How I Learned to Love Pokémon (and myself!)
Everybody wants to be a master
Everybody wants to show their skills
--Pokémon Johto Journeys theme song
As a nervously comedic 12 year old, these words absolutely did not apply to me. Well at least I was sure they didn’t but I might have been the only one.
It’s 1997, and I’m way too cool for everything. I think I honestly had a harder time finding things that I loved than I did making a list of things that I thought were for “kids” because obviously as a 12 year old I was practically an adult. So wise. Seasoned. Had it all figured out. Since I didn’t know who I was or what I liked I guess contrarian “masculine” stereotypes were a good place to start.
I thought I was making the mature choice and never looked back.
I saw what was becoming popular and was too busy rambling about what I perceived as loses instead of finding new things to love. “Japanimation”, as we called it back then,was taking over Saturday morning programing and I was an outspoken critic on the art form. I lamented the death of “high art” shows with brooding dark serious storylines like Batman the Animated series and Gargoyles and it was clear to me Pokemon was the cause. The easy target was the wacky, colorful cutesy animal show with dumb names and manic animation that gave people seizures. It was time to be a man, and unfortunately that meant the kind of toxic masculinity I thought meant I was “growing up”.
I hilariously look back on that time and my feelings about a property that I thought wasn’t for me and realize I was precisely their target audience. I grew up as a steadfast Nintendo fan that would lambast anyone who tried to tell me Sega was better. This took a turn as I made the decision to get a PlayStation instead of a Nintendo 64. I thought I was making the more mature choice and I didn’t look back.
Then you get older and you can’t stop looking back. I felt like it was too late for me and Pokemon. 151 pocket monsters had turned to nearly 800 and I didn’t know how to jump back into a world that felt so overwhelmingly vast. Pokemon Go changed all of that.
Instead of showing me the ropes, he chose to humiliate me.
Let's rewind really quick: the year was 1995. This was the year was Magic The Gathering hit our school nearly as hard as POGs had and I was intrigued. I started buying packs and singles of cards I thought looked cool at a hole-in-the-wall shop that was within walking distance of my house. I had no idea how to play and no one to show me, though. What the heck are these weird landscape cards with no text? Why would I want those? I built a deck to take on some kid on the playground that we would all gather around and watch play. Sixty cards, no lands.
I started watching him play perplexed at what he was doing and then when it was my turn I went to play a card with no mana. Here, we have a decision point for this kid who obviously knew how to play with a kid who didn’t, and instead of showing me the ropes, he chose to humiliate me in front of all the kids gathered around. Were we just kids? Sure. The simple fact was he didn’t want me in his club. He had the keys to the gate but wouldn’t let me in.
I didn’t know this was called gatekeeping and that in my future life I’d be spending so much time trying to fight this in the hobbies I love. All I knew is how it made me feel. It was made very clear to me that collectable cards games weren’t for me. I wasn’t welcome, and that was the end. I traded all my cards to a friend for 20 bucks and a SNES game.
Meanwhile, Pokemon was there to stay despite what everyone seemed to predict. Most people figured it would end up in their kid’s closets next to their Snoopy Snow Cone makers and Furbies. Instead it quietly grew in the background of my life and stealthily wiggled it’s way into nerd lexicon. I realized I wanted in but didn’t know where to turn. Fast forward and Pokemon Go happens. I see that as the being the path of least resistance and I dove in.
That kid was in my head again
Even then I would say to myself “Well ok now I can at the very least call myself a ‘casual’ Pokemon fan to my friends who have obviously loved this franchise for years. I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself again by thinking I like the thing and then someone pulls me aside and points how that I have no idea what I’m talking about”. Once again, I was stuck with labels that would clearly identify me among other fans: filthy casual.
There that kid was in my head again, telling me that I need to prove I’m worthy if I wanted to call myself a fan. Why should anyone hold adults or children to that level of standard? To presume that if don’t like something as much as someone else you’re not a “real” fan seems silly in hindsight and yet, we still see examples of this kind of behavior every day in geek culture.
As I realized how heavily gatekeeping impacted me, I started acknowledging a lot about myself as well. I started slowly shedding barriers, letting my guard down, and began talking about Pokemon with some friends who I identified with the brand. Something magical happened: we bonded together in new ways and I discovered I knew more about certain aspects of Pokemon then they did. Suddenly the gatekeeping didn’t matter! We shared an interest, and there was no reason to pull out a measuring stick to see who liked it “more” or “the right way”. The important part was the bond that we shared through a lived experience.
Now I have the opportunity to share these experiences with my wife and two sons. Our house is filling up with Pokemon plush, games, and cards. We bought our first full booster box of cards recently.
We spend adulthood clawing to get it back.
I love having something tangible I get to share with my family. It reminds me of the days of playing World of Warcraft with my wife Katie and calling it a date. Now I get to share and talk about Pokemon with my two sons, Enver and Link. I’ll be doing everything in my power to ensure they have open hearts and accept themselves in a way that I never would have.
It’s strange looking back now and realizing how rapidly you try to eschew your innocence. You desperately try to shed it and fit in somewhere that doesn’t welcome you. Then we spend the rest of our adulthood clawing to get it back. In that process I lost parts of myself and have since attempted to reclaim them.
In my quest to find where those other parts have been buried, Pokemon is aiding me in redrawing the map to find them.
So now, as a nervously witty and somewhat put together 33 year old, I guess the song finally apples to me:
It’s a whole new world we live in
It’s a whole new way to see
It’s a whole new place
With a brand new attitude
But you still gotta catch them all!
And be the best that you can be
Jim Goff is freelance content creator living in the Twin Cities area, which is great because he can live in the “North” but not be so far north that he has to fight bears. (Which is difficult to do while wearing the Power Glove) He’s a filthy casual Nintendo fanboy who recently discovered how much he loves Pokemon in all forms but the game he currently plays 24/7 is Super Fatherhood Explore in which he found his “Player Two” Katie and helped craft two awesome human boys named Enver and Link. His still-growing retro neon soaked brand of content known as Pizza Meeple can be found on all social media and dirty arcade bulletin boards everywhere.