I’ve been spending a lot of time with my Pokémon-obsessed seven-year-old cousin recently and, as one might imagine, that entails playing a lot of Pokémon games. I’m no stranger to the Pokémon franchise, in fact I grew up with those games. Ten years since I last played Pokémon Sapphire, the franchise seems as strong as ever so it’s made me wonder what exactly it is about Pokémon that has captivated so many younglings, generation after generation. The strange thing is that Pokémon hasn’t really kept it fresh. The Pokémon are new and the maps are new but the series hasn’t evolved from the same basic formula from when it was released in Japan in 1996. And the answer to why is quite simple: the formula works. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when every new generation of games is meant for a new generation of children. There are many other reasons why Pokémon is successful, such as the TV series, but here I’m just going to focus on three key aspects of the games themselves and how they play on our basic human needs. Let’s roll.
The first point where Pokémon wins over the kiddies is with a frequent sense of accomplishment. There are always carrots dangling in front of you to go after and the game often rewards for doing so. Levelling up your Pokémon gives you ‘cool’ new moves or evolves them into stronger forms. There’s also the Gyms that you need to keep beating to progress and, for my kid cousin at least, there’s a huge sense of accomplishment in racking up those eight badges before finally taking on the Pokémon League. The reason why this works is because the rewards are so correlated with the efforts. Training your Charmander means getting to use Charizard and beating a Gym Leader means you’re allowed to move to new areas with new Pokémon and stronger trainers. Even after you beat the League, there are still plenty more things for you to do, like fill up your Pokédex or catch super-powerful Pokémon like Mewtwo. The rewards all chain so well into each other and you hardly ever feel like there are no more objectives to accomplish.
This works because we all love to feel like we’ve done something significant during the day and Pokémon, like Achievements or Trophies, plays on this relentlessly. The game also enables this further since it’s less skill-intensive and, overall not very difficult, so that younger children can feel like they’re good at it. I suppose there are more complex strategies for some such as accumulating EVs or picking a Pokémon with a good nature but, for the most part, the game can be beaten without even knowing these exist. Typically all you need to do to is grind your Pokémon to high levels, teach them strong moves and have enough different types to beat most teams; clearly within the reach of your average seven-year-old gamer. In fact, the game even gives you a few cop-outs such as super-powerful Legendary Pokémon like Lugia or Groudon and abusable healing items if you’re struggling. In a nutshell, the game offers a reasonable enough challenge to most young children, gives them tons of ways to overcome them and frequently rewards them for doing so.
The second thing that the Pokémon games do well is very much tied to the first; they give you a clear sense of progression. Being rewarded is important but perhaps even more so, is to have the feeling that the obstacles are becoming progressively more difficult. Now Pokémon is a rather easy game that actually gets easier as you go further along but the game still manages to give a massive sense, that you’re a lot better from where you started. Just compare yourself 1 hour into the game to 2 hours. And then to 4 hours and 8 hours. Every hour that you play, your Pokémon gain levels and you get to catch new ones so that over the period of the game you’re constantly moving forward. The game does a great deal to contribute to this by constantly scaling up the levels of Pokémon that you battle, evolving yours and your opponents’ Pokémon and giving them stronger moves. There’s hardly any loss factor in the game whatsoever, and the game does a great deal to give you a constant sense of accumulated resources.
The reason why all of this matters in Pokémon games is because progression is a concept that greatly appeals to us as human beings. We all like to feel like we’re moving forward in life and we hate feeling like we’re moving back. Anyone who’s mastered a craft or worked up a career ladder knows that there’s great satisfaction in knowing that you’re a better chef than you were a year ago or that you’re earning more than you did when you started out. Even if we aren’t really better off, just the idea that our circumstances are somewhat better than they used to be is an encouraging thought and one that Pokémon goes out of its way to keep providing.
The last point that I want to touch on, and arguably the strongest, is the powerful freedom of choice that Pokémon gives you throughout the whole experience. Pokémon doesn’t just give you an arbitrary set of objectives, they let you accomplish them in any way that you want, often giving you ten times more freedom than most ‘adult’ RPGs. You choose from two or three versions, you choose which starter Pokémon you want and, from there on, you pretty much just do as you please; there are no extensive tutorials or forced story choices to be found anywhere. While the game is essentially linear, you still get to choose which Pokémon you want to catch, who you’re going to include in your party, which types you’re going to favour and which moves you’re going to teach them. Heck, you can nickname your Pokémon to personalize them further. And really, the game imposes very few restrictions on you about this. You could even release your starter and beat the game with a team of level 100 Magikarps if you’re ambitious enough.
The reason why this is so important is because your Pokémon are not just weapons you pick up in a dungeon or guns that you unlock, they are the products of your choices. When you combine this with the sense of accomplishment and progression that I mentioned above, you’ll see that your Charizard is not just some fire-breathing dragon you to use to burn through teams, he’s your Charizard and, if you’re like my seven-year-old cousin, then you probably love him as though he were real. We humans tend to have a strong attachment to the things that we put effort into and the more autonomy we have in their growth, the more emotionally involved we become. It’s the same reason why parents are so attached to their own children and this point is really where Pokémon takes the cake. It gives you a freedom choice that actually matters, so unlike many RPGs of our era. (*cough* Mass Effect *cough*)
In conclusion, Pokémon really does do a great deal to play on the impressionable minds of young children but you can’t argue that they don’t do it well. It may be evil that Pokémon takes advantage of the very basic needs we have for accomplishment, progression and autonomy from young ages already but I suppose at the very least it makes them happy. However, if you’re an adult, you should watch out very carefully for similar traits in the games you currently play. Just because a game has hideous demons or foreign soldiers instead of cute cartoon animals, it doesn’t mean it’s not trying to rope you in by playing on your basic human desires. As Dr Seuss once put it: adults are, after all, just obsolete children…
See you in two weeks time…