Red and Blue's 20th anniversary: Five ways Pokémon influenced the U.S.
Twenty years ago, Nintendo asked America to try to catch 'em all. We still haven't (legitimately) captured a Mew.
- On Sept. 28, 1998, Pokémon Red and Blue came to the United States and asked children to catch 151 adorably abstract creatures.
- Today, Pokémon is the highest-grossing media franchise in the world, defeating the likes of Mickey Mouse, Star Wars, and Anpanman (trust us, it's a thing).
- In anticipation of another 20 years, we look back at fives ways Pokémon has influenced the United States.
On Sept. 28, 1998, Nintendo released Pokémon in the United States and dared us to try to catch 'em all. We eagerly accepted the challenge. The first Pokémon games, Red and Blue, netted Nintendo $70 million stateside in their first six months. Worldwide the first generation of Pokémon games, including Yellow and Green, sold more than 45 million copies combined.
Then came the franchise blitz: Pokémon plushies, Pokémon clothes, Pokémon trading cards, Pokémon cereal, Pokémon TV shows, Pokémon bouncy balls, Pokémon pedometers, Pokémon airplanes, Pokémon Monopoly, Pokémon bedsheets. Pokémania was in full force. But like all fads, this one was destined to die out eventually. Right?
Guess not. Twenty years later, the games have sold more than 300 million units, the TV show airs in 124 countries and regions, and about 550 companies license the rights. As of March 2017, the Pokémon market size is worth more than ¥6 trillion (roughly $53 billion).
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Pokémon invasion, let's look back at five ways these Japanese pocket monsters influenced the United States.
Pokémon's influence in the West began a full year before the first games were released stateside. In 1997, the Pokémon TV show entered our cultural consciousness by sending children to the hospital. (Not the most auspicious start for a product aimed at children.)
An episode of the show, titled "Dennō Senshi Porigon," sent several people into epileptic fits, and hundreds of children were rushed to the hospital. Some vomited blood, while others lost consciousness.
"I was watching TV but I [couldn't] remember anything at all when it was all over," one of the children said of the incident. "As I was watching blue and red lights on the screen, I felt my body becoming tense. I do not remember what happened afterward."
These red and blue lights flashed at a frequency that triggered seizures in people with a condition called photosensitive epilepsy. Photosensitive epileptics have primary visual cortexes that are easily excited, and lights flashing between 5 and 30 times per second, like those featured in the episode, can induce seizures.
Nearly 700 people went to the hospital, but further research showed that only a handful actually suffered photosensitive seizures. By then, however, the story had already gone international and been dubbed the "Pokémon Shock" incident.
Although we had known about the condition years beforehand, the panic brought it widespread attention. Today, companies regularly put warnings on entertainment products that feature such effects, and New York State has enshrined such warnings in law. Thanks to social media, companies that don't provide warnings are quickly reminded of their responsibility to do so.
As for the infamous Pokémon episode, it never came stateside nor has it ever been rebroadcasted in Japan.
Human sacrifice, lillipups and meowths living together, mass hysteria!
A total of 1,500 Pikachus appear at the Yokohama landmarks in the Minato Mirai during the Pikachu Outbreak event on Aug. 10, 2018
Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
When Pokémon reached the United States, parents quickly forgot to worry about their children's health and instead indulged in another all-American pastime: the moral panic. Pokémon became the de facto activity that was corrupting children's lives, but this time, we were importing it from another country.
Parents accused Pokémon of promoting violence and leading children down the immoral path. Some even filed suit against Nintendo, claiming the trading cards were an "illegal gambling enterprise" design to create ankle-biting addicts.
"In my opinion parents should not let their kids watch Pokémon, play Pokémon, buy Pokémon cards, or have anything whatsoever to do with Pokémon," psychiatrist Carole Liberman told MSNBC back in 1999. "Because the message is violence."
