It’s time: Pokémon Sun and Moon release today. I’m clearing my weekend schedule to kick back and enjoy a new generation of monsters, battles, and adventures. This will be my fourth post about the twenty-year-old series, and I snuck in tiny references to it in almost every other piece. Pokémon is, without a doubt, one of the most important things in my life.
Surreal to think I followed this franchise for seventeen years, ever since I discovered these crazy creatures on the back of a Lunchables box in the summer of 1999. The real addiction began Christmas Day of the same year, when I received a purple Gameboy Color and a copy of Pokémon Yellow Version. Interests come and go, but this one stuck around for close to eighty percent of my life thus far (twenty-five years old as of this writing).
Yes, I’m shamelessly ripping off TamashiiHiroka’s video How Pokémon Changed My Life. But hey, we all have our own stories to share about the franchise. This is mine.
Small Towns and ‘Spergers
I grew up in a tiny town in Montana, mostly populated by ranchers and oil field workers. It goes without saying it wasn’t an ideal place for a meek, nerdy chubby kid. The other children bullied me from the first day of school in third grade. I still catch occasional grief from my old classmates online. I was mocked for being overweight. I was mocked for my southern drawl (born in North Carolina). I was mocked for poor performance in sports. I was mocked for my liberal political beliefs. I was mocked for my nerdy interests (yes, including Pokémon).
Basically, I committed the unforgivable sin of being different from the other children.
When I was ten, another complication came to light. The pediatrician diagnosed me with Asperger Syndrome (later reclassified as Autistic Spectrum Disorder). A common characteristic of people on the spectrum is narrow, obsessive interests, and I fit the stereotype to a ‘T ‘ (an ‘A’? an ‘S’?). In my younger years, dinosaurs occupied my attention, but by this time, Pokémon took over. It fit like an autistic glove: a wild and diverse world, hundreds of creatures to collect, and a complex (for kids) battle system. I struggled with social norms and interactions, but the Pokémon world was a place I could make sense of.
Pokémon gave me an escape from it all. Whether it was a humiliating PE class, scolding by my family for inability to understand simple tasks, or the mind-numbing boredom of a podunk town; I could forget it all with a trip to Kanto (or Johto, or Hoenn, or Sinnoh). The only person to mock me was Gary Oak, but comeuppance was always a battle away. The rolling plains and old buildings of southeast Montana bored me, but in-game locations were always a joy to explore. The other kids treated me like a loser, but Pokémon made me feel like the very best, like no one ever was.
Catching Some Friends
That’s not to say that the pocket monsters didn’t help me with finding friends and acceptance in a different community. I first discovered Pokémon forums in the early 2000s, from finding my first Internet friends at the long-defunct PokéGym forum to hundreds of hours spent in text-based RPGs at PokéCommunity. Say what you want about the ‘validity’ of online-only friends, but these people gave me support and affirmation that was sorely lacking in my offline world.
Pokémon also helped introduce me to real life friends, too. One of my closest friends from my college days started as an acquaintance in bowling class, but we discovered our mutual love of Pokémon and forged a friendship. We spent dozens of hours discussing competitive battle strategies and helping each other raise tournament-worthy teams.
One story I’ll never forget was with another friend. My buddy from Jamaica spent an entire week talking up his Porygon-Z and dared the challenge him. I put my nose to the grind to build up a team of my own, and finally challenged him. My Scizor one-shotted his virtual WMD with a Bullet Punch. His smug smile faded instantly. I proceeded to eviscerate the rest of his team with the same monster. He demanded numerous rematches, and I won every time.
Plus, there are always new friends to be made or even just short interactions Pokémon makes possible. Whether it be hanging out at PokéStops in Pokémon GO, battle tournaments and cosplay photo shoots at conventions, or standing in line at GameStop on release day, I met complete strangers whom I’d never have interacted with otherwise.
Filling the Mental PokéDex
I’ve received my fair share of education from Pokémon, too. As a nine-year-old playing for the first time, I encountered many words I’d never heard or read before. Over the years the games exposed to even more. Some of these include: parcel, guillotine, protean, facade, fissure, magnitude, bide, metronome, and precipice. Sure, a move that randomly produces a different attack has little to do with a tool used by musicians to keep a consistent tempo, but seeing these words in-game made me curious to look up their real definitions. After all, a robust vocabulary has a range of benefits all its own.
Pokémon also taught me about, of all things, psychology. Battling against other human players requires strategy, predictions, and insight into the opponent’s possible actions. People diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome prefer structured systems. Battles with real people throw that all out. It forced me to think outside of the box, and devise new strategies on the fly. It helped me develop mental flexibility after years of frustrating adherence to structure and routine.
The many monsters of this franchise seem to defy any notions of real-world science, but there is much to learn from Pokémon about biology. Some of the strangest creatures have basis in real-world animals. For example, the mushroom-carrying insects Paras and Parasect take inspiration from a terrifying fungus known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis. It infects the bodies of insects and gradually takes over the host’s bodily tissues and eventually its brain. Meanwhile, the adorable tadpole Poliwag takes inspiration from a species of tadpole with translucent stomachs. So yeah, that spiral is actually its intestines.
I could go on about the incredible scientific origins of Pokémon species, but Bogleech does it better than I ever could.
You Teach Me and I’ll Teach You
If nothing else, Pokémon has given me something to consistently enjoy and anticipate. It’s accompanied me at every chapter of my life since I first discovered it. Pokémon Yellow Version gave me something to enjoy when I had just moved to Montana. Pokémon Ruby Version and Pokémon Diamond Version reminded me I wouldn’t age out of these games as I entered middle and high school. Platinum Version was a friend and confidant the summer I graduated high school and transitioned to college. SoulSilver Version entertained me over spring break 2010 while I recovered from donating bone marrow. The list goes on and on.
Pokémon has been with me through my best of times and my worst of times, like a close, lifelong friend who is never far away. Booting up a brand new game and seeing the regional professor welcome you to the world of Pokémon never fails to make me feel like a kid again. Sure, I’ll eventually grow bored of the current game, but announcement of a new generation always pulls me onboard the hype train once again.
As long as Game Freak keeps producing these games, I’ll keep playing.