In Harrison Brown’s student essay, Prisoners of Pokémon, he uses ideas from Michel Foucault’s essay “Panoptcism” to re-read his youthful infatuation with all things Pokémon. Through his reflections, Brown discovers that a “simple” childhood game has had long reaching repercussions that are still echoing in his life today. Brown wrote this essay for his English 1110 course.
Pokémon was a media phenomenon in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. This Japanese program aired all over Asia, Europe, Australia, North and South America. I find it interesting that the program was as successful outside of Asia as it was, because children growing up with Western values had to understand and accept Eastern cultural values in order to fully absorb the lessons of the Pokémon trainer. Nice point In Europe and America, for example, where the emphasis is on the individual and not on the group, children willingly bought into the super-importance of the group. There are many elements of Japanese culture that dominate the show, such as not losing is more important than winning, and that it is better to play well and lose than to win by cheating or deception. These values are different from Western values where emphasis is traditionally placed on winning at all costs. (Bernard Madoff perpetuated his massive Ponzi scheme until he suspected that he was about to be caught and not because his conscience told him he was stealing people’s life savings.) By watching Pokémon over and over, my friends and I absorbed its values that were reinforced through our role play when we were away from the television set. Just as the panopticon of a rehab facility modifies behavior through peer example, repetition and rules, the Pokémon panopticon used the trading card game and toys to strengthen the personal identification viewers had with the television program. Each episode began with the same greeting: “Welcome to the world of Pokémon, a special place where people just like you train to become the number one, Pokémon Master in the world!” Being part of the Pokémon world provided us an identity and security that was more exciting than what we obtained from our families.
My friends and I demanded to be part of the collective Pokémon family. We allowed a television program to monopolize our television viewing, to control us and become consumers of everything Pokémon. Similar to the effect of Foucault’s panopticon, all of us Pokémon trainers became prisoners of the panopticon of a television show. The choices we made were based on a set of rules established by the program, and we behaved accordingly whether we were watching the program, playing the card game or role playing at recess. I remember wanting to be one of the children who owned a Pokémon so that I too might teach and control it. My friends and I were able to make this fantasy a reality by playing the trading card game. Some children simply traded the cards so as to obtain a complete set of all two hundred Pokémon. Others bought trading card packs simply for the holographic cards, but I played with my friends doing battle with the cards, promoting our Pokémon to more advanced levels according to the rules of Pokémon training. Whether fully dedicated to the Pokémon cause or a novice player, we were transformed by the television show into advocates and consumers. We fed off each other’s enthusiasm for Pokémon products, and we wanted more. The Pokémon panopticon encouraged us to keep buying until our collections were complete, but the number of products kept increasing so we were never done. Amazing if our parents complained about buying too many packs of cards, we convinced friends to get their parents to buy card packs so that we might improve our chances of trading for the card that would complete our collection. Some retailers sold cards individually at hefty premiums thereby capitalizing on our buying frenzy.
I never confused this role-playing fantasy with reality, but my behavior did change for the better. My mother no longer had to drag me out of bed to be in time for school. I was up and dressed in my khaki pants, button down shirt and tie with blazer before seven AM so that I might watch the latest Pokémon episode while eating breakfast. The television program was a powerful force of action. I had to be up to date with all the happenings in the Pokémon universe, and I could only do so if I were ready for school. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault writes that the aim of the panopticon “is to strengthen the social forces – to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality; to increase and multiply”(221). Contrary to the belief that watching television makes children passive, Pokémon, the television show, inspired me to action. Its power drove me to take care of my responsibility to be ready for school, and then pushed me to focus solely on the Pokémon game in my free time. To use Foucault’s language, I was being trained to be productive. In this case, productive meant buying more trading cards and theme merchandise and watching further episodes of Pokémon. Foucault writes, “the techniques that made the cumulative multiplicity of men useful accelerated the accumulation of capital” (231). Pokémon operated precisely as a panopticon, because it gathered us, turned us into consumers of its products, and generated over half a billion dollars in trading card and toy sales in 2000.