Saturday, April 2, 2011

One Pokémon to Rule Them All

As I throw a playing card marked "Mamoswine" onto the floor, Benny just laughs.
"Are you kidding?" he says, the 7-year-old boy mocking his father. "He's so weak."
Benny slaps one of his cards alongside Mamoswine, a cross between a walrus and a tick that looks like it's been caught in a snowstorm. Or is it Wilford Brimley?
"That was too easy," he says.
"Whoa — wait a minute, ringmaster," I say. "How so? How does Magmortar beat Mamoswine?"
The time has come. I want to know. I want him to know that I am onto his little game.
"Magmortar has 130 life, Daddy," he says.
"But Mamoswine has 140," I retort, with the confidence that my logic surely will pull the curtain back on his charade.
Without a blink of an eye, he asks, "What's 130 minus 70?"
"It's 60 — just like 13 minus 7, but put a zero on the end."
"Oh," he says. "Yeah, Magmortar wins."
Sure, he may have wiggled out this time, but I'm working my way inside the world of Pokémon, like a CIA agent infiltrating the KGB. I'm learning their language, their ways, their code for moving messages back and forth.
Pokémon — is the plural form "Pokémen"? — is a game developed by Nintendo about 15 years ago. A Romanized contraction of the Japanese brand Pocket Monsters, according to Wikipedia, it has been commercialized in video games, playing cards, toys, books and movies.
But, really, this isn't some cutesy card game. Don't let their "rules" — "this one has lightning power, but the other one only has a water defense" — disarm you. They know that adults will chalk up Pokémon talk to just another phase when kids learn socialization skills or some other psycho-social babble.
I know the truth: These kids are out to take over the world, one Pokémon card at a time.
They build up huge collections of these cards, with print so fine that it induces migraines in adults that try to decode it. Seemingly innocuous trades are made, back and forth — Kricketot for Geodude, for example — but it's really a trade of information. About what? I don't know yet, but give me time. Deciphering is a slow process.
How else can you explain that Venonat would beat Kingdra? It makes no sense to the undiscerning eye.
Yet these first-grade Saurons make it look so academic, so easy. All the while they make adults untrained in the language of Pokémon believe that it's all so childlike.
"I know about you and your people," I tell Benny.
He glances up at me, his blue eyes twinkling with mock 7-year-old innocence. "What, Daddy?"
I move slowly.
"I know about your 'cards,' your people, your plans for world domination, what it means to have 130 hp" — actually, I don't, but why should he know — "and I can put an end to it."
"Oh, Daddy!" he says. "You're funny."
Yeah, we'll see who has the last laugh, my friend.