America wasn't alone, though. Saudi Arabian religious authorities accused Pokémon of possessing the minds of children and issued a fatwa against the games.
"Parents who have had to suffer through the games, the TV series and shopping trips can take some comfort in the fact that the Pokémon demographic is the same one that has abandoned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers," proclaimed Howard Chua-Eoan and Tim Larimer in Time. "It's all Pokémon, all the time. At least until the next craze."
Twenty years later, we're still waiting for that next craze, but at least the parents have chilled out.
Anime has been a part of American culture for decades. In the 1960s, NBC brought Mighty Atom to the United States under the auspices of "Astro Boy." In the late '80s, Akira became an obsession for midnight moviegoers. But it wasn't until the late '90s that anime finally broke into Western pop culture to become a mainstay in its own right.
The Pokémon TV series helped introduce an entire generation of youngsters to kawaii-eyed protagonists, online debates over power scaling, and characters that move so fast the background can't keep up. Other important anime of this era included Dragon Ball Z for adolescent boys (and honestly girls too), Sailor Moon for adolescent girls (and honestly boys too), Cowboy Bebop for the adults, and Neon Genesis Evangelion for…well, you know who you are.
Anime may not be mainstream today, but it is certainly on its way. Spirited Away won an Oscar in 2003 (even if the genre has been snubbed ever since). American cartoons such as The Last Airbender have drawn heavily from anime influences. And Crunchyroll, a streaming service dedicated to anime, has more than 20 million registered users.
While Pokémon may not be solely responsible for anime's foothold in the West, it was certainly among the vanguard of that important late '90s push.
Get up and Go
People gather to play Nintendo's Pokemon Go augmented reality game during the Pokemon Go Stadium event at Yokohama Stadium.
Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images
In 2016, Niantic launched Pokémon Go. The game uses augmented reality to let people catch Pokémon in their own neighborhoods, and we cannot get enough. Twenty-one million people downloaded it in its first three weeks, and videos of users stampeding by the hundreds in search of that rare find flooded the Internet.
In addition to being hugely popular, the game helped draw interest to what could be accomplished by marrying gaming with advancements in technology. A study in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggested that participation in Pokémon Go "was associated with a significant increase in [physical activity]" and that similar forms of gameplay could help promote healthy activities in people attracted to games.
It was also showed the shifting dimensions of gaming in contemporary culture. More women play the game than men or children, and it is augmented reality's first killer app. During a talk with Big Think, journalist Virginia Heffernan argued that the game even shared the hallmarks of art.
"When people venture into those wide boundaries outside the narrow confines of where you're kept in a safe spot with other apps, Angry Birds say, you are going to take risks," Heffernan said. "And art asks us to take risks, literally asks to move us from one place to the other, exactly the way Pokémon Go has been moving us all over the world.
While Pokémon Go has fallen from the height of its popularity, predictions of its inevitable obsolescence seem as premature as similar prophecies from 1999. The game still pulls 20-plus million daily active users, and events like the appearance of a never before seen Pokémon continue to draw users back in.
Before Pokémon, franchises allowed children to collect toys and play as their favorite heroes. They could pretend to be Captain Kirk and learn all the ins and outs of the USS Enterprise, for example, but there was always a sharp dividing line between the world of Star Trek and their own.
Pokémon made this divide far more porous by mixing the franchise with role-playing elements. Children weren't just pretending to be Pokémon masters; they were becoming Pokémon masters by collecting the creatures, learning about their strengths and weaknesses, and memorizing rules that were just complex enough to be fun yet not daunting.
"Pokémon isn't just a game about cute animals fighting one another. That gives it a certain amount of initial appeal, but it earns a last [sic] attraction by offering up an esoteric rule set that is simultaneously simple enough for kids to understand while cryptic enough to confuse parents," writes Jeff Grubb.
Grubb continues, "For many kids, this is one of the first chances they'll get to feel like a true expert on a subject, and that's a critical step in growing into an adult. You need to know that you have the capacity to learn something that even your parents cannot grasp."
