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How Pokemon Started from a Popular Japanese Hobby

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BY August 15, 2020
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There are a lot of fun stories about video games and their inception. For the most part, gamers don’t think of games as organic processes of developing an idea and game mechanics. In our eyes, we simply play the game and live in that world that’s presented to us. No series evokes more imagination and wonder than the Pokemon series. For young gamers who are now in their 30s, Pokemon games still bring up feelings of youth and excitement. If you know younger players who enjoy the series, then they sometimes don’t even know much about the original games. No matter their ages, most players don’t know how Pokemon started as an ode to a popular Japanese hobby. Anime fans might be able to guess the activity, but for the rest of us, the connection between this game series and the outdoors is closer than we think!

The Popular Japanese Hobby that Inspired Pokemon

how pokemon started Image Credit: The Pokemon Company

In some anime series, Japanese kids will show a unique interest in a relatively unpopular practice here in the West. Bug catching is somewhat limited in the United States to fireflies or pillbugs. In Japan, however, children go hunting in forests for everything from beetles to cicadas. The practice, like many outdoor activities, lost a bit of popularity in the wake of the 1980s and the boom of video games. Rather than spend time outside, kids preferred playing games indoors. Satoshi Tajiri enjoyed bug-catching as a child and hated to see so many lose a love of the activity. This phenomenon in Japanese culture helped lead to a great idea that would change Tajiri’s life forever: Pokemon.

As urbanization and digital hobbies replaced time spent outdoors, Tajiri decided to come up with a game that replicated collecting insects. Thanks to some creativity, however, Tajiri didn’t simply stop with bugs. He decided to work on a collection of monster-like animals that lived outside in a fictional world. Worried about kids finding the game interesting, he ensured players could form a connection with the creatures. This includes naming them and partnering up to take on tasks. As the game’s development continued, fights seemed inevitable given their prevalence in Japanese role-playing games or JRPGs. Tajiri did not want to depict the creatures dying, however, due to his love for all living things. This is why you never see Pokemon die or bleed.

Connecting People Through Video Games

how pokemon started Image Credit: The Pokemon Company

A huge element Tajiri wanted to feature was player interaction. Remember, the original Pokemon games didn’t launch during a time with mainstream internet or wireless multiplayer. In order to work on players interacting, Tajiri would use the Game Boy’s link cable to help figure how Pokemon started to shape up as a real experience. This device helped players plug their systems in together to do battles and trades. The experience brought people together; this feat was in line with Tajiri’s hope to keep kids from staying inside away from each other.

We now know how Pokemon started from such a beloved hobby, but where do we still see those inspirations today?

Pokemon Go and a Full Circle Journey for How Pokemon Started

When you think about bug-collecting, the core of the activity is exploration. The goal of the Pokemon games on Game Boy and every console since is exploration. If you think about the different environments and places you visit, then you realize how important this concept is to the series. This concept is good in the console and handheld games, but it’s fantastic in the most modern iteration of the game, Pokemon Go. The rich history of this worldwide mobile phenomenon is still taking place and writing itself. The game is as popular as ever, especially with people spending more time outside and in nature during COVID-19. Every update to the game emphasizes getting out to new places. While we can’t necessarily meet new people as easily during a pandemic, the game still invites us to explore.

how pokemon started Image Credit: The Pokemon Company

Tajiri’s inspiration of how Pokemon started really feels like it has come full circle now. The idea of bug-catching isn’t so funny when you consider millions of people hunting with their phones. Sure, nothing beats the real thing when it comes to interacting with nature. But, consider this: Pokemon Go gets people outside into their parks, neighborhoods, and cities. Most video games can’t say the same.

How Pokemon Started Something Bigger Than Itself

It’s easy as a gamer to think of video games as a product for consumption. We buy them, we use them, and we eventually stop using them in favor of new products. It’s not unlike any hobby like reading or listening to music. The real difference between games and movies or TV, however, is the interaction we have with the story playing out in front of us. This process involves us making a connection with the game. Tajiri’s early inception of the Pokemon games ensured we wouldn’t just make a connection with a screen. Pokemon is about getting out and making connections with the real world too.

Whether it’s playing Pokemon Go in your community or going to a convention with other fans of the series, the game is a huge reason many build friendships with others around the world. I’d say that’s true to the very principals that inspired the game in the first place.

Featured Image Credit: The Pokemon Company

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Taylor loves to play video games in his spare time. He has two degrees in Political Communication and wrote his thesis on Marxism and the exploitation of college athletes. In his spare time, he loves spending time with his wife and two Toy Australian Shepherds. He’s always got headphones in, and he’s a diehard Cubs fan.

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