Here's a fact about me few people know: I spent most of 1999 kicking the asses of teenage boys and grown men in Pokemon, the official trading card game.
Pokemon's importance to me as a means of developing my self-confidence, learning how to exist and thrive in male-dominated spaces, and helping me survive my godawful preteen years is something I've only come to realize in the last few years, and the 20th anniversary of Pokemon has me thinking about it more than ever.
Pokemon's impact on me is significant — maybe not more significant than the days I spent crafting perilous scenarios for my Barbies to escape, but certainly more significant than my fleeting obsessions with Batman & Robin or Polly Pocket. Pokemon has stayed with me longer than any other childhoood fad; at 26, I still have have a few holographic Japanese Pokemon cards, and a handful of tiny Pokefigures hanging around my desk.
I first became aware of Pokemon — Nintendo/Game Freak's empire of video games, toys, and various tabletop games that let players find, capture, train, and battle hundreds of creatures in what what boils down to a more adorable, less violent version of dogfighting — in third grade, when it invaded my elementary school in Ohio with relentless force. One day, it was as if all the dudes in my class had become obsessed with one thing and one thing only: catching 'em all. You can't help but admire the killer economic strategy of the brand. What better way to ensure brand loyalty than to dangle the completist carrot to kids?
As the resident Smart Girl/Weird Girl/Fat Girl in my class, I always struggled to balance my love for traditionally male toys with my femme interests. I had a small posse of female friends at school, and they were great about embracing my interests up to a point, but I couldn't help but find myself more interested in whatever the boys were doing most of the time, and Pokemon was no exception.
Like Pogs and Beanie Babies, there was an infinite number of Pokemon collectables available (like the Pikachu stapler that still lives on my desk), and there was legitimately something for everyone. While the initial Pokemon games for Gameboy could only be steered by a male avatar, within the first 151 Pokemon and in every new generation of Pokemon since, there were a number of pocket monsters that were clearly created to appeal to young women: the pink puffball, Jigglypuff, her fairy counterpart, Clefairy, the lucky chicken, Chansey. And, as new iterations of the game were developed, Pokemon creators Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori smartly included male and female versions of most Pokemon with variant looks for each gender, as well as genderless Pokemon. Big bad fire dragon Charizard, the most coveted Pokemon of every obsessed eight-year old in 1999, can be a lady now, too.
Nintendo's marketing of Pokemon as being gender-neutral and inclusive (in addition to the actual Pokemon, the series has always featured women and people of color in empowered roles) certainly worked on me. Jigglypuff drew me in, but as I got more into the brand, I found that I could love Hitmonchan with equal fervor. At the time of my initial interest in Pokemon, the first two iterations of the Gameboy game had come out in North America, but the trading card game had yet to be released.
Sometime during the late spring of 1999, I came home from school to find my dad — a longtime Magic: The Gathering player, who had recently weathered the Beanie Baby craze with me — with a few starter decks of the Pokemon Trading Card Game (TCG) spread out on our dining room table. We were fairly into board games as a family, and I'd seen my dad play Magic, so the game's mechanics were easy for me to pick up.
In the TCG, each player has a deck filled with Pokemon, energy cards, and trainers. The object of the game is to use your Pokemon to defeat the other player's team of six Pokemon by powering them with energy cards, which charge the Pokemon's attacks, or to disrupt their strategy by using trainer cards, which can make the other player do things like discard their entire hand or allow you to search your own deck for a card. The first player to "faint" all six of their opponent's Pokemon wins.
Unlike other trading card games, the gameplay of Pokemon can be learned within an afternoon. I was pretty much hooked from then on, and my dad built me my own deck : a standard Haymaker that relied on basic Pokemon — Hitmonchan, Scyther and Electabuzz — that didn't need to evolve, and used trainer cards to gain advantage over the other player.
After a few demos from my dad, I began testing my deck during a glorious period of about two weeks towards the end of the school year when we were allowed to play Pokemon during recess, before the cards were banned from my school. This time spent beta-testing my deck against the boys in my class gave me some essential confidence; at nine, I already had B-cup breasts and was taller and fatter than anyone in my class, making me an automatic outsider. My peers had started developing crushes on each other, and I certainly wasn't included in any of those romances; but Pokemon allowed me to spend time with the opposite sex without fear of rejection or judgment. And I was killing it with my Haymaker deck. I couldn't force the boys in my class to have crushes on me, but I could crush them in Pokemon.
That summer, my dad asked me if I might want to start playing Pokemon competitively at one of his regular comic book shops. We had always been very close, especially because he always accepted my interest in more traditionally masculine toys without batting an eye, and now, Pokemon was our Exclusive Saturday Thing. My first trip to Comics Central (RIP) with him was mind-blowing for me — totally uncharted territory. The purple-painted store was packed with boys and men of all ages going bananas for what my dad and others called "cardboard crack." I can only remember one other girl being around during the Pokecraze, but she was older than me and found that her own brand of success came via chess. Instead of intimidating me, being surrounded by men gave me that same sense of pride experienced by women in male-dominated fields everywhere: if I was going to be the only girl, I was going to prove to them that I deserved to be there.