Pokémon offered children the opportunity to not simply play as something, but to invest in it in the same way adults come into their own profession: by learning and by actively engaging in it.
Here's to another 20 years
A scene from the Pokémon TV show's 1,000th episode, titled "The Professors' New Adventure," featuring protagonists Ash and Pikachu. The milestone episode aired this year.
Photo by The Pokemon Company International
Before Pokémon, Americans were no strangers to collection crazes. Parents rioted over Cabbage Patch Kids in the 1980s, and the early '90s saw adults trample each other to acquire Beanie Babies. Nor were we unaware of the franchise marketing blitz. Star Wars proved that attaching the name of a popular franchise to anything was the corporate equivalent of inheriting a mint.
But what made Pokémon so special that it became the highest-grossing media franchise in the world?
Simply put, it was fun and the kind of fun that could grow with children. Twenty years ago, trainers had to capture 151 Pokémon. Now there are 806 of the abstract beasties. With new Pokémon comes new game mechanics that create ever more complex interactions for children to master, while maintaining that approachable core rule set.
And as the original trainers have grown up, they've introduced Pokémon to their own children and rediscovered the game themselves. This has resulted in a cross-generational experience shared by adults and children. As NPR reports, competitions in game stores can sport players aged 8 to 38.
If it looks as though Pokémania has died out, that's only because we've acclimated ourselves to it. In truth, these Japanese pocket monsters have become a much a part of American life as cowboys, Superman, and Mickey Mouse.
Here's to another 20 years and the next generation of Pokémon trainers!
- How Pokémon GO Improves Our Experience of the Real World ›
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- What Is Nintendo's New Augmented Reality Game 'Pokémon Go'? ›
Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET on Monday as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.
A vertical map might better represent a world dominated by China and determined by shipping routes across the iceless Arctic.
- Europe has dominated cartography for so long that its central place on the world map seems normal.
- However, as the economic centre of gravity shifts east and the climate warms up, tomorrow's map may be very different.
- Focusing on both China and Arctic shipping lanes, this vertical representation could be the world map of the future.
The world, but not as we know it<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg1NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTkwMjIyNn0.qmQfwUdjQka8JX6q4KGANagleiuucpWay5ytMenZxUU/img.jpg?width=980" id="b95e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ac088ec55c0585a93a9a310faab9a4c7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A Chinese 'vertical world map,' showing the world in a different perspective from the one we're used to.
Image: Prior Probability<p>Europe is tucked away in a corner, an appendage of Asia dwarfed by neighboring Africa. North America is stood on its head, facing the rest of the world from the top of the map — cut off from South America, which cuts a solitary figure at the bottom. Africa is justifiably huge, but equally eccentric. </p><p>The eye scouts elsewhere for a place to land: not the Indian Ocean, which dominates the middle of the map, but some terra firma. Antarctica and Australia are too small, mere stepping stones for the land mass of Asia. Ultimately our gaze is drawn toward China, the lynchpin of this unfamiliar world. </p><p>Managing to leave both poles intact, this "vertical" world map is about as far away as you can get from the classic Mercator projection – which slices up both, giving center stage to a puffed-up Europe. Perhaps this new map will become more familiar soon: It may do more justice to the world of the near future, dominated by China and determined by shipping routes across the iceless Arctic. <br></p>
China's 'ten-dash line'<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg1Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTI4MzQyNn0.sBe0oFTif4Jef1vWh1kAnUylU_QMPXT5xQjm-5aA3sA/img.jpg?width=980" id="a3b81" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="80fc6e4f5c9c1c978f698be2c8de5484" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
'China without any part left out': includes Taiwan and the islands and atolls in the South China Sea, surrounded by a ten-dash line
