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: Just Another Game."
As someone who's poured enough hours into video games to write several novels, it's funny to think that I fell in love with them purely by accident. My seminal experiences with interactive entertainment weren't particularly memorable. I vaguely recall my dad trying out an action-adventure game on our brand-new Xbox, while my six-year old self observed from afar, perplexed by the incoherent movements on screen. My sparse shelf was populated by mediocre titles such as Superman: The Man of Steel and Zapper: One Wicked Cricket; ultimately, these hackneyed experiences aroused little more than a casual interest in gaming. If you told me that "immersive interactive experiences" existed back then, I'd give you a puzzled look and think nothing more of it.
But there was still a strange allure to the supermarket video game aisles that managed to filter past my decidedly average gaming exploits. I'd wander into these relatively abandoned spaces, enthralled by flashy box art characters that seemed all too willing to snatch me from my reality into theirs. They were quite the motley bunch—among them, a mustachioed Italian plumber, a shorts-touting fox with a ridiculous grin, and a spunky gang of Japanese teens on rollerblades.
Interestingly, these weren't just pretty images. On one such occasion, I caught myself staring at the box art of Pokemon FireRed Version, featuring the blazing orange dragon Charizard. I envisioned this emblematic creature soaring towards its adversaries with fiery, ambitious intent—its jaws open wide, with flames itching to escape the confines of its belly—
"Hey, do you want to pick that up?" my dad interjected. Only one thought occurred to me: All the cool kids carry a Game Boy Advance around in their pockets. I'll take it!
Ten minutes later, I walked out with my newest acquisitions: a Game Boy Advance SP and a copy of Pokémon FireRed Version. Almost instantly, I felt like one of those cool kids. I, too, was playing with power.
It was foolishly easy to get up in the ecstasy of the moment, but in reality I hadn't the slightest clue what kind of power I was dealing with. Deciding to shelve those doubts for the moment, I booted up my shiny new toy and became a curious observer of the foreign happenings on the 3-inch screen before me.
I'd been inundated with enough Superman-tier video games not to expect much from these experiences, so I when found myself in the quaint little town of Pallet, an uninspired place of few people and still fewer houses, I didn't expect much. Before long, I meandered into the laboratory of Professor Oak, the world's preeminent authority on Pokémon. And he asked me to choose my first Pokémon.
Wait, choose a Pokémon? You can make choices in video games? Now, Oak had my attention.
Sitting on his desk were three young Pokémon, brimming with vitality and potential. Among them was the evergreen Bulbasaur, resembling a small quadruped dinosaur with a flower bulb on its back. I'm still not sure why, but when Bulbasaur looked at me, I felt an instant connection—it was a silent euphoria as I discovered a part of myself I never knew existed. Gazing into its pensive red eyes, I felt a sense of calm and contentment, but also a tinge of something more adventurous, like a dormant bulb patiently waiting to blossom. My decision couldn't be any clearer.
"Bulbasaur, I choose you!" That's when I became a Pokémon Trainer in earnest.
With Bulbasaur by my side, I set out on a journey of grand proportions. A journey to discover every Pokémon in existence and become the most skilled of Trainers. A journey through labyrinthine forests, pitch-black caves, haunted towers, and across majestic oceans. A journey fraught with burning rivalries, daunting criminal conspiracies, and intense battles. A journey where each turn of the corner could reveal an unfamiliar, elusive creature, or some cleverly concealed treasure. I had stepped into the world of Pokémon.
For all the realism that that these pixelated vistas afforded, the "real" world of elementary school seemed far more contrived. It was a dark age when almost everyone was trying (and usually failing) to act "grown up." You'd think that Pokémon had no place in this skewed social order—and in principle, that was certainly the case. It was hip and trendy to call Pokémon "that TV show for babies," and leave it at that.
All this masquerading, however, was a guise for a counter-culture exploding to life: Pokémon were everywhere. Kids snuck their Game Boys under desks and discussed urban legends and GameShark cheat codes in hushed undertones. There was a strange allure to joining this secret society, not unlike becoming a connoisseur of an obscure art form that escapes public appreciation. In these clandestine circles, nothing could be cooler than Pokémon.
