Before my kid came home that first afternoon, yammering breathlessly about creatures he’d discovered, I wasn’t Pokémon-ignorant. I had flirted with Japanophilia for much of my adult life and knew of Pikachu, Ash, and their bizarre, vaguely incestuous twin foils on Team Rocket. I also knew that Pokémon was connected to a trading card game of some sort that, frankly, seemed completely ancillary to the ever-expanding Pokémon Entertainment Complex. So I didn’t panic.
I probably should have.
The force with which Pokémon enters a child’s life is frightening. It seems as if the pocket monsters were custom engineered to jack into kids’ amygdalas. Before my son met his Pokémon pal, he was already an animal fan with a vivid imagination. But upon learning about the wild variety of little monsters fighting in a worldwide underground bloodsport, his mind basically exploded. He started spending most of his time waging imaginary Pokémon battles in the backyard. Even now, I’m not sure if he was thinking of monsters he’d seen or monsters of his own manufacture. From my vantage point, it didn’t much matter. I knew that these beasts lived on in a sort of Kindergarten oral tradition. I knew better than to fight back.
Then, he came home with his first Pokemon card. He was beyond thrilled. Me? Not so much. I knew that there was some future marketing professional getting my son hooked on something that would cost him time and me money. I was not pumped.
In my early twenties, I sank countless hours and dollars collecting cards and building decks for Magic: The Gathering competitions. Over the span of three years, it’s safe to say that a day never passed that didn’t see me shuffling a card deck and considering new strategies. I recognized the cardboard beast he held in his innocent little hands. I knew the deal.
In a desperate attempt to deflect his attention from the card game, I tried to redirect him with the Pokemon cartoons. He would sit trout-mouthed, binging his way through a Saturday morning, but his imaginary backyard battles became more intense. He talked Pokémon endlessly, but he seemed to have no more interest in the cards.
Then, he brought home a deck. His little dealer friend had upped the ante. This wasn’t the previous taste of the drug. It was more like loaning the kid a kilo. He had to give it back, but Christmas was coming and I knew what was coming. So, fine. I’d buy him cards. I went with something called the Shining Legends pack, which seemed to have everything he would need.
He was delighted on Christmas day and he carefully filed all of his cards into the binder we got him. But I wanted to teach him how to play the game. The card pack had dice, markers, strange mylar sleeves but no instructions on how to play. So, I took to YouTube. The most helpful video I found was of two geeky Millennials walking viewers through the basics of a game, but there was so much profanity I couldn’t watch it with my kid. So I started reading blogs about rules and deck building and it seemed insanely complicated. Overwhelmed, I gave up. After all, the kid seemed to be fine just looking at the cards.
But when school started again he wanted to start trading. I knew my little naif was going to be an easy mark, trading away great cards for a handful of beans unless I could give him some fast and dirty basics from my Magic: The Gathering days. I laid it on him: Only trade cards that you have multiples of, don’t trade a card with high values in hit points unless what you’re getting is better, and don’t accept on face value that something is rare unless you’ve done the research.
He came home the next day saying he’d traded for some great cards. He showed me and my heart broke as I discovered he held cards that someone had sloppily modified by adding zeros to the hit points and damage in ball point pen. He’d been conned.
It was then I decided if anyone was going to play Pokémon with my kid, it should be me, his trading card sensei. So with a great deal of reluctance, I downloaded the online Pokémon trading card game and sat him in my lap so we could really learn how to play together.
And that’s where we are now in our Pokémon journey. We sit and learn about damage and attacks and trainer cards. We think about strategies and are each planning our first decks so we can play against each other. Now, in the evenings, instead of whining for TV, he grabs his Pokémon card binder and finds me. We curl up on the couch and read through each Pokémon’s abilities, thinking about how we’d use them and how much “energy” each needs to complete their attack. Or we go up to the office and boot up the Pokémon online game to get a few more pointers — me asking him strategy questions and him thinking quietly on my lap before turning and giving me measured, thoughtful responses. It goes on like this for hours. Just the two of us plotting Pokemon glory.
I’m at peace with this. After all, to play a Pokémon game requires a whole host of skills that reinforce what he’s learning at school. It requires that he read. It requires critical thinking and strategy, and it requires math to add, subtract and modify damage. Now, a boy who whines through a math worksheet is adding and subtracting by tens in his head, like lightning, blissfully unaware he’s learning.
At this point, I feel a bit like a Pokémon trainer myself. Except my pocket monster is a six year old boy ready for battle. And where once I was frightened by his energy and struggled to control the beast, I now feel like I have my hands on the reigns. Together we’re getting stronger. We’re evolving.
Illustrated by Eloise Weiss for Fatherly.