Beware the Pokemon plague
Parents should be bracing for the invasion of the Pokemons, writes Sarah Chalmers as the little bug-eyed video monsters are addictive, exploitative and lurking in every playground
School attacks in America are, of course, a common occurrence. But when a boy stabbed another in a normally sedate school playground in New York recently, he was not some drug-crazed delinquent youth.
The assailant was a nine-year-old boy who had become so enraged during an argument with his friend that he gave vent to his fury in violence.
The children were squabbling about Pokemon, a video game with spin-off playing cards and figures that has become a phenomenon in the US and is fast achieving cult status in Britain and Ireland.
Suddenly, what started as a harmless childhood craze has sparked widespread concern among parents.
Hardly a day goes by without a report on the toy dubbed `kiddie crack' on TV news bulletins.
So what is Pokemon, and why should Irish parents fear its advance? Pokemon or Pocket Monsters to give them their full name, is the latest Japanese import to transform the toy market.
There are 151 of the brightly-coloured bug-eyed creatures featured in the video game and cartoon series, soft toy collection, plastic characters, book, playing cards and memorabilia.
Unlike other best-selling children's such as cabbage patch dolls, Teletubbies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers, the stars of the palm-sized hand-held video game show no sign of disappearing.
When the first shipload of game cartridges arrived at Hamley's toy store in London they sold out within a day and are expected to be the best-selling toy in Britain this Christmas. Furby is still expected to be tops here, although Stephen Doyle, manager of Supertoys in Ireland said: ``Pokemon will be one of the top 10 toys here this year.''
Pokemon are the brain-child of Japanese creator Satoshi Tajiri, the 31-year-old president of Game Freak who is a self-confessed outcast. His childhood obsessions were insects and video games.
He then spent six years dreaming up characters such as Pikachu, Squirtle and Chansey and under the tutelage of Nintendo, the idea was fine-tuned.
In February 1996, it was launched on the Japanese pre-teen market as Pokemon (pronounced Po-kay-mahn) and became an instant success.
Today, half of Japanese seven to 12-year-olds are regular players.
The player takes the role of trainer and goes on an adventure through Pokemon Island, meeting strange creatures and obstacles along the way.
The object is to collect all 151 monsters which each have a name, different characteristics and styles of battle.
A series of problems must be solved before the monster is caught. Once captured the Pokemon must be `looked after' so it can join the player in trying to win other monsters.
The trainer then engages in battle with other children to win the monsters, and ultimately become The Greatest Pokemon Master.
Thus far the idea seems straightforward enough. But there is an addictive aspect to the game.
There are two cartridges the game can be played on one blue and one red. And as luck (or rather Nintendo) would have it, each cartridge allows the player to collect only 140 creatures.
To capture the remaining 11, the player must buy the other cartridge and a connecting cable to transfer monsters or find a friend with the opposite cartridge and trade monsters using a connecting cable. And therein lies the essence of parental concern.
Some critics have said the game is just one long product placement for more than 1,000 related toys from cuddly monsters to playing cards. With every conceivable merchandise from pencils to Pokemon bags and pyjamas the craze swamped the Japanese market.
Both Pokemon Red and Blue are already in Britain's computer game Top 10. The industry (which has 100 licensed merchandisers) is worth almost 4 billion worldwide.
The attraction, say experts, is simple. Child psychologist Dr Brian Young, of Exeter University, explains: ``Pokemon has an awful lot of child hooks associated with it.
``It encompasses collectables, swopping and high-status rarities, all of which appeal to children. This plugs straight into their culture.''
Nintendo has taken the popular aspects of every other recent toy craze and combined them, while cunningly minimising the negative factors.
It has also been careful to appeal to both sexes. Star Wars merchandise and the original video games were a mainly male preserve and all ages.
For every macho character such as the dinosaur-type Aerodactyl with bat wings and forked tail, there is a cute and cuddly equivalent such as sugar pink Chansey who would not look out of place bobbing along behind My Little Pony.
Children as young as four can enjoy the cartoon, while their older brothers and sisters can swop playing cards at primary school. Then nine-year-olds and above can play the video game.
And with pencils selling for just 50p, playing cards at £2 and the video-game cartridges about £25, there is something to suit every pocket.
As a whole, Pokemon are as cuddly as a Furby, as cute and educational as a Teletubby and at the cutting edge of technology.
Add to that the pet appeal (players must nurture their captured monsters) and the collectability and you can see why Nintendo has struck gold.
When Pokemon are captured they do not die but simply faint thus placating the anti-violence lobby and avoiding the bereavement counselling which followed the cyberpet Tamagotchi craze where the toy actually died.
Nintendo's Beth Llewelyn defended the game, saying that the recently watched two children strike up a conversation in an airport because they were both playing the video game.
She said: ``There's a lot of talking, a lot of interaction. It's a very social activity.''
She could hardly be expected to say anything else in an age where video games are regularly cited as a cause of anti-social behaviour among youngsters.
But, to be fair, the swopping element involved has meant this game cannot solely be played by a child alone in his bedroom with nothing but a video-screen for stimulation.
But detractors see things rather differently. Two sets of parents are suing Nintendo, claiming the card-swopping game is illegal gambling.
The rest of the complaints about the game have served only to heighten its appeal.
There are more than 60,000 websites devoted to the little monsters where trading cards are auctioned for up to $170 in the US.
Several schools have banned the video game and the collecting cards from the playground complaining that they are a distraction'.
In Britain, the Early Learning Centre refuses to stock Pokemon while Pokemon: The First Movie is attracting record audiences in the US.
The film will not be released in Britain until next April, but already millions of children in Britain and Ireland can watch the cartoon series on UTV's Saturday morning children's show SMTV, play the video game and buy the merchandise.
And their creator Mr Tajiri? He is designing a second game and 100 new characters.
So if your children take to chanting the catchphrase ``Gotta Catch 'Em All,'' be afraid.
Be very afraid.