Image: Global Times<p>While there's no indication that this map represents the Chinese government's "official" worldview, it is no secret that China has a thing with maps – and more specifically, the country's representation on them. </p><p>In China, the country's current economic success is seen as a redress of the unequal treatment meted out by western superpowers in the 19th century. China's world dominance is a return to a more natural state of world affairs, many feel. Cartographic rectifications are a symbolically significant corollary of that sentiment.</p><p><a href="https://www.citylab.com/equity/2015/12/china-cracks-down-on-politcally-incorrect-maps/421032/" target="_blank">Fines are regularly imposed</a> on companies – domestic and foreign – that fail to represent China to the fullest extent of its external borders, disputed though they may be by others (e.g. India, Taiwan and any of the countries with claims overlapping China's in the South China Sea). But the People's Republic's cartographic obsession doesn't end at China's territory itself. It also includes the country's position on the world map. <br></p>
The Kingdom at the Middle of the World<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTkwODEzMX0.SGrAZBH6iJVggFYSaIahzv9GvfEh17y1SwUNINbVicQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="1774c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="99790d80a909d17a948f7c5d463d7d98" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Early Japanese color copy of Ricci's world map
Image: public domain<p>China's name for itself is <em>Zhōngguó</em>, which means 'Central State' or 'Middle Kingdom', reflecting its ancient self-image as the civilized center (<em>Huá</em>) of the world, with wild tribes (<em>Yí</em>) at the edge. That view is not unique to China. Vietnam, for example, at certain times also styled itself as the "central state" (<em>Trung Quóc</em>) – considering the Chinese in turn as the uncouth outsiders.</p><p>It may be surprising to recall, but Europeans themselves once considered their own continent a relative backwater, viewing Jerusalem as the true center of the world. That changed with the Age of Discovery, which placed Europe at the center of an ever-expanding world. Maps reflected that worldview, and largely continue to do so. That's why today's standard world map still has Europe at its center – with China off toward the periphery on the map's right-hand side. </p><p>The most notable feature of the very first major modern world map produced in China, the <em>Kunyu Wanguo Quantu</em> (1602), is that it places China firmly at the center of the world. Produced for the Chinese emperor by Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, it was the first map ever to combine that perspective with modern western knowledge: it was the first Chinese map to show the Americas, for instance. </p><p>That representation may not have taken off elsewhere, but it will be instantly recognizable to Chinese students, as it's the standard format for world maps in China's schools today.<br></p>
America on its head<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwMzQ5NTc0MH0.EqadI2Yp-2dPwi3VccFZelIDK4V9t0ZOfTfHjdB6wVw/img.jpg?width=980" id="97104" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2b66e8de389b3d736bc28e019e445cd0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Upside down you turn me: North America on its head, in Chinese characters
Image: Prior Probability<p>For those used to "classic" Eurocentric world maps, Europe's marginalization may come across as a bit of an upset. America's new position on the horizontal Chinese world map is less jarring: It merely moves from the left- to the right-hand side of the picture. But then there's this vertical world map, which deals a similar blow to the American land mass: divided in two and pushed to the upper and lower edges of the map.</p><p>Unfamiliar? Sure. Shocking? Perhaps. Wrong? Not really. First off, no world map is totally right, since it's mathematically impossible to transfer the surface of a three-dimensional object onto a flat surface without some distortion. And since the world is a globe, where you center that map is a matter of purely subjective choice.<br></p><p>Those choices have historical reasons. Mercator's map was not specifically designed to put an inflated Europe at the center of the world. That was just a side effect; its main purpose was to aid shipping: Straight lines on the map correspond to straight lines sailed on the seas.</p>
By 2050, a completely melted Arctic could enable the Transpolar Passage, shortening trade routes between Asia and Europe and boosting business for Alaskan ports like Nome and Dutch Harbor.
