‘A world we must defend’

Pokémon, profiteering and the playground economy

Featured in

  • Published 20230801
  • ISBN: 978-1-922212-86-3
  • Extent: 196pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

I DID MY first deal in 1998 when I was just ten years old. There was no escaping it. The whispers around the schoolyard demanded you heed the peer pressure. Everyone knew it was wrong. There were school assemblies dedicated to making sure you knew that this sort of deviant behaviour wouldn’t be tolerated at Burleigh Heads State School. But it didn’t matter.

The night before the deal, I defied my parents’ orders, staying up until 4 am so I could meet an old man on the outskirts of the woods, where he gave me something to make me feel invincible. The only risk was that it might destroy me from the inside. Heck yeah, I thought. The opportunity to feel on top of the world in exchange for the small chance that it’d break me? I’ll take that wager. What have I got to lose? Please know that I was sleep deprived when this happened.

At school later that morning, I met my friend Martin outside the special education classroom and we headed behind the tuckshop to do the deal. I thought we were going to make a fair exchange. But then Martin dropped the bomb that his economic circumstances had changed and he could no longer follow through on the original plan.

‘So we’re calling it off?’ I asked in disappointment.

‘No,’ Martin said with defiance. ‘We’re taking it.’

I swallowed. ‘I don’t think–’

‘I’ve done this heaps of times. Just follow my lead.’

Martin was from the poorest part of the Gold Coast, where my cousins also lived. It was rough around there – I’d often hear stories of the petty crimes that kids would commit to raise their stock in life. When you’re already at the bottom, you can’t get lower.

I listened to his plan, nodding like a bobblehead on a car dashboard. My ethical qualms dissipated when I saw who came round the corner to do the trade with us: Canterbury, rugby jock and fifth-grade bully. We would be playing the role of karma. 

Martin and Canterbury started chatting while I kept my eyes open for any teachers. Canterbury pulled the goods out of his backpack to show Martin and then, as planned, Martin baited him. ‘And I get them all, right?’

‘What? No, you r3t@rd. I knew I shouldn’t have worked a deal with a fucking $p@$tic.’

Martin retaliated, pushing Canterbury and causing the goods to drop to the ground. Canterbury pushed back, but Martin tackled him and they started wrestling. As they tussled, I scooped up the scattered Pokémon cards and power-walked away to the library, where Martin would meet me later. When he finally arrived, his knees were scraped but his spirit was soaring. 

‘Detention. But Canterbury got sent home for bullying.’

We knew Martin would get off easy. He was a problem child, but kids in special ed got some leeway with these things. Special kids, special consequences. 

I’d already shuffled through the looted Pokémon cards and picked out what I wanted. Thankfully, there was only one card we both desired: a holographic Alakazam. As we bickered, an idea hit me.

‘Okay, how about this. Last night I figured out the MissingNo. glitch… If you give me Alakazam, I’ll teach it to you.’

‘No way, you didn’t.’ Martin laughed. ‘You spoke to the old man by the woods and then did the swimming thing? Did it corrupt your game?’

‘Spoke to the old man, watched him catch Weedle. Surfed and saw MissingNo., then glitch-multiplied my Rare Candy so I can level any Pokémon up to one hundred. Did it again to get multiple Masterballs. Only thing it corrupted was my Hall of Fame.’

Martin was shocked. I wasn’t usually the type to do shady things like take advantage of a video game glitch – especially one that could break my game file and force me to start Pokémon Red Version from scratch. He agreed to my proposal. 

Unfortunately, he wasn’t as lucky. The glitch corrupted his save file beyond repair and he was forced to delete his progress and begin anew. 

POKÉMON WOULD BECOME the defining franchise of millennial culture. With a hit portable video game, a collectable trading card game, more toys than a Delibird could carry in its sack and an anime series featuring characters that walked the line between cute and badass with the ease of a tightrope artist’s nepo baby, Pokémon was designed to be crack for kids. We took that Gotta Catch ’Em All catchphrase on board with vicious enthusiasm. 

As the franchise increased in popularity, schoolkids grew more distracted in class – sneakily trading cards behind teachers’ backs, playing the hit Game Boy game in unsupervised areas of the school grounds, whispering (in my case, trying to whisper but actually talking louder than most kids at their regular volume) about the newest happenings in the anime. It was becoming a problem.

