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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2023


“Psst. Hey, kid. I’ll give you 20 bucks for three of those packs of Pokemon cards,” I whispered. “Twenty-five bucks,” countered a nosy D.C. lawyer as he clung to his 6-year-old daughter. I was positioned about 50th in line at the Games People Play toy store on a Saturday afternoon in Tysons Corner Mall and jealously eyeing the packs of cards this boy had just purchased. His mother steered him quickly away from me as if I was some kind of child molester. Alas, my pitiful attempt at freelance congestion pricing was foiled. An irritated 40-something woman behind us regularly broke the monotony by lecturing her daughter: “Now Sarah, do you really want these cards that badly?” “Yes, mom. I really do.” My 7-year-old son Justin did not seem to mind that it would take us perhaps an hour to nudge up to the front of this queue of parents and giddy adolescents. He could only concentrate on the spectacular prize that awaited him in less than 30 minutes. As we waited, I tried to explain to him one of life’s important lessons, which is that the only two things in life worth waiting more than an hour for are, of course, Mick Jagger and the Pope. He wasn’t at all persuaded. Anyone who ranks the opening of the Star Wars prequel as the hottest event of the summer is not paying close attention to pop American culture. On this Saturday afternoon at the mall, Pokemon cards were being sold by the cartons as frantic parents worried that the shelves would run empty by the time they reached the cash register. (So this is what the Soviet Union was like.) Those who don’t have kids under the age of 9 mercifully may not have even heard of Pokemon. Those with kids know that Pokemon is a youth obsession unrivaled since, perhaps, Batman cards were all the rage 30 years ago. The company that is cashing in on this overnight craze is Wizards of the Coast Inc., which is sitting atop a capitalistic pot of gold. I remember the good old days when I was a juvenile delinquent and you could get 10 Topps baseball cards and a stick of pink bazooka gum for a dime. The price gougers at Wizards sell packs of 11 Pokemon cards (no gum) for $3! People actually wait in line to be bled in this way. And how is this for arrogance: At the checkout counter a sign says “limit four please” as if these were Springsteen tickets. Sociologists may be able to explain how a game or product like this becomes a national obsession. I surely can’t. All I know is that six months ago my 7-year-old son entered the strange world of Pokemon when my wife and I bought him a Gameboy computer and he slid-in the Pokemon cartridge. We have been cursing ourselves ever since. This hand-held machine has hijacked our son’s brain. Since mid-March, Justin has walked around with his head hunched down in a semi-trance staring at this gizmo in his hand almost oblivious to the rest of the world around him. Once upon a time, he was a straight-A student. I wish I could properly explain to you what Pokemon is exactly, or what the rules are. Let’s start with the obvious: The game has a cultish quality to it, much like the nerdy Dungeons and Dragons craze of the 1970s. There are all sorts of cartoon characters with bizarre-sounding names like Pikachu, Ratitate, Charmander, Koffing and evidently the Michael Jordan of Pokemon cards: Charizard. Each character has strange roles and “attack functions.” Justin has patiently tried to explain the intricate and tedious rules to me, but after about five minutes my eyes glaze over. I’m lost. But somehow first- and second-graders pick it up after only hundreds of hours of practice. Like most concerned parents, my wife and I would like to think that Pokemon is not entirely vapid, and that the game has at least some redeeming features. Perhaps the game helps develop skills and lessons valuable for later in life: imagination, hand-eye-coordination, the realization that there is good and evil in the world, and so on. Probably this is wishful thinking on our part. More likely, Pokemon is simply mindless, socially unproductive, but harmless fun for this generation of pre-teens. But come to think of it: 90 percent of the truly exhilarating and memorable things that I did when I was Justin’s age would fall into that category. My prediction is that in three months the Pokemon sensation will have faded like pet rocks, mood rings and, alas, Batman cards. And Justin will be left with a drawer full of 200 useless trading cards and comic books. He will soon forget the Pokemon phase of his life altogether and move on. But I won’t. For me, that $150 worth of merchandise will sit there forever an eternal reminder of the glorious and prosperous summer of ’99 when all we really had to worry about was getting to the front of the line at a crowded mall. Stephen Moore is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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