Newsflash: Charizard is dead. I had no idea. This was my first mistake when I tried to enter the Pokémon Autumn Regional Championships at the Rhode Island Convention Center on November 12. “You’re trying to play with those things?” a kid in full-body Pikachu suit scoffed when I flashed the old cards. We original Pokémon collectors are living, whether you know it or not, in the fifth Poké generation. So much has passed us by. The Pokémon of yore—Snorlax, Bulbasaur, Eevee—are relics. They’ve been phased out and are no longer eligible for gameplay.
Second mistake: I never learned how to play the game, and it is scarily complex. It now involves dice and coins in addition to cards. Like most American kids circa 1998, I collected the 150 cards for a period of three or so months, horded them obsessively, and promptly forgot them. They lie in wait in my basement with legions of Tamagotchis and Furbies. But no one here is impressed that I once owned a holographic Charizard. Like the Montreal nine-year-old who stabbed a classmate in a Pokémon dispute in 2000, they have a stake in the game. They have sold their irrelevant Charizards. They’ve danced on his flaming 120 HP grave.
A caveat: Charizard is not dead, per se, because Pokémon don’t die. They faint. The Poké-gods want to avoid child trauma, even though the average Pokémon card game player today is 19. Approximately 200 players line six long tables in the sparse Convention Center, competing in three divisions: Juniors (10 and under), Seniors (11 through 17) and Masters (everybody else.) They are battling for Pokéswagger and points to qualify for the world championships in Hawaii this August. They sit across from each other, looking deep and menacingly into their opponents’ eyes and laying their non-proverbial cards on the table.
Kids fill out the first table, but the number of adults playing in the Masters category today dwarfs them. Which feels strange because Pokémon, unlike Magic: The Gathering or Settlers of Catan, is marketed towards kids. It’s PG-rated and was, at a point not too far in the past, all the rage. No one will be impressed by your Pokémon proficiency, whereas Magic and Settlers have some underground cred: “The majestic world of Magic: The Gathering… has lived on throughout the trendy games such as the Legend of the Five Rings, Pokémon, and Yu-Gi-Oh,” writes uncertified game expert Nicholas Pelak in a Myspace blog post. “Magic boasts creative art, impressive age-old themes and gameplay rivaled by… chess.” What’s more, you can win $45,000 at Magic World Championships, but the prize for winning Pokémon Worlds is $7,500 in scholarships.
Evolution of a Pokémaster
The least-evolved Pokémon player at the tournament, Rachel Clarke, is four and can’t read. But she has memorized all sixty cards in her deck and can recite their names and powers on sight, plus do the math for their attack damage. In the ten-and-under division, she’s won two games and lost two today. She has a blonde bowl cut and her voice is inaudible. She runs up to her mother after her fourth match and gives her a high-five. The Pokémon she most resembles, in my opinion, is Jigglypuff. But her favorite is Zekrom, a red-eyed, menacing, robot dragon. She’s all about Zekrom because he can do bolt strike—a massively damaging attack. Cubchoo, on the other hand, is a cuddly runny-nosed bear that I’d assume would be her favorite. “He doesn’t do anything,” she says. His only attack is powder snow—lame. She says she doesn’t feel sad when she loses. “We’ll keep that attitude as long as we can,” says her mother, Sue. The game teaches sportsmanship. And there are bonuses for Rachel besides wielding power to strike fear in the hearts of her opponents: Pierce, a nebulous friend from preschool, also plays Pokémon. She brings the cards in for show-and-tell and they play together.
Jack Sjoberg, 10, has traveled from Connecticut to qualify for World Championships in Hawaii. He’s made the “top cut” of four kids in the junior division this afternoon, and a group of adults dressed in polos with embroidered Pokéball insignias has shuttled them into a corner of the hall divided off with velvet rope. They sit the kids down at a table, prepare them to battle. Jack is composed. “I try to act cool around my opponents,” he says. “Because then they’ll think that I’m just bigger because if you act calm they’re like, ‘ooh, this guy doesn’t have anything to fear.’” A parent on the other side of the rope has pulled out a video camera and is zooming it in on Jack’s opponent, who is nervously fiddling with his Pikachu shirt. Jack seems like an old hand. He’s come to terms with Pokémon culture, even outside the convention. “I’m called a nerd sometimes,” he says. “But not in a mean way, not like they’re bullying me. In a friendly-ish way.” He dominates the match.