Of course, I didn’t keep coming back just to be cool—I was fascinated by this community. Everyone had noteworthy stories to share about their own Pokémon journeys. Somebody would boast how they managed to snag an incredibly rare Shiny Pokémon, evoking wonder and jealousy alike from the rest of the gang. Another would dramatically reenact their latest showdown with the Pokémon Champion—the strongest Trainer in the region—relaying an inspirational tale of camaraderie and heightened tensions, while we chimed in with our own pointers and anecdotes. But we truly connected when somebody would bring along a Link Cable to hook our games together, and two brave souls would frantically trade valuable Pokémon until the bus pulled into the school yard, or they'd engage their monsters in fierce combat on the brink of the next class period—all to the fanfare of this ragtag group of Trainers. It's these moments where we would compare our adventures and revel in this description-defying world that transformed Pokémon from just another video game into an endemic phenomenon.
Even beyond this magic circle, Pokémon became my life, my soul, my muse. Every day, I'd look forward to greeting my trusted partners who had journeyed thus far with me through the Pokémon world. To outsiders, they were merely pixels on a screen. To me, they were my best friends in a distant land, each with their own idiosyncrasies and memorable backstories. As I expanded my virtual horizons, I found myself at the heart of an extended family of Pokémon whose presence I grew to cherish—especially when real life began to throw curveballs.
If someone's ever yanked the sheets off you on a frigid winter morning, you've probably experienced a natural progression from feeling dazed, to confused, to the raw sensory overload of bitter, bitter cold. That's how I felt when our family moved to a foreign land. I had grown up in an incubator of fuzzy sentiments: playing Pokémon with a common group of friends, coming home to be greeted by the same four resilient walls, and sharing family moments over the dining table. But when I relocated, that comforting blanket, which I had clung to for so long, vanished in an instant.
It was at this critical point in my life that I turned to my younger sister for companionship. It's funny that I—a self-contained, stolid Trainer—sought her company; I doubt you'll find two people less alike. She's got this eclectic energy that seems to burst out of thin air and permeate her surroundings. But she'll also dive into unpredictable moments of quiet contemplation, immersing herself in art or writing, before reverting to her usual snarky, unbridled self. This usually involves some plan for annoying the hell out of me—but hey, I suppose that's what sisters do best.
What I find liberating, on the other hand, is sharing knowledge with others. In my spare time, I'd teach my sister amazing things that our world has to offer: science, literature, good music, fun ways to spend an afternoon, and especially Pokémon. Before long, she set out on her own journey to conquer the land with her trusty Torkoal, a golden-orange, steam-toting tortoise Pokémon pulsating with the warmth of tender ashes. And slowly but surely, something magical began to happen.
My sister's love of the game blossomed just as mine had years prior, and she began to unconditionally shower affection upon her Pokémon. I witnessed my golden days brought back to life as the young new Trainer and her Torkoal embarked on their journey, and the frigid mask that isolated me from the rest of the world began to thaw. Indeed, it's through Pokémon that my sister grew to become my most treasured foil, rival, and companion. Even after all these years, I'm grateful for having passed on my love of Pokémon and video games, reclaiming my identity in the process.
Though my identity continues to evolve, I can't ignore how important Pokémon has been in propelling me along this path of self-discovery. It's unbelievable how many of my formative life experiences draw inspiration from the innumerable moments I've spent with the series. I can't ever forget the day I met Bulbasaur, the finishing blow that made me the Pokémon Champion, or the thrilling sensation when I caught every last one. Nor can I leave behind my exhilaration from trading Pokémon in the school yard, and the unsolicited hours I've spent debating the best strategies for battle. It's been an absolute joy watching my sister grow into a competent Trainer and a wonderful person. And ever since I met Pokémon, it's been my mission to be the very best, like no one ever was.
I carry these sentiments because Pokémon doesn't just introduce us to an immersive world; it has an intrinsic ability to connect people through shared experiences. It's a series which fully embraces the idea of forging meaningful relationships beyond its digital limits. It's the culmination of everything I've ever wanted from a video game, and more.
...it's also the reason why kids should be allowed to wander into supermarket aisles.
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