Thursday, February 24, 2011
The Pokemon Card Game, As Hacked By Tots
For several years running the girls conducted an ongoing game with the few dozen Pokemon cards they’d collected. The rules were clear to them (and created independently of the existing corporate rule structure) but confusing to me. The game seemed to involve courtship and marriage, and prolonged bouts of mischief — occasionally violent, always comic — conducted between clans of indeterminate character. Lengthy exchanges of dialog between cards was the norm. As stories developed, the girls would quibble over specific traits, but once the matter was settled, it remained settled.
As I watched the proceedings, two things struck me. First of all I was in awe at the voice and depth of character the girls would endow individual cards, which were little more than colorful cartoons on a small piece of cardboard.
Secondly, after witnessing them concoct their game and its world more or less on their own (they'd only seen one or two episodes of the television series, which failed to sustain their interest), I had to wonder if role-playing-games weren’t an innate instinct. As with many of the standardized games they played and enjoyed, cards were traded (via marriage, etc.) or