Schools across Australia banned Pokémon in an attempt to regain control, but this only caused the franchise mania to intensify. Now Pokémon wasn’t just fun – it was also illegal, which meant it was dangerous, which meant trading cards on campus made you a risk-taker, which meant you were seen as fearless, which meant that you were dangerous. And with the trading element generating a student economy that could catapult a kid to the top of the social ladder based solely on their ownership of a shiny Charizard card, Pokémon outgrew its own demographic. Even the eleven- and twelve-year-old coolgirls at Burleigh Heads State School, who were mostly obsessed with blue-light discos and who was dating whom, had a small cache of cards that they could whip out to show that they were with it. The franchise – full of imaginative creatures and touting the power of friendship as its core narrative – had created a generation of rogues.

Pokémon could not be snuffed out. It indicated bravery for those who dared to circumvent the ban. It indicated dedication for those who fell deep into the franchise lore. And it indicated wealth and power for those who had the means to ‘catch ’em all’.

SMITHSONIAN HAD IT all. We were in the same class, and I thought of him as my rival: we were the two smallest kids in our grade. We were both fast runners. We both loved drawing – he was naturally talented and I was, well, enthusiastic. And we were both boys with long hair. The only difference was that I got bullied and called r3t@rd or f@##ot and he was very well liked. 

When Pokémon entered the school ecosystem, Smithsonian’s popularity skyrocketed. He was the first kid in our year level to ‘catch ’em all’ and he did it without having to make ridiculous trades like the rest of us. And he let us know about it, every single day. His family had money, so he had multiple binders and shoeboxes stacked with doubles of cards that a lot of us would’ve committed violence to get our hands on. When you’re young and naive, you don’t think about how wealth can affect something that feels as simple as Pokémon. 

Kids would grovel to Smithsonian and obey his every wish as he handed out cards as rewards to those who did his bidding. One day he gave a kid a double of his shiny Venusaur to slap my lunchbox out of my hands. The kid apologised to me later and offered me a couple of his doubles to stop me from dobbing on him. I wish I hadn’t accepted them – but getting cards was difficult when you came from a low-income family, so I took them with glee. Heck, I felt like I got a good deal. No lunch in exchange for Pokémon cards? Score!

Three of the other boys from the special ed program planned a heist against Smithsonian and asked me if I wanted in on it. I still felt guilty about stealing from Canterbury, so I opted out but promised not to tell anyone about the plan.

Smithsonian was distraught when his complete set binder was stolen. He sat on a semicircle of wooden benches that I had dubbed ‘the cool ring’ and cried. I hadn’t seen him cry before, and felt horrible until I caught a stray bullet while walking past him and his stooges.

‘I feel like a fucking loser like him,’ he said, looking straight at me.

Okay then, I felt less bad…but still kind of bad. I approached the band of thieves and told them that Smithsonian was a mess. I reaffirmed that I wouldn’t dob them in but kindly suggested they rethink their actions. In the end, they decided to give the binder back – but they kept all the cards. And then they gave the empty binder to me to give back to Smithsonian. Fark.

I had prepared and practised my speech: ‘I found it in the garden near our classroom and recognised it was yours.’

Smithsonian didn’t believe me, pushing me backwards into the bag rack and screaming abuse in my face. A teacher saw what was happening and sat us at opposite poles in the lunch quad, talking to each of us to figure out what had happened. 

Smithsonian claimed I was the thief. ‘He’s poor so of course he would steal from me. Jealousy!’ 

I maintained my innocence. ‘It would be pretty stupid of me to give back an empty binder if I was the one who stole it.’ 

The teacher believed me, but Smithsonian didn’t. Soon enough, he spread the word that I couldn’t be trusted. That I was a petty criminal from a poor family spurred on by jealousy. That I was pretty much the real-life equivalent of Team Rocket, the loserly trio of villains that plagued Ash and Pikachu. 

I was humiliated. In hindsight, I should’ve felt proud.

UNTIL RECENTLY, THE heroes of the Pokémon anime series – which has run for more than twenty-five years – were Ash Ketchum (Satoshi in Japan), a perpetually ten-year-old Pokémon trainer with a dream ‘to be the very best, like no one ever was’, and Pikachu, a small, yellow, electric mouse-type-thing. 

