Over the last week or so, I’ve been playing Pokemon Omega Ruby in intermittent bursts, a game that I’ve been waiting to play for years. Pokemon Ruby was the most important game of my childhood because it was special to me in a way that could have been only special to me.
The Summer of 2003 was atypically warm. The sun baked the sidewalks and the air was fresh, warm, and crisp that year. My brother and I would leave the windows open at night and let the warm breeze and pink, summer sky as we would watch cartoons in the third floor bedroom. Around this time, I brought home Pokemon Ruby from a Toys ‘R Us that’s no longer standing.
I daydreamed a lot back then, I still kinda do. I would imagine that the heroes of the cartoons and games that I watched and played really existed and that they would go on adventures and fight evil villains in my city. As I played Pokemon, something different and new entered my daydreams and fantasies. I imagined myself as one of those heroes, a Pokemon Trainer on a journey across the region, searching for eight badges and thwarting evil plans on a quest become a Master.
Retrospectively, I think it was all that daydreaming and fantasizing that made Pokemon special to me, as well as the time of my life in which I played it. When I was a child, I saw the world with this sense of rich, exciting novelty that permeated everything, its that same kind of excitement that I feel echoes of when I read something like Yotsuba&!. I think Pokemon hit me at a time when that novelty was at its peak.
I would be in that world when my family visited a new town or city, I’d fantasize about challenging that town’s gym leader. When we went to the park or drove through the mountains on a holiday, I’d dream about the rare pokemon that lived out in the fields. In my mind, I would set out on adventures in the countryside, battle my friends in school, and become the Champion. The forests, coastlines, and cities of Northern California held imaginary adventures. I don’t know if that was a phase only I went through or if other kids did that too, but for a while, my imagination was dominated by daydreams of Pokemon.
And I wouldn’t be alone on these adventures either. Pokemon connected me with friends in elementary school. That was a common interest that I could talk about with my friends, who also played the game. A lot of what makes Pokemon special is the schoolyard folklore that gets built up around these games, and with the third generation games, we told stories of how you could catch Feebas by changing the Trendy Phrase in Dewford Town, how you could go to space when the rocket in Mossdeep was finished, and how you could battle Professor Birch after you completed the Hoenn Pokedex. In elementary school, there were a lot of kids who were also obsessive about Pokemon, and that was an incredibly fun atmosphere to exist in as an eight-year old.
Really, I think the culture that the Pokemon games created when they entered our lives was something truly special. That atmosphere of giddiness and wonder, that constant daydreaming and fantasizing, that was something that couldn’t be replicated with any other game, in any other time of our lives. Its a feeling that I’ve been constantly, subconsciously, chasing for years. That feeling of going into the world new.
And Hoenn was a special setting for me because it filled a void and slaked a thirst I had growing up as a sheltered city boy expected to succeed in school. I needed those adventures, I needed that fantasy. I still went out and played, and we’d go on vacations in the mountains, but the rigid expectations of going to school, getting good grades, and succeeding in that way just wouldn’t do it. Hoenn’s perpetual summer and its perfect wildness appealed to me and provoked my imagination because my reality was so incredibly urban.
A lot of things have happened in those twelve years since I first played Ruby. I’ve slid in and out of phases. I’ve had my first crush, first heartbreak. Family members have died and moved forward. I’ve seen the wars in the Middle East come to their flashpoints and conclusions. My best friend in high school was arrested, and our lives diverged from there. Actually, my path has diverged from a lot of my friends. I got good at running cross country, mostly because I liked hanging out with the people in Varsity. I’ve said dumb, regrettable things. I got into my dream school and got involved with indie games folks. I saw evil in the world and nervously shivered as I did what I thought needed to be done. There was hostility, ignorance, discrimination, many injustices.
And now I’m playing a remake of this game that did a lot for me in the past, when my perspective of the world was different. Everything out there felt new. Back then, there were nooks and crannies in my enchanted world filled with secrets, adventure, and treasure. A euphoric sense of novelty accompanied every new person and place that entered my reality. Playing a remake of this game brings back sparse echoes of how I felt back then, but things have changed. As I play Omega Ruby, I can’t help but feel that I’m reaching out, arm outstretched, for that fading glint of something long past. And brilliant it may be, the past twelve years have showed me that there’s injustice, inequality, unfairness, and apathy in our world, and I can’t but help that feel burdened with the responsibility of doing something about it.
I’m glad Pokemon is still popular today. I want kids to have those kinds of imaginative, fantastic journeys, especially kids like myself who grew up in affluent cities and were disconnected from unstructured play in the countryside. Satoshi Tajiri stated that Pokemon was inspired by his childhood, collecting insects in the rural suburb of Machida. With Pokemon, he wanted to resist the massive urbanization and industrialization of late 20th century Japan by providing a digital space where kids can still play outside, explore tall grass, and collect insects, even as tall towers and rigid, compulsory, education systems crept into the countryside and those playful spaces of volition vanished.
That wonder should persist and we should work to preserve it. We should not shelter children from the world and be paranoid about keeping them on the “right track”, but work to create imaginative playgrounds where children can feel that autonomy, imagination, and delight. Pokemon was formative to me because it gave me that imaginative playground as a child, and as a twenty year old man, I want to create those playgrounds of endless fantasy because it matters.