The following is an entry in "Growth of a Gamer," a series of articles exploring the profound ways that video games can touch people's lives. For more information and more great content, you can check out the series' hub page! Until then, please enjoy "Pokémon Gold Version: Where Dreams and Adventure Await"
"Welcome to the world of Pokémon," I heard. In truth I deciphered these words from a few crude pixels on a strangely-upscaled Game Boy Advance screen, but to the little boy playing Pokémon Gold Version for the first time, they meant something. I was no longer sitting on my blue-striped couch trying desperately to find the right balance of soft light and harsh glare from the lamp above to illuminate the screen. These words and the three square waves accompanying them had served their purpose so well that they transcended their very existence. They were my transports to Johto, the world of Pokémon, and Professor Oak made sure I felt welcome.
Pokémania was on the downswing back at school—it was, after all, 2002—but my small circle of friends and I were still fully invested. We loved watching the TV series, some of us had a few of the trading cards, and we'd all fight over who could get our school's copy of The Official Pokémon Handbook during the daily "Drop Everything And Read" class period. But Houghton was the one who was the most invested, thanks mainly to the copy of Pokémon Silver Version that the Tooth Fairy so kindly exchanged with a chunk of dead face she found under his pillow.
He had learned, by this point, what the Pokémon games were all about: you explore a world and encounter wild creatures with fantastical powers like fire breath and electric sparks. You collect them. You battle with them. You learn with them, grow with them, bond with them, and you do it all alongside others doing the same. Some trainers may lounge on the docks all afternoon and catch Qwilfish, while others may compete to become the best in the world. There's as much diversity in people's lifestyles in the world of Pokémon as there is in our world's, and it's your aspiration, as the player, to try all of the above.
While we were all watching Pokémon on TV and looking at cool pictures of them in this handbook, he was experiencing this journey of a Pokémon trainer for himself. Even though I only knew a handful of the 251 creatures and watched the show when it happened to come on, when I learned I could set off on a Pokémon journey of my own, Earth came to a halt. I had to find a copy.
When I did, and when Professor Oak's words echoed in my mind, a fantastical world of dreams and adventure unfolded before me. Ironically, a real frontier was right outside my window, where I'd spent a lot of my even-earlier childhood romping around. We had a big, beautiful yard with wooded groves surrounding most areas and guarded by a tall fence; they belonged to our neighbors.
My grandparents were shocked, and I believe somewhat disgusted, to keep hearing that I would now hole myself up indoors with a stupid viddy-oh game. This screen, they accurately noted, displayed just a handful of dull squares and uncomfortably geometric landscapes. How could I abandon my duty to myself, as a child, to explore the play, the curiosity, and the enrichment of the world around me? But I saw on that screen an expanding horizon and terrain even more colorfully inhabited than that outside my window. I was bringing all the wonder I enjoyed from playing outside into this game and believing in an outdoors even more playful, even more curious, and even more enriching than the one I'd grown used to—and here, the woods were mine.
What I didn't realize, in that first moment, is that entering the world of Pokémon didn't mean I was joining Houghton in controlling a fun video game. I was joining him in Johto itself. We may have been playing from our separate homes and experiencing our own adventures, but every time we stepped outside the world of Pokémon and came back to school, another piece of Johto came back with us. We could talk and laugh and regale each other with new stories. We could link our games together to trade and battle Pokémon with each other. For years to come, I met some of my best friends through Pokémon, and moments like these were some of our most meaningful. Maybe we couldn't hug our Pokémon or find new ones to befriend in our backyards, but this world wasn't a fiction. We were Pokémon trainers.
It's one thing to watch Ash Ketchum catch 'em, battle 'em, and rise to the top. But this magic, this fictional world that transcends its own boundaries and permeates ours, touched me because of these games, and that would have been impossible without the deeply personal experience they let you create.
I could (and did) name my trainer "COLIN," after myself. I had COLIN choose Totodile as his partner, because this water-type crocodile Pokémon was the perfect mix of cutthroat and cute. I nicknamed him "HAMBOZO" after a running gag in one of my favorite shows at the time, and whenever COLIN sent him out in battle, the game would call him HAMBOZO just the same. It asked not that I attack enemies, but that I command my Pokémon to do it, thereby giving me the exact same agencies in my world as COLIN had in his. When COLIN was exploring a cave and found special items in hidden places, Colin was the one who felt rewarded. When COLIN battled Team Rocket's ragtag leaders and thwarted their efforts to reunite, Colin was the one who felt the triumph. When COLIN played slots in Goldenrod City, Colin was the one who felt forever doomed to waste the money he was saving for cool new furniture on rigged machines. The myriad of fun times and tough challenges the world of Pokémon presents were mine. Not Ash Ketchum's. Not even COLIN's. Mine.
This total immersion I found so long ago is no longer with me. I thought I'd be at least as old as my parents before I saw the same uncomfortable geometry in Pokémon Gold Version that my grandparents criticized, but when I return to Johto, I just can't see those beautiful horizons or the colorfully-inhabited terrain. The Pokémon I catch feel like points of data, and my journey from a humble New-Bark-Towner to the Champion of the Pokémon League feels like a distraction from what's important in life, rather than a life of its own. It's become the video game the grown-ups saw.
But when I put down the game and instead try to picture Johto, I once again believe in a vivid world sprawling out before me. I now bring my experience romping through the world of Pokémon back into the real world and create an outdoors as playful and curious to my adult mind as the game was then. Though I may not know yet exactly how I'll do it, every day it inspires me to pass along the same pageantry, friendship, and joy however I can.
During a recent trip to the aquarium, my mind flooded with images of Dewgong and Mantine dancing in the sea. I was totally absorbed in the splendor, and I yearned to recreate these visions somehow for others. My sister caught me with a goofy, rapt smile beaming across my face far wider than was situationally appropriate for an aquarium, and asked, "Colin… what the hell are you doing?"
I paused for a moment, caught red-handed and now charged with the task of leaving Johto while she awaited my answer.
"…I'm imagining that there are a bunch of Pokémon here," I bashfully admitted. We shared a laugh, as she knew there wasn't an ounce of dishonesty in my words. So I turned back to the fish tank and stepped once more into the whimsical, wonderful, world of Pokémon.
About the Growth of a Gamer Series
"Growth of a Gamer" is a series of articles exploring the profound way games and gaming can impact our lives, as told by students of the Interactive Media program at the University of Southern California. Each one tells a personal story of how a particular game or franchise molded us into the people we are today, and through our experiences we hope to shed light on the ways that these games have affected all of you as well. We invite you all to share your own stories in the comments below, or by writing your very own series entries through Gamnesia's Journals feature. We love coming together to share in the joys that make gaming so memorable for us all, and we hope that you'll join us!
You can find more information about these stories and their authors at the hub page for the Growth of a Gamer series, or find a particular game from the list below to jump right in!
- Pikmin, by Kevin Shi
- Portal, by Drew Perlman
- Mass Effect, by Justin Camden
- World of Warcraft, by James Collins
- Pokémon series, by Abhishek Biswas
- Pokémon Gold Version, by Colin McIsaac
- Spider-Man 2: The Game, by Cristian Guzman