Ash came from humble beginnings. He was enthusiastic, optimistic and compassionate. And he had a gift for training talented Pokémon – with just a bit of assistance from his professor and travelling partners (who both came from renowned families that owned famous Pokémon gyms). If Ash failed to surmount an obstacle, someone was always willing to give him the tools to overcome it. If his Pokémon couldn’t beat an opponent, it would only take him twenty-two minutes to find and befriend one that could. Season after season, the anime delivered its core messageloud and proud: work hard and you can achieve anything.

In late 2022, after twenty-five years at the age of ten, Ash Ketchum conquered the Pokémon league and became world champion. Shortly afterwards, it was announced that Ash and Pikachu would be retiring from the anime. Online forums were awash with emotional millennials. Cries of ‘the end of childhood’ flooded Twitter and Reddit. Some described losing such a prominent character from our collective adolescence as the ‘final nailin the coffin’ of our connection to youth. But for me, something felt off.

When Pokémon started, Ash was on the same playing field as the original cohort of kids enraptured with him. As a spry ten-year-old, I looked up to him as a role model, believing I should also strive to be the best, follow the rules and have empathy for everyone I met. But years passed; I grew older and, like many kids, struggled with what life threw at me. Ash faced challenging times too, but he remained a ten-year-old with a bright future ahead of him, no matter what hardships he endured. 

Meanwhile, our cultural fixation with accumulating wealth grew and grew. If you had the means to grow your lot, you were a natural. If you didn’t have the means and grew it against the odds, you were an inspiration. If you couldn’t grow your lot – despite maybe taking the exact same steps that others did – you were a failure

Like my schoolyard rival, Smithsonian, Ash always had means.His wasn’t the failure-to-success story the anime wanted us to believe. 

In the real world, Pokémon had the power to elevate and diminish any child’s status in the schoolyard economy. Those of us who loved the magic and escapism of the fictional world, but didn’t have the privilege of wealth behind us, were doomed to be lesser Pokéfans no matter how much of ourselves we gave to the franchise.

In my (slightly) wiser adulthood, I’ve come to realise that the villainous Team Rocket characters were actually the more relatable. There’s the pink-haired leader, Jessie, who lost her mother at a young age and grew up poor while failing her way through Pokémon nurse and training school. Purple-haired exiled rich boy James, who ran away from his wealth after being set up in an arranged marriage. And Meowth, the only Pokémon that can speak humanlanguage non-telepathically – which he learns through hard work to impress a girl-Meowth, who quickly calls him a freak and tells him to fuck off (my words, not hers). 

Every episode that Team Rocket appears in ends with their abject failure as they follow the formula their job demands – attempt to obtain powerful Pokémon (via any means necessary), only for the young hero Ash to interject himself into their plans and then defeat them so decisively that they’re literally blasted into the sky. It’s not easy being the grunts in the field, capturing new Pokémon just so their wealthy boss can grow his all-powerful team. And yet through it all, they hold on to the hope that if they improve their boss’s lot, it’ll elevate them too. Team Rocket fail most of their missions, but not for lack of trying or creativity – they fail on their own merit, with no handouts, and they never quit.

Realising that my childhood idolisation of Ash was misplaced caused me to reconsider a lot of pent-up guilt for my childhood misdeeds. While what I did, or was a part of, hurt one person, it made multiple people happy. The victims of the grift were upset, but they would go home to eat big, nutritious meals while my associates and I would go home to scraps or two-minute noodles for the fifth night in a row (not that I’m complaining there – being autistic, I’m a sucker for routine). Both Canterbury and Smithsonian’s parents would splurge on recuperating their Pokémon collections while the dastardly wrongdoers would get by trading those stolen goods for months.

Pokémon was capitalism for kids. And being one of the lower-income participants in this economy forced me into making dubious decisions to get by. I had no other choice. 

POKÉMON’S SUN SEEMED to be setting as I entered adulthood, but my love of the franchise never wavered. When I started working my first job, the first thing I set money aside for was the Pokémon card collection I’d wanted as a kid. 

Over the next decade, the original 151 crew of Pokémon grew to over 1,000. And with each new generation of Pokémon that attracted new fans, nostalgia brought back old ones for a skip through the fields of childhood memories – only for them to end up muttering about how the franchise could never again reach the heights it had attained when they were young. 