Dylan Moran, an eloquent twelve-year-old gamer, agrees: “It kind of gets you teased a lot,” he says. “People think it’s a kids’ game. But it’s better than playing Black Ops and sitting on your couch all day! You’re actually using your head!” At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I would not file my Pokémon memories in the educational cabinet of my childhood. My parents certainly didn’t. But here, kids and parents here resoundingly agree: Pokémon teaches strategy, organization, math, and sportsmanship. “I could trick people into trading good cards for bad ones,” says Dylan. “But I don’t feel like it.” The Pokémon community, perhaps because it is family-oriented or perhaps because it can’t pretend to be cool, is rather friendly, as competitive battle-based subcultures go. Dylan has built two decks for players at the tournament today, and though players who’ve been caught cheating in the past are in attendance, they’re watched closely by the tournament judges.
The Masters, the five long tables of teens and adults flipping cards and rolling dice, aren’t as open about their war methods. One of these serious players is Dylan Lefavour, 17. He was the 2008 Pokémon World Champion. And he is currently, according to the official Pokémon website, the 20th-best card game player in the world. He’s part of a wave of young American talent that has dominated Pokémon gameplay over the past few seasons. (Other top Pokémon nations currently include France and Denmark.) Today, he wears an airbrushed trucker hat that reads “Dylan” in bulbous letters next to a Pokéball. It is the same outfit he is wearing in his 2008 World Championships interview videos, and his Facebook profile picture. “My girlfriend gave it to me,” he says, then pauses. “Well—she’s not my girlfriend anymore.” They met through Pokémon. She’s not here today, but Lefavour says he “doesn’t care.” He also says that he’s “not nervous” about the tournament. Perhaps it’s because this activity does not inspire the same terror as debate or chess. There’s less at stake since Pokémon is not a traditionally ‘serious’ game. Everybody seems vaguely interested in making friends—Dylan met all his best friends through Pokémon. They have to laugh at themselves a little—it’s just a card game, right?
In the Pokéworld, Dylan is in with the right crowd, the champions, because he has medals under his belt. “At first people were kind of mean,” he says. “Pokémon used to be kind of cliquey. The best players congregate together. I talk to the better players, not the lesser ones. But I’m not mean like they were—shouting ‘N00B!’” Now, he says, the scene is less exclusive. But he acknowledges that this feeling might stem from his success. “When I was hot off my win,” he says, “kids would sometimes ask me for my autograph.”
Lefavour is interested in the perks. “There are more girls at this game than other games,” he says. “There are actually quite a few girls in Pokémon.” There are probably ten girls, not including mothers, at the convention. Good pickins? I ask. “No,” he says--no Pokébiddies today.
Dylan has only eaten peanut chunks and water all day. (“Protein,” he says solemnly.) He also slept in the hotel bathroom last night to achieve total silence. At home, he doesn’t have a Pokémon bedspread, but his trophies line the walls. Few of his schoolmates know he plays. He’s a junior in high school, and next year, he’ll write his college essays about the extracurricular that he cares about most: the Pokémon Trading Card Game. “Other kids play soccer,” he says. “I play Pokémon.”
A postscript: Pokémon cannot procreate, but Pokémon couples can. Tim and Claire McTaggart, who judged the tournament today, met at Nationals in 2010, married, and now have a four-month-old named Rowan. Rowan has been to three tournaments. Tim and Claire still play Pokémon. They have birthed and are conditioning the optimal genetic Pokémon child. The possibilities are limitless: by the hundredth generation, will the optimal Pokémon just be a human with the power to realize all the cards are imaginary and flip the chessboard over? What would such a world look like? Is a Pokémon revolution imminent?
MIMI DWYER B’13 XOXO Irrelevant Subculture.