Image: The Maritime Executive<p>The vertical world map, showing the relative proximity of China (and the rest of Asia) to Europe and (even the East Coast of) North America, has a similarly maritime <em>raison d'être</em>, or it will have by mid-century. <a href="https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/the-arctic-shipping-route-no-one-s-talking-about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Experts project</a> that by 2050 (if not sooner), the Arctic will be sufficiently ice-free to enable the so-called Transpolar Passage, i.e. shipping straight across the North Pole. </p><p>That would shave more than three weeks off a traditional sea voyage between Europe and Asia, via the Suez Canal – and even be significantly faster than other northern alternatives like the Northwest Passage (via Canada) or the Northern Sea Route (hugging the Siberian coast). Since ships would not need to go through locks or pass over shallow waters, it would also remove current restrictions on tonnage per ship. <br></p><p>The only country seriously preparing for such a future: China. None of the other Arctic powers is giving the Transpolar route any strategic thought. On the other hand, China's Arctic Policy document, released in January 2018, already matter-of-factly refers to the Transpolar route as the 'Central Passage' – one of several 'Polar Silk Roads' that China seems to want to develop. And they already have the world map to go with it.</p>
The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.
Cool hand rebuke<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyMTIyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjY1NTYyOH0.0MCPKN3If94mYCNf3mMNrnTvJXjXN_bKLhgk9203EXk/img.jpg?width=917&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=453" id="1627b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6d76421ba1ea0de4b09956b97e80c384" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A chart showing prison population rates (per 100,000 people) in 2018. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Who profits with for-profit prisons?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="97ac37e6c7f6f22ec130ea2d56871701"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dB78NV2WpWc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The Labour Economics study suggests that privately-run prisons do convicts a few favors at the moment of sentencing. However, proponents of private prisons often point to other benefits when making their case. Specifically, they argue that private prisons reduce operating costs, stimulate innovation in the correctional system, and reduce recidivism—the rate at which released prisoners are rearrested and return to prison.</p><p>In regard to recidivism, the research is mixed. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank">One study</a> compared roughly 400 former prisoners from Florida, 200 released from private prisons and 200 from state-run facilities. It found the private-prison cohort maintained lower rates of recidivism. However, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1745-9133.2005.00006.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">another Florida study</a> found no significant rate differences. And two other studies—one from <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Oklahoma</a> and another out of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0734016813478823" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Minnesota</a>, both comparing much larger cohorts than the first Florida study— found that prisoners leaving private prisons had a greater risk of recidivism.</p><p>The research is also inconclusive regarding cost savings. <a href="https://www.hamiltonproject.org/assets/files/economics_of_private_prisons.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A Hamilton Project analysis</a> noted that such comparisons are difficult because private prisons, like all private companies, are not required to release operational details. In comparing what studies were available, the authors estimate the costs to be comparable and that "in practice the primary mechanism for cost saving in private prisons is lower salaries for correctional officers"—about $7,000 less than their public peers. They add that competition-driven innovation is lacking as the three largest firms control nearly the entire market.</p><p>"We aren't saying private prisons are bad," Galinato said. "But states need to be careful with them. If your state has previous and regular issues with corruption, I wouldn't be surprised to see laws being more skewed to give longer sentences, for example. If the goal is to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals, increasing the number of private prisons may not be the way to go."</p>
What exactly does "questions are the new answers" mean?
- Traditionally, intelligence has been viewed as having all the answers. When it comes to being innovative and forward-thinking, it turns out that being able to ask the right questions is an equally valuable skill.
- The difference between the right and wrong questions is not simply in the level of difficulty. In this video, geobiologist Hope Jahren, journalist Warren Berger, experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, and investor Tim Ferriss discuss the power of creativity and the merit in asking naive and even "dumb" questions.
- "Very often the dumb question that is sitting right there that no one seems to be asking is the smartest question you can ask," Ferriss says, adding that "not only is it the smartest, most incisive, but if you want to ask it and you're reasonably smart, I guarantee you there are other people who want to ask it but are just embarrassed to do so."