The Psychological Power of Pokémon – UNCOVERED

Twenty-three years after it launched, we’re still talking about Pokémon, and playing the video games that revolutionized the industry and keep shaping new generations The simple truth is that the Pokémon universe is extremely appealing, almost hypnotic when you think about it

Moreover, dark moments from Pokémon's past suggest it can have a powerful psychological hold over us What's the secret behind Pokémon's longevity? The innocent appeal of Pokémon can be traced back to its creator, Satoshi Tajiri Satoshi suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, a milder disorder on the autism spectrum, characterised by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication He was deeply in love with video games, in which he could find the comfort and confidence he couldn’t find in the real world Asperger's patients tend to have restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests

The common denominator is usually categorization For example, Tajiri’s favourite activity as a kid was collecting insects Pokémon's famous tagline “Gotta catch ‘em all”, was an expression he used as a kid Ash Ketchum, the saga’s protagonist, is based on Tajiri as a child In 1981, at only 17, when most of his peers were leaving for college, he started the video game magazine Game Freak

But soon he became disillusioned with the magazine contributors for their lack of creativity He decided to create his own game He presented the idea of Pokémon to Nintendo and, even if they didn’t understand the concept, they decided to give it a try However, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows It took six years to finally bring Pokémon Red and Green to the market in 1996

Game Freak almost went bankrupt and Tajiri did not take a salary for years But it was worth it In two decades, the Pokémon mania spread and conquered the world Video games, cartoons, a live action movie and merchandise of any kind are now worth billions of dollars Nothing can stop it

Not even mass induced seizures, nor the curse of a game's theme song On the evening of December 16th 1997, at 6:30 pm, thousands of Japanese kids tuned their TVs to watch the 38th episode of Pokémon, known in English as “Electric Soldier Porygon” or “Cyber Soldier Porygon” By 7:30, hospitals across the country had admitted between 600 and 700 people, mostly children, suffering various symptoms, from nausea, headache, and irritated eyes, to shortness of breath, convulsions, vomiting, and seizures

As reported by the South China Morning Post, one boy said “I was watching TV but I couldn’t remember anything at all when it was all over I felt so sick” Another girl reported, “As I was watching blue and red lights flashing on the screen, I felt my body becoming tense I do not remember what happened afterwards” In less than an hour the incident was all over national news, which accidentally caused a second wave of children being admitted to hospitals, by re-playing the relevant clips from the episode

The episode followed Ash, Misty, Brock, and Pikachu as they ventured into the Poké Ball transfer system in search of Porygon, a digital Pokémon that has been kidnapped by the evil Team Rocket Twenty-one minutes into the episode, Pikachu launches a thunderbolt attack against some missiles The subsequent impact makes a strobe-like effect The animators used the Paka Paka technique This consists of two colours – red and blue in this case – flashing rapidly on the screen

The colours alternate at a rate of 12 flashes per second for approximately six seconds, which can be a bit disorienting to watch That’s why it is common opinion that this Paka Paka trick caused the seizures If so, all the people who were hospitalised suffered from photosensitive epilepsy, a condition where rapid flashing of lights can induce seizures However, police reports suggest that as many as 12,000 people were affected by the clip About 1 in 100 people worldwide have epilepsy and only 3 per cent of those individuals have photosensitive epilepsy

The rate is slightly higher in children, but the percentage would still be too high to account for 12,000 victims Writer Benjamin Radford searched through records and reports from the time and decided that the accepted timeline of events wasn't quite right According to Radford, many kids watched the show live, but a lot of them watched it the next day after news reports and schoolyard chatter had spread He thinks the wider phenomenon was not entirely due to photosensitive epilepsy He believes it was more likely a mass hysteria event

Mass hysteria happens when people are under stress for a long period of time, to the point they self-produce physical reactions to something They are convinced by external influences that something will happen to them, and then it does As Radford explained, ""It's not that they're faking it, it's not that they're imagining it The symptoms are real, it's just that they're being caused by being exposed to other people exhibiting those symptoms"" The episode aired close to exam week, a time when junior high students in particular were under massive amounts of stress

Radford’s hypothesis may actually make sense But then, if the phenomenon can be easily explained this way, why did the US Army propose a top-secret investigation of it in 1998? The classified investigation files were released in 2012, in response to an anonymous Freedom of Information Act request The files reveal that the U

