, arguments and occasional fights over what the kids call “rip-offs”—bad trades and charging too much money for rare cards. Last week in Laval, Que., the day after Saint-Gerard elementary school had banned the cards, a 14-year-old boy tried to recover his little brother’s box of cards from a 12-year-old who had allegedly stolen them. The 12-year-old pulled a knife and cut the older boy’s arm; the cut required four stitches to close. “As far as I know, it’s the first time such a violent event has happened in our school,” said Saint-Gerard principal Francois Ducharme. “It’s completely senseless.”

Kids, of course, will fight over almost anything, but there is no doubting the passions of Pokémania. What’s the appeal? The challenge for the core audience, mostly kids between 5 and 12, is to learn and understand each character’s attributes, because knowing the “health”—or strength—and the fighting capabilities of Pikachu and Charizard and all the other Pokémon is essential to making good trades and to competing effectively in tactical card games. That, says Christopher Byrne, editor of The Toy Report, a weekly trade newsletter published in New York City, is part of Pokémons allure. But its broad popularity, he says, owes much to its multifaceted distribution—on TV, in electronic games, on cards and, particularly, on the Internet. “It used to take a while for trends to make their way to Kansas,” he says. “Now, wherever the kids are, Pokémon is there, too.”

The pocket monsters that are overrunning North America were unveiled in 1996 as part of an electronic adventure game devised by Satoshi Tajiri, the 33-year-old president of the tiny firm Game Freak. On a shoestring budget and with only four programmers, Tajiri based the original 150 characters on his childhood bug collection and his recollection of monsters depicted in Japanese movies. He also filled in their biographies with a variety of traits ranging from heights and weights to methods of attack and ability to defend themselves. Some are stronger than others, but even weaker Pokémon can win battles if players employ good tactics. Electronics giant Nintendo, which co-owns the rights to the game with Tajiri and the original sponsor of the game, Tsunekazu Ishihara, shipped English versions of both the game and the companion TV show to North America late in the summer of 1998 with limited expectations—many games that are popular in Japan simply do not translate.

But almost from the moment the company kicked off its U.S. marketing campaign—by convincing city council in Topeka, Kan., into changing the city’s name to Topikachu for a day—Pokémon was a hit. Since the first two versions of game software were introduced in September, 1998, Nintendo Canada has sold about 450,000 pieces. In 1999, the company says, sales of game software will hit one million units, with revenues topping $80 million across the country. The animated series, meanwhile, now delivers about two million viewers a week to daily broadcasts on Toronto-based YTV. “For a cable channel, those are huge numbers,” says Peter Moss, YTV’s vice-president of programming and production. “Pokémon,” he added, “is our friend.”

Toy industry officials marvel at the phenomenon’s staying power. Fads often come and go in weeks, and the life expectancy of a full-blown trend is often measured in just a few months. Tickle Me Elmos and Crazy Bones are lucky to get one Christmas season to themselves, whereas there is no doubt that cute little Pikachu will dominate its second Christmas in a row during the coming sales frenzy.

Part of the reason is that Pokémon is collectible—its slogan is “Gotta catch ’em all!”—and kids love to collect. As well, the card-playing and -trading is inherently social, which aids in kids’ play. And perhaps best of all, it mystifies parents. “The kids in the core groups that are attracted to Pokémon are at an age when they are trying to define themselves as different and separate from their parents,” says Byrne. “Pokémon helps them do that because it’s something they can be good at, but their parents can’t fathom it.”

Walter Podilchak, a sociologist at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, says the sociable, collecting side of Pokémon is “wonderful.” He is less enthused about the electronic games. “To me, that’s like playing solitaire in public,” he says. “Years ago, you would never invite friends over to watch you play solitaire. You’d only do that if you were alone.”

Still, it was the electronic game and the TV show that first hooked the majority of fans. Sarah Jackson, 11, of Vancouver, likes the TV series and says Pokémon combines her interests in animals, computers and science. “The Pokémon animals are cute,” says the sixth-grader. “The human characters are really neat and funny, too.” Sarah was introduced to Pokémon by her friend Charlotte Campbell, 11, a Grade 6 student in West Vancouver who says she played the handheld electronic game obsessively when it was first introduced last year. But now she says the game is a Grade 5 thing. “I still like the characters,” she says, “but I don’t play with the Game Boy every second of my free time, the way I used to.”

That too-consuming interest, along with disputes caused by lost or stolen cards or by older kids taking advantage of younger ones, is what prompted schools across the country to limit the use of cards and Game Boys in lunch rooms and schoolyards. One Vancouver school asked students not to bring cards to class after finding out that one student was selling fake cards produced on a colour photocopier to unsuspecting juniors. Donnie Kraft, communications officer for Regina Catholic Schools, said there is no universal policy on Pokémon, but many schools independently restrict play. “It interfered with the safe and orderly environment they wanted,” Kraft said, “and they encouraged the students to keep it at home.”

