Is Pokemon Evil?

You'd think that owning a piece of the Pokemon phenomenon would be like having a license to print money. But the mere fact that Warner Bros. was set to release "Pokemon: The First Movie" on Nov. 10 was not automatic cause for cheering around the studio. Pokemon is a kid thing, and kid things can go pfffft just like that. Add the fact that the buzz on this dubbed, animated Japanese import is about as bad as buzz can be. You can see why Warners execs were nervous.

Then last Monday morning a Los Angeles disc jockey announced a phone-in contest to win tickets to the premiere of the movie. Suddenly the Warners switchboard was receiving 70,000 calls a minute. The message got through: Pokemon is still a monster.

For how long nobody knows. But like many monsters, it is creating a measure of fear and panic in its wake. The playground set is as ferociously obsessed as they were when the craze first hit last year. Schools are banning it; parents worry about addictive behavior. And most Pokemon watchers say simply they've never seen anything like this. "In the history of the toy industry, there has never been a hit so global, so multimedia, so rapid, so long-lasting as Pokemon," says toy-industry analyst Sean McGowan, adding that neither he nor anyone else clearly understands why. We do know that, judged strictly on the numbers, it's the biggest whatever-it-is anyone's ever seen. Created by Nintendo, Pokemon arrived in the United States in 1998 as a television show and videogames. Since then, the show has edged out "Rugrats" to become the No. 1 kid show on television, and Nintendo has sold 7 million games--5.5 million in the past six months; the top-five-selling videogames are the five Pokemon games. Nintendo puts the total retail value of Pokemon games, TV show, toys and cards at $1 billion in this country and $7 billion worldwide.

But the heart of the Pokemon phenomenon is the trading cards. The card game was introduced last January by a company called Wizards of the Coast, which claims to have sold more than 2 million $10 starter sets. No one knows how many more children are not playing the complex game, with its varying points among the cards, but merely collecting cards. Nearly everyone agrees that collecting is what's driving all the craziness, with kids searching high and low for extremely rare cards. Not all kids watch the TV show or play the videogames. But most of the kids who are into Pokemon collect the cards--even kids who don't play the game can be seen toting ring binders stuffed with neatly filed images of Gengar and Bulbasaur and Pidgey. It's the cards that have been banned at schools across the country. Cards cause the fights and tears when a trade goes bad. Hard-to-find cards command anywhere from $100 to $400 on the Pokemon black market.

Banning the cards on school grounds is now more the rule than the exception. Principals and teachers say the cards were an intolerable nuisance. "We tried to let the kids do it, tried to be open-minded," said Jan Gardiner, head of St. James Episcopal School in Los Angeles, "but kids were actually stealing the cards from each other. They would get so caught up in the trading, after recess, it would continue in the classroom where teachers were having to referee." Some critics complain that Pokemon brings ugly issues of class into the schools, with the haves flaunting their purchasing power over the have-nots.

Parents are more divided. One mother compared the trading cards to drugs: "You give them their first hit and they want more." And two months ago in San Diego, two parents filed suit against Nintendo, alleging that card collecting and trading constituted illegal gambling. But there are just as many parents preaching the Pokemon gospel. Mitchell Garner of Ann Arbor, a former county prosecutor whose 8-year-old daughter, Kasia, owns more than 200 Pokemon cards, sees nothing wrong in the type of horse-trading kids use when swapping cards. An avid coin and baseball-card collector himself, Garner says it is akin to the deliberations that take place when a defendant agrees to a guilty plea in exchange for a reduced sentence. So Pokemon apparently is training future lawyers.

Or stock traders. One 7-year-old says, "I get better Pokemon cards when the other friends are stupid." Or the 4-year-old who can rattle off the names of 150 Pokemon characters, but still isn't quite clear on the days of the week. But far more common are the stories of almost eerie cooperation among siblings and friends. "Collecting is a family affair," says Bonnie Calandra, a 41-year-old mother of three in Oakland, Calif. The family admits there were fights at first between the kids, "But now we work together like a team," says her 9-year-old son, Troy. The team checks out prices of cards on the Internet, pools money to buy booster sets at the local store and like most Pokemaniacs, carefully places each card in a plastic binder, where the cards are protected but rarely played. And when their 8-year-old sister Audrey lost a valuable card in a trade, her brothers were furious. "We just didn't want anyone taking advantage of our sister," says 13-year- old Nick.

Most authorities, and not a few kids, agree that as long as Pokemon doesn't go to school, there's no problem. "Cards are not new," argues Pamela Abrams, editor of Child magazine and the mother of two boys, 5 and 12. "They provide kids with a way to read and sort and trade. There's a lot of analytical thinking that goes into making a collection. Kids in that 6- to 9-year-old range are really into categorizing. I think there's a real upside to letting kids be passionate about something. I think the cards promote reading. If they want to read cereal boxes or magazines or comic books or cards, that's great."

Anyway, the real experts, i.e., parents, are beginning to suspect that the whole thing is on the wane. And just how do they know? "I know," says Nancy Seid of Los Angeles, mother of two, "because I'm starting to get into it."