I don't remember the exact details of my first game of Pokemon against a real opponent, a boy close to my age, but I do remember that I won, and that I loved winning. I think I ended up winning most of my matches that day, which made my dad very proud. He'd often suggested that I try basketball, but I bristled against any physical activity, lest I be shamed for being fat and more awkward than other players. But Pokemon allowed me to do something competitive that required no physical activity and made my dad immensely proud, especially since I was representing women in a room full of boys, something he always encouraged me to do.
Comics Central was owned by a married couple, Dee and LB, who I loved from the start. LB lined the walls of Comics Central with her massive collection of the most glamourous black Barbies, a great bit of subversive counterprogramming for the store's male patrons. Dee, one of the kindest dudes I've ever met, offered young Pokefanatics breaks on cards or free sodas regularly. Dee and LB didn't have any kids of their own, so they made Comics Central into an ultracool living room for nerdy kids from all over Cincinnati. This familial vibe is another reason I was never intimidated by jumping into such a male-dominated world.
That August, Comics Central held a city-wide Pokemon tournament at a Cincinnati mall: first prize was a complete set of first-edition Pokemon cards, which was worth upwards of $500 at the time, so the tournament attracted hundreds of players. I was used to being the only girl at Comics Central by now, but even at a city-wide tournament, I was one of maybe 10 girls and women in attendance; but the men in the Pokemon community never made me feel strange for liking the game as much as they did. This could've been due to the fact that my dad is a well-respected presence within the gaming community of Cincinnati, or because I was something of an adorable curiosity (until I beat them), but no man in the world of Pokemon ever did anything untoward to me or made me feel bad about how I looked or how I played. I was just beginning my terribly awkward phase around the time I got really into Pokemon, and knowing that I was free to be me within that world — something that wasn't the case with my peers — was immensely liberating and empowering.
I was nervous going into a such a big tournament where my prowess would be tested not just within the bubble of Comics Central, but against real, competitive players of the game.
My first match was against a guy in his 20s playing a popular Psychic-type deck. I beat him within a few turns.
My second match was against a kid my own age. He had a multicolor deck that relied on two of the game's flashiest cards, Charizard and Venosaur, so I beat him too.
My third match was against, oddly enough, a mom who had gotten into the game along with her sons, and she was actually breastfeeding during our match — something she was able to do without strange looks from other players. I won that match, too.
We headed into the fourth semi-final round, and I was one of 30-odd undefeated players out of the 200 or so that had begun the day. I made a silly mistake with a trainer card in my fourth match against a teenage boy I didn't know, which almost cost me the game, but I recovered and won.
I finally lost during my fifth match, against a Fighting-type deck from a twenty-something guy I remember as being very fussy about his cards, but with one loss, I was still pretty high on the list of contenders for that day. The final round came down to time, so even though I didn't officially win that one, I was far enough ahead that I took the victory on a technicality.
Dee worked on tabulating the results, and for a few agonizing minutes, I thought I'd come in somewhere around eighth place. But when the results were posted, I'd come in second. A random kid nobody knew had won, so despite the fact that I didn't take home a complete set of first-edition cards, I took home a whole box of cards (36 packs) and had become sort of a new mascot for Comics Central. My dad was incredibly chuffed, and I was, too — at nine, Pokemon allowed me to dominate a room full of boys and men.
I started frequenting Pokemon events at my local rec center and again, surrounded by boys, I was the coolest person in the room thanks to a binder filled with rare cards my dad had obtained, like Surfing Pikachu, and to excellent bargaining tactics when it came to trading cards, which I learned from my dad. I'm forever grateful for his practical advice on how to negotiate the world, especially when it comes to dealing with men.
I've been blessed/cursed with the collection bug from him, too, and I can still remember the tactile joys of collecting Pokemon cards: feeling out foils in sealed packs, the tedious but intensely satisfying work of putting cards in binders or protective sleeves, and organizing, organizing, organizing. By the time I went back to school for fourth grade, I was hot shit and I knew it: I would never be the prettiest or most charming girl in my class, but I had an incredible collection of Pokemon cards and was great at the game — something that was actually impressive to the boys in my class.
But puberty waits for no woman, and something else was on the horizon for me during fourth grade: my period. In addition to now having to stuff super maxi pads in my pockets, I was, of course, now into boys in a way I'd never been before. Most of the dudes in my class were dweebs, but I got very interested in Mark, a fellow Pokemon fan and total fourth-grade fox who lived up the street from me. By now, most of the boys in my class tolerated me thanks to my Pokemon skills, but Mark sort of seemed to like me back, which was shocking.
He'd come over after school sometimes to watch the Pokemon show and play the card game, even though I always won. When Pokemon: The First Movie came out, our moms let us go to the movie by ourselves. We played footsie while Ash and Pikachu battled Mewtwo, but that was it... at least until our classmates learned that we'd seen a movie (together! alone!) and we were both ridiculed endlessly for it.
