Though I’m getting to the age where some of my elementary school memories are (thankfully) starting to fade, one of them sticks out as clear as day. It just took the release of Pokemon Go to fully appreciate it.
In the sixth grade, I made it to my school’s finals of the spelling bee. The top three finishers would move on to our county spelling bee, then if they did well enough, they could eventually move onto the regional, state, and national spelling bee. Sixth grade was the last year you could participate in the spelling bee in my school, so the fact that I made it to the finals was a bit exciting. I was determined to win the school spelling bee — just as I had the geography bee a few months earlier — and qualify for the next round.
As the spelling bee was about to start, our principal was giving introductions and explaining the rules of the contest. While reading through the normal list of rules that we heard in each of our classrooms, he paused to insert an additional rule of his own.
“Just so everyone’s aware, I’m pleased to announce that none of the words in today’s spelling bee will be Pokemon names.”
A cheer went up from the crowd of mostly sixth graders that were watching us compete. While many of the students on stage with me clapped loudly, I sat there with a bewildered look on my face. I knew there wasn’t going to be any Pokemon names in the spelling bee…but why call that out? Why was that really necessary?
On more than one occasion in elementary and middle school, I was bullied. I was a straight A student who was the shortest kid in my grade (guy or girl) up until the eighth grade. I wore hand me down clothes that didn’t fit right or looked like they were out of the 70s and 80s — generally because they were. I shared a house with my own family/stepfamily, as well as another family whose three kids were routinely getting suspended from school. I looked for a way out to escape my day-to-day reality.
From a very young age, that way out became video games. By the time 1998 rolled around, I, like many other kids my age, had gotten caught up in the Pokemon hype wave. I got a green Game Boy Pocket for Christmas the year prior with Monopoly and Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball as a gift. While those games were fun, the allure of a world filled with magical creatures caught my imagination.
My dad ended up getting me Pokemon Blue in early 1999 and I played the game until the cartridge broke. My end game team was almost always the same — Blastoise, Hypno, Dewgong, Fearow, Victreebel, and Jynx — but I loved playing through it no matter what. The Pokemon games really did bring me that escape I was looking for from my childhood.
Back on the spelling bee stage, I recall being flustered and upset that the principal had taken the time to specifically call out the game that I loved playing in an effort to get a cheap cheer. There was no need to do that. I realize that now and I realized it as a kid. Being the first person in the alphabet in the finals, I received the first word, ceiling, and immediately misspelled it. I was eliminated, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to get home and play the game that the majority of kids felt the need to cheer against.
Fast forward to 2016, when the augmented reality game, Pokemon Go released. I downloaded the game within minutes of its US release last week, leading to my wife and I running around outside our apartment complex trying to catch our starters. I was surprised the next two days at work to see just how many people were playing Pokemon Go. People who rarely ever played video games had picked up the game and started playing just because it was the cool, hip thing to do.
It was a strange moment for me to see. 18 years earlier, a room full of my peers had cheered that Pokemon would be no where near a spelling bee. Now, there are strangers who would otherwise have nothing in common coming together to play a later, more technologically advanced, version of that same game.
As my wife and I were walking through the park on Saturday trying to catch Pokemon, a kid — probably about sixth grade or so — and his mom were walking their dogs. The kid saw us playing Pokemon and began talking to his mom.
Kid: Why are so many adults playing Pokemon?
Mom: It’s the cool thing to do right now. I’m glad you’re mature enough to not need video games to have fun.
Ignoring for a moment that the mom obviously doesn’t understand the purpose to video games, with her comment I began to realize that the very thing that some kids mocked when I was younger had become cool. I’m betting some of those same kids who laughed in the auditorium at the spelling bee were playing Pokemon Go this weekend.
Why wouldn’t they? It’s the cool thing to do. We want nothing more than to be accepted in life. It just happens to be the time where nerd culture has become an accepted part of life. In fact it’s becoming so much that way that you’d be hard pressed to find a component of nerd culture that hasn’t been somewhat integrated into mainstream American culture.
I’d like to think this is a sign that we’re continuing to progress as a society to a point where everyone, regardless of their likes, beliefs, sexuality, religion, or whatever, is accepted the same way. It’s likely not. I know that. But in the interim — until that moment where I’m disproven in my belief — I’m going to continue walking towards lure modules and interacting with strangers, and bonding over sharing our Pokemon adventures.