S Army believed the Pokémon shock event could help them develop a weapon that would use electromagnetic pulses to overload their enemies’ nervous systems until they fell into convulsions The idea was that a seizure could be induced by a specific electrical stimulus triggered through the optic nerve The Army's analysis noted that this kind of seizure typically lasts between one and five minutes Furthermore, the analysis speculated that these seizure weapons could be ""tunable with regard to type and degree of bodily influence and affect 100% of the population

"" Still, they had to conclude, ""No experimental evidence is available for this concept"" Except, the report also noted that, “The photic-induced seizure phenomenon was borne out demonstrably on December 16th 1997, on Japanese television when hundreds of viewers of a popular cartoon were treated, inadvertently, to photic seizure induction"" Is it possible that the 1997 incident was instead a premeditated top-secret weapon test? And in that case, might the experiment connect the Pokémon Shock episode to the recurring Lavender Town legend? Lavender Town is a fictional place in the world of Pokémon, a graveyard filled with hundreds of tombstones for deceased Pokémon In the games, the player can come across ghost-type Pokémon As the legend goes, following the release of Pokémon Red and Green in 1996, there was a series of child suicides in Japan

Many players found the Lavender Town theme song scary, filled with a vague sense of dread, and even capable of bringing back terrifying childhood memories Rumours spread that the game’s programmers created the song with hidden codes and harmful frequencies to drive children to kill themselves But why programmers should do such a thing, or why the suicides happened only in Japan, was never explained The myth endured, even after the Nintendo replaced the song with a less creepy one Just when it seemed that everyone was starting to forget this story for good, Nintendo re-recorded the haunting ""Lavender Town"" theme for the 2017 Pokémon Go Halloween event

After all, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? But, excellent marketing strategy aside, how could the Pokémon company survive all of these scandals, when any other company at that time would go bankrupt in just a few months? Well, by the end of the ’90s Pokémon was one of the most popular TV shows in Japan, accounting for 15 per cent of total market share in its time slot Kids loved the show so much that in 1997, even those who were affected by the shocking episode, wanted the program to continue As reported by The New York Times, a girl wrote to TV Tokyo, the original network, “I felt a little dizzy toward the end of the program [but]I’d be sad if I couldn’t watch the program anymore’’ Though the game came first, Pokémon’s timeless success is very much related to the cartoon When a generation of children discovered they could live the same adventures as their favourite fictional characters, they sought out the video games and gave them a rebirth

At the same time, the genius of the Pokémon games lies in the fact that they combine the complexity that older people enjoy with a mechanical simplicity that can be understood by youngsters The ever-increasing variety of video game challengers, the constant march of gaming technology and the rising success of social networks could potentially jeopardise Nintendo’s goal of keeping their audience engaged However, they have embraced new technologies and refreshed the Pokémon world to make it appealing to both longtime fans and new audiences Take Pokémon Go as an example: they took cutting edge augmented reality gaming and adapted it to the distinctive collection adventure format of classic Pokémon games Other games have tried to capitalize on augmented reality, but no game has made the splash that Pokémon Go has

According to Digital Psychologist Liraz Margalit, Pokémon Go’s success is partly because it scratches some of our basic psychological itches Each time the player advances a level, the challenge is revived and the renewed craving to collect keeps us playing A big part of the game is based on the unexpected gratification players experience when finding creatures as they walk Pokémon can appear at any time and in any place Scientists attribute the joy players feel to dopamine, a neurotransmitter found in our brain

Dopamine is associated with feelings of enjoyment and scientists say that we can expect higher levels of dopamine when we encounter unexpected rewards Therefore, when we receive unexpected rewards, on a randomized basis, it forces us more strongly into obsessively repeating our behaviour than a reward given on a predictable basis would This may sound familiar According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, ""Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry"" Based on this, Professor Russell Belk believes that Pokémon can become a real addiction, but only in extreme cases

At least for now Pokémon has positive sides, for sure Across all forms of media, it provides joy to millions of fans The trading aspect of the franchise, and the whole design of Pokémon Go gives gamers an incentive to live a more active and social life But, can the addiction to Pokémon become dangerous? And how far can the danger go? "

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