Mark didn't let being associated with the weird fat girl keep him from continuing to hang out with me, at least at first. Later that fall, we were raking leaves in my backyard, and Mark was doing an imitation of Bulbasaur in the leaves. Another classmate, Kevin, called to ask about some project and overhead Mark doing his best Bulbasaur. The next day at school, Kevin started calling Mark, "Katie's Bulbasaur," and that was it for our fleeting fourth grade non-romance.
Mark was small potatoes next to my new crush, a Comics Central fixture named Alex who could've been Jonathan Taylor Thomas's younger brother. Alex was a few years older than me, and one of the few players that I thought could beat me in a fair fight, which is probably why I was so into him. I found any excuse I could to talk about different cards or whatever with him, blushing the whole time. I also found myself starting to feel attracted to some of the older guys who hung around Comics Central, but in a way I didn't quite understand yet. As an only child raised on cable television, I was certainly aware of sex, but I wasn't thinking about having sex with anyone yet, though I knew I wanted something else out of these crushes than what I felt for Mark or Alex.
My crush on Alex resolved itself thanks to the card game, of course. Comics Central held another city-wide tournament that fall, and while I was still sticking with my Haymaker deck, Alex had a new Psychic-type deck that was making waves as being fairly unbeatable. Of course, Alex and I ended up paired together in the second round, and I was petrified. I was definitely going to lose to my #1 crush, and on my own turf. My dad usually watched my matches and even he knew I was in for a tough fight, but he remained confident in me as I sat down for the match.
But thanks to a combination of good luck and the strength of my deck, I beat Alex on the very first turn, a rare occurrence in the game. My dad let a "HOLY SHIT" fly in a room full of children, and I was on top of the world.
Of course, in my fantasy scenario, me beating Alex would've earned his undying respect and affection, but competitive victory over my crush was nearly as sweet. I ended up second in that tournament, too, and lost interest in Alex soon after, especially after seeing Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You and understanding what legitimate sexual attraction felt like.
I kept playing Pokemon for most of my fourth-grade year, but after that second big tournament near-win, the appeal had started to wane. This was also due to the fact that I'd recently beaten Pokemon Yellow on Gameboy and gotten the mythical Mew, a true feat, but one that signaled completion of the game. The trading card game also started becoming more dominated by adult players who were just too skilled for most kids to beat, and who, thanks to the growing Pokemon community online, were coming up with unstoppable decks. I stuck around for a bit longer, but I was pretty much out by the fall of 2000.
I stayed weird throughout middle school and high school, and the lessons from being the lone female in the world of Pokemon served me well as I gradually made peace with being the outsider. Instead of Pokemon, I now bonded with boys in my class over classic rock and horror movies, but I remained a nonentity romantically. Of course, I wanted to get asked to homecoming in a dorky way, too, but because I was an afterthought romantically, I was able to become friends with many of my male peers due to my interesting taste, academic tenacity, and unwillingness to conform. This was its own sort of consolation prize, and I maintain many of those friendships to this day. Bulbasaur Mark didn't acknowledge my existence beyond elementary school, but I had new crushes on strange, smart boys to keep me occupied.
Pokemon continued to grow in popularity even if I wasn't keeping up with it, but soon after getting my first full-time job, a friend showed me how cute the new starter Pokemon were, and I realized I could buy a 3DS and Pokemon X. The game is every bit as fun as when I left it; I've played a few of the recent iterations of Pokemon now, and while it certainly isn't as all-consuming as it once was in my life, it's become one of my favorite ways to relax as an adult.
While the ever-churning nostalgia machine hardly lets us forget about anything, it is strange for me to think about Pokemon turning 20. My dad recently called me to talk about the Super Bowl commercial that celebrates 20 years of Pokemon and encourages new players to give the game a whirl, and I it's a great example of why the brand has endured for this long; sure, the collectable, cash-generating aspect of introducing new Pokemon (there are now over 700) is evergreen, but the game has always had an appeal that crosses gender, race, and class lines. Pokemon has always been reasonably affordable, and the game's creators have fully embraced the wide array of Pokemon fans. As a playable female character, you can now carry Pokemon in your purse, how fucking cool is that?!
Surviving that unbearable period between 10 and 15 would've been significantly harder for me without the confidence I gained from playing and winning at Pokemon. Thriving in the overwhelmingly male world of Pokemon helped me understand male psychology from an early age, and I'm thankful that Pokemon lessened the intimidation factor. It certainly served me well throughout film school and continues to inform my work in the film industry. I never had to apologize for who I am and what I liked when I was playing Pokemon.
I did finally catch them all, by the way, as a 25 year-old woman. I spent a few weeks last fall with my nose stuck in Pokemon Rumble, a game that lets you catch every single Pokemon in an easy, addictive interface. Ten-year-old me would be immensely proud of mid-20s me, and for more reasons than my return to Pokemon. And now, there's talk of a re-release of the original set of Pokemon trading cards. This release is definitely happening in Japan, but there's no word yet on a US release. I haven't played a game of Pokemon in 15 years, but if that re-release happens, I might just have to pick up a few packs.