It wasn’t until around 2018–19 – when popular millennial influencers exploited nostalgia as a promotional tool, livestreaming themselves opening vintage booster boxes of Pokémon cards – that the discourse around Pokémon evolved again. As these ‘celebrities’excitedly revisited their youth, news outlets started to report on the ‘hidden treasure you might have locked away in your childhood drawers’. Discussion about the potential value of Pokémon cards spread and they took on the same treasured value as vintage comic books: secondary market prices boomed and when new sets launched, stores announced buying limits of two packs per customer. More and more millennials were drawn back in, and now lured by the promise of profit, they stayed. Then the Zoomers who’d caught the end of the craze returned, and millennials passed the Pokémon bug on to their kids. Pokémon was back in the limelight because there was money to be made.

Pokémon has become the highest grossing franchise of all time (more than $100 billion, beating Hello Kitty and the knickerless Winnie the Pooh in second and third places respectively by more than $10 billion, according to Statista) thanks to the profitable output across so many media: video games, collectable trading cards, merchandise, anime, licensing fees. The marketing call of Gotta Catch ’Em All keeps paying out dividends. 

I realised the gravity of Pokémon’s shift in our culture when I stumbled upon Pokéinvesting. Five years ago, discussion in Pokémon forums would centre on game strategy or Pokémon creature designs and personalities. But now there are forums full of millennial adults exploring the best course of investing in Pokémon cards and merch. Pokémon has reached its capitalist peak, with fans discussing it in the same way they’d discuss the stock market or cryptocurrency: when to hold, when to sell, which cards will grow in value and which are worth stockpiling.

It makes me uncomfortable knowing that there are people out there who would pay tens of thousands of dollars for some of the Pokémon cards or merch I own, or for the collection I worked to attain when I was eighteen, which is still in perfect condition and locked away in my room. These things I bought not because I saw a chance for profit – but because it represented something I loved as a child and couldn’t easily get my hands on back then. Completing the original series of Pokémon cards was my gift to a little boy who loved something and wanted to be involved in it more than anything, but who was pushed out because of a lack of household wealth. Selling my collection could bring in a lot of quick money, but it would betray the victory I gained as a young adult. While Ash Ketchum got to be a prodigy who realised his dream before his eleventh birthday, Beau Windon worked Team Rocket grunt jobs for years to achieve his place as a Pokémon Master.

It hurts seeing something that felt so pure become something so heavily entrenched in profiteering, and witnessing the mercenary tactics utilised by Pokéfans continue to evolve in insidious new ways. When will the madness end?

THE YEAR IS 2099. Having survived the Climate Wars, the AI Eradication, the Great Religious Extinction and the downfall of our job-title structure – I can say I’ve lived a stressful life and I’m still here. 

I line up outside the Society Medical Establishment to collect the medication I’ve been on nearly my entire adult life. A guy in front of me has a woollen Pikachu hat with floppy ears and dangling pokéballs. When it’s his turn at the counter, he hands over the hat and they give him some kind of liquid in return. He looks mournfully at the hat as they take it into their backroom.

When it’s my turn and I hand the server my prescription, they click through their iPhone 123 Gigantamax 8 Deluxe Mini Pro Budget Limited Edition Basic Console Edition. They find my name and look up at me sadly.

‘Sorry, sir, but the credit from your holographic Alakazam has run out. We’ll need a new trade to continue serving you.’

I grumble and pull my wallet-binder out of my pocket, flipping through until I come to a page with an uncommon shadowless base-set Charmeleon and a shiny Charizard. I hand over the Charmeleon card. The server inspects it to make sure its legit.

‘Wow. Don’t see a lot of these. This should cover your meds for another fifty years.’

The server hands me the meds and as I turn to leave, he stops me.

‘Hey, old man. You’ve been coming here for years and I – well, I don’t mean to peep, but I saw that you have a first-edition shadowless base-set holo Charizard. With that, you could be living in a way better city than this dump. You could be living the high-class life.’

I don’t reply, just tip my Bulbasaur bucket hat to him and walk off, back to my closet-sized studio apartment, where I’ll live out the rest of my days with what few Pokémon cards I can afford to hold on to. 

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