It can be tough keeping the peace outside the schools, too. Standing at a store counter in Toronto last week, a 10-year-old boy, whose mother had already bought him $40 worth of rare cards, refused to leave the shop until she bought him a Charizard—a powerful and prized Pokémon card selling for $40. He claimed she had made him give away the one he had before. His mother said no, that she made him return the card because he had “traded” for it by taking advantage of a younger boy who didn’t understand the deal. “In other words,” the clerk chimed in, “you ripped off a little kid?” “Yeah,” said the whining boy, smiling, proud and unrepentant. When the boy had finally been dragged from the store, the clerk sighed. “That isn’t the worst of it,” he said. “You should see the tantrums.”

But proponents say bad behaviour is not the fault of the toys. In fact, they say, cute little Eevee and powerful Blastoise and those duelling Pokémon trainers promote healthy play among kids. They are so widely adored that they help bridge normally wide social chasms between girls and boys, and between kids of different ages. The cards, unlike antisocial electronic, video and computer games, require kids to interact through trades, collecting and games. “With the cards, they have to play with other kids, they have to be able to read, they have to have math skills and, best of all, they aren’t pushing buttons on some video game,” says Charlottetown’s Smith. “So I think it’s great.”

To satisfy kids’ competitive urges, stores and recreation centres have organized tournaments at which players face off with carefully chosen “decks” of Pokémon, hoping their strategy, and their characters’ strength and attacks, can defeat their opponents’. The best-known tournaments have been organized by Wizards of the Coast, the company that produced the cards before being sold to toy giant Hasbro Inc. Fans can log onto the firm’s Web site and sign up for touring tournaments in their area.

The scary thing is that the craze might easily be crazier if retailers could get the stock they needed. But manufacturers have not been able to produce enough to satisfy the demand, so electronics shops quickly sell out of the new yellow version of the electronic game, currently the hottest item for Game Boy. And stores that ration so-called Fossil cards to one pack per child still run out of a shipment in hours. Julie Bernardelli, manager of the Hairy Tarantula card and game shop in downtown Toronto, says she simply cannot get enough stock. “It’s crazy—we order 200 cases at a time, but they send us only two,” she says, adding: “If we could get all the Pokémon we could sell, we all could retire.”

Still, Pokémon has dramatically improved the bottom lines for retailers and manufacturers alike, and investors have noticed. In August, Grand Toys International Inc. of Montreal, listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange, signed a licensing agreement to distribute Pokémon balls, kites and candy products and saw its share price soar to more than $30 (U.S.) from about $4 (U.S.) The price eventually settled back down, but last week was at $14 (U.S.), still well above its norm. Ken Cieply, Grand Toys’ vice-president and chief financial officer, said the company is pushing suppliers in Asia to deliver in time for Christmas. “People fight for two weeks for certain things, then they’re gone,” Cieply says. “For us, the nice thing about Pokémon is that, while it is going to be helped by Christmas, it isn’t driven by it. We think Pokémon has legs.”

That confidence is rare in the risky business of toys. But Pokémon has already surpassed the usual fads, and the second Pokémon movie is scheduled to be released in North America late next summer or early fall. At the same time, Nintendo says it will introduce a new game and 100 new pocket monsters. So the craze that ate Christmas will likely be back for more.

Fads for all time

Even the dictionary doesn’t know the origin of the word “fad,” but we all know one when we see one. Don’t we?

The Mouseketeer ears and Davy Crockett coonskin caps of the 1950s fit the definition perfectly—objects or pursuits that had brief but oddly bright moments in the pop-culture spotlight. They came straight from TV in its early heyday, Disney spinoffs that live now mostly in boomer memories and photo albums (to some, no one looked better in those ears than Annette did). Hula hoops were invented in the ’50s, and while they’ve never really gone away, they don’t get around like they used to. But other toys that seemed fadish have shown remarkable staying power. Yo-yos, for instance, first came out in 1929 and have popped up repeatedly and impressively ever since. The ’60s’ Joe still looks manly, ’70s’ Nerf Balls still harmlessly, the ’80s’ Transformers are still transforming.

And what of the more recent crop of kid crazes? Tamagotchis, Tickle Me Elmos, Pogs, Beanie Babies, Furbies, Crazy Bones—will any of them achieve the pre-adolescent immortality of, say, Barbie, still impossibly pert and popular at the age of 40? Or will they go the way of the Pet Rock? Only time, and the littlest trendsetters, will tell.