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Is Pokémon Addictive?

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Updated February 15, 2006

The pre-teen fad Pokémon hit the United States in the late 1990s. Pokémon started as a Japanese Nintendo Game Boy game. The name means "pocket monsters." The objective of the game is to find, capture and train different monsters to become the world's greatest Pokémon trainer. The game's designers made some interesting decisions which some say resulted in a more addictive game. The game does not end; rather the characters develop over time, and players are required to trade characters with others to get all characters. Some have applauded this "social" aspect to the game. Some parents have complained that their son's interactions with peers have been taken over by Pokémon. Nintendo described it this way:

There are 150 monsters in 15 different categories. Each category will be based on a specific characteristic or element, such as water, fire, flora, etc. There's a catch, though: there will be two versions of the game, a Red version and a Blue version, and not all of the monsters will be on any one Game Pak. To collect all 150 monsters, you'll have to trade. In Japan, this monster-collecting feature has made America's trading card frenzy seem tame by comparison. Collecting the monsters is simply addictive -- but that's just the half of it!

You'll be able to customize your Pokémon by training them differently as they grow and evolve. For example, two fire-breathing Charmanders may end up with very different skills and abilities by the time they evolve into their most powerful forms. (Nintendo GameBoy Pokémon page, 8/99)

In addition to the Game Boy game there are video games for larger systems as well as a Pokémon card game, television cartoon, and trading cards. At the height of its poularity schools in many parts of the country banned Pokémon games and cards. Parents describe their children's' involvement in this game as an addiction. A recent guest on "The Connection" radio show described her 8 year old son's involvement with the game. She bought him the Game Boy game as a gift, and he spend every free moment with it for the next two months. He quit playing guitar, quit playing baseball, and quit doing his homework. His mother finally decided to limit his game play to weekends; and she described him as going through a 3 day withdrawal period which was very much like coming off a drug. It was not until he spent 4 weeks at a summer camp without Pokémon that his interests in baseball and other games returned.

In a previous article I reviewed the concept of technological addictions. Mark Griffiths in England is studying pathological Internet use. Researchers in Great Britain have also been studying Star Trek addiction. It seems that any technology which is involving and compelling can have addictive properties. If you've ever stayed up later than you intended surfing the web or playing computer games you have experienced this quality. The elements of addiction that are often studied are:

  • Salience: the activity or drug becomes the most important activity in a person's life
  • Mood modification: feeling a buzz or high, or feeling numb or tranquil.
  • Tolerance: Increasing amounts of the substance or activity are needed over time to produce the same euphoric effect.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: unpleasant feeling states which occur when the substance or activity is removed.
  • Conflict: Interpersonal conflict because of the substance or activity, and intrapersonal conflict within the individual.
  • Relapse: the tendency to repeatedly revert to earlier pathological patterns of use, and for the most extreme patterns of use to be quickly restored after many years of control or abstinence. (summarized from Griffiths, 1997)

Is Pokémon equivalent to an addictive drug? Some parents have described their child's behavior in terms that fit the above definition. There are indications that pleasurable games and activities cause the body to produce endogenous opiates such as endorphins. These substances are actually addictive. Some addictive drugs, such as heroin, are chemically similar to these natural substances, while other addictive drugs are thought to stimulate their production. This may be one way that certain activities such as gambling and sex. can sometimes be addictive.

Should Pokémon be banned? I don't think so. Should parents limit their children's use of the Game Boy game? In some cases they should.

Reference:Griffiths, Mark. Does internet and computer "addiction" exist?: some case study evidence. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of American Psychological Association, August 1997.

Last Updated 2/14/06

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