I’m gonna assume that all of you have played Pokemon at some point. And unless you are some form of extraterrestrial life masquerading as a human, I’m gonna assume that you fucking loved it. The thing about Pokemon that made it so universally appealing was that it dealt with real human emotions portrayed through a medium of children’s fiction. Pokemon could take some of the most complicated issues we face today like racism, sexism, and bullying and emulate them in a fun, engaging environment that encouraged you to keep an open mind and learn from them. And what’s key to that is the fact that Pokemon managed to maintain the utmost quality and consistency while never compromising on the values it tried to teach. And I argue that these values that we learned at such a young age from that oh-so self-identifiable Ash Ketchum were so invaluable, that they should be enough to get us all into college.
Let me begin by quoting Helen Vendler, former admissions officer of some small, virtually unknown college (by the name of Harvard if you’re interested):
“The truth is that many future poets, novelists, and screenwriters are not likely to be straight-A students, either in high school or in college. The arts through which they will discover themselves prize creativity, originality, and intensity above academic performance; they value introspection above extroversion, insight above rote learning. Yet such unusual students may be, in the long run, the graduates of whom we will be most proud. Do we have room for the reflective introvert as well as for the future leader? Will we enjoy the student who manages to do respectably but not brilliantly in all her subjects but one—but at that one surpasses all her companions?”
I’ve found that both the smart and the stupid enjoyed Pokemon – intellect really didn’t play a part in how appealing Pokemon was because it taught you real life-lessons, not useless book knowledge that had to be beaten into your head through years of taking Social Sciences (seriously, do you remember what that class was? did you learn anything useful that will help you when you show up clueless at your first day of work?). And these lessons shaped the exact individual Ms. Vendler is looking for:
Her first characterization of the “graduates of whom we [may be] be most proud” is that we “prize creativity, originality, and intensity above academic performance.” Here’s how I see this as a perfect application of Pokemon. Academic performance in Pokemon translates almost perfectly into game completion. You finish the game. It’s over, the story ends. We all want to beat the game as fast as possible, that’s a fact and you know it. Remember the first night you got the game? You played it for hours, and hours, and you kept it hidden under the covers so that you parents wouldn’t tell you to sleep. You never did finish it that night, but you did that weekend, and you couldn’t wait to tell all your friends - but that was only momentary pride. If that, just like academic success, was all that mattered – to tell people that I’ve finished the game and to tell them that you got an A in every paper along the way – then life wouldn’t fundamentally be what it is. You played Pokemon for the after game, for when the journey through the tests was over and now the world was open for you to explore and make your own. You went back and beat all the trainers you avoided because you’re starter was too low on health. You went back and trained that god-dammed Magikarp for hours so that you could get a ridiculously powerful Gyarados. You went back and did all the cool and creative things that made you, and often only you, happy (I swear the day I finally got my Dragonair to lv. 55 was the happiest day of my life). The same way you can now go back and enjoy all the pleasures of real human interaction that were inaccessible by the rigid protocol of the education system. Pokemon taught us to understand that the ecstasy and joy in life emerges after the slog has been conquered. Understand that the pain of defeat and the incessant obstacles will always try to slow us down, but that when we can look beyond the rules and the order, we can find true happiness.
Ms. Vendler goes on to speculate about how we ought to value “introspection above extroversion.” Pokemon absolutely fosters introspection purely through its dynamics. The world around you is static, cutscene events are planned, and you are playing with that same little red dude that every other 7 year old is controlling. The game is finite; there are only so many outcomes that can happen. You might be wondering what this has to do with introspection, but let me blow your mind just a little bit. Notice that the only character in the game that has no dialogue is you. Your character never expresses any emotions. Never tells his rival to bugger off because he’s a prick. Never tells Lance how ridiculously cool he looks. He just is. But his stagnant continuity does something absolutely incredible. It challenges you, the gamer, to discover your own feelings. It asks you to look at every possible situation and come up with your own genuine thought. Some might show no remorse over ruthlessly toppling Gary off his newfound throne as Elite 4 Champion. But I swear I felt a pang of sympathy and guilt as I watched him flounder at the reason for his incompetence
Don’t you know what it feels like to know that you are absolutely better than someone – that you have trained and worked and stressed yourself more than they ever had- but that it seems like fate will always bring them out on top? Gary is fated to lose. The game will only be complete upon his demise. And if I were a pure extrovert, unwilling to look within myself, I would have no reason to contemplate the grim finality of that statement. I would only see the ignorant asshole in front of me and laugh as I stroll up to my rightful throne as King of Pokemon. But the game has made me think about struggle and hardship. How many times did I have to try to beat Misty with her stupid Starmie and fail because I had chosen a Charmander to start with? How many times did I bang my head over my inability to not get murdered by even Gary himself? My failure in the game taught me to look within myself for a solution or an answer to a problem. I had to train a Pikachu to beat Misty, and I finally understood the proper order in which I had to sacrifice my Pokemon in order to revive one of my fainted ones to beat Gary. But I then found myself identifying with a fallen jerk because I shared his helplessness and despair of our own insufficiencies. The game didn’t require me to have this thought development. It was just such a perfect channel through which I could use my own fledgling emotions and reflections to understand and appreciate both the virtual playground that amused me, and the complicated world that surrounded me. At the same time it also taught me how to be an extrovert – to prod and poke at my surroundings until I could discover the aforementioned consciousness.
I just want to take a moment to note that I do know that what Ms. Vendler is saying is not that these are the ideal characteristics that colleges are looking for , but I’m sure she would agree that these are definitely qualities that would make for an especially conscious and thoughtful student. She poses the question of whether we have space for students who exhibit introversion and also those who are fierce leaders, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Enough digression, back to the rant…
The final facet of character that she highlights is the ability to value insight above rote learning. Honestly if you have ever played Pokemon, you could write this paragraph without any of my help – its just so evident where the connections lie. Pokemon was all about insight and intuition. Remember the first time you stepped into that dark cave and you couldn’t see for shit? This was back when we couldn’t just Google a walkthrough, we actually had to go buy a book that explained how to beat the game (and let’s face it our parents would never buy us those). At least I know that I stumbled around for hours, asking away at all those motionless figures for the answer to my question. If the game didn’t require me to think about my surroundings, I could have just walked straight through – but no, I had to apply myself and discover. Remember the first time you went through Victory Road? You saw all those boulders you had to move with Strength, but at first you had no frickin clue what to do. But you also saw all these giant holes in the ground. So you used your natural insight, which had been honed by the entirety of the game leading up to these final challenges, to find out that if you pushed the boulders in just the right way into the correct holes, you could open up paths that were inaccessible to you before.
And isn’t that what education should really be about? When you are a manager at a company in Dallas, you aren’t going to be able to use the Quadratic Formula to figure out why your profits are going down the drain. You have to show a refined ability to look at a problem in front of you and trust in your own intuition to finagle and fiddle until the answer is unlocked. And Pokemon taught you to do just that.
And to your final question, Ms. Vendler, is there enough space for both the introvert and the leader, my answer is no. There isn’t space. Because nowadays, with the arrival of the internet and the exposure that we get from such a young age to moral and physical dilemmas, we cannot look at our future in terms of Black and White (coincidentally the first Pokemon games I never played). Because today, the crème of the crop, the ones who will really make a difference in the world, know that we don’t have to restrict ourselves to any labels or classifications. Pokemon taught me to be a strong leader, but it also taught me how to be a noble leader. If I neglected to train one of my followers in the beginning of the game, I would see by the end that I was woefully unprepared to face the toughest challenges. It taught me that I need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of all of my followers, and that when the time comes, how to make the difficult decisions. Maybe the reason why we keep hearing about how the college pool has never been so competitive because the generation of Pokemon is now reaching the age of adulthood. Perhaps Pokemon has done enough for our society that our future politicians will be able to take a good hard look at themselves and realize that the only path to success depends upon trust and teamwork, and a strong belief that hate and bigotry only serve to dull the wonders of life. But why listen to me, I’m just a teenager who with all his heart wishes that he could just go back to the day when he bought his first Pokemon game and relive the excitement and awe that it inspired within him just one, final time.
So yes, if you played Pokemon and feel like it changed you, you deserve to be in any institution you want. And if you are wondering, my favorite pokemon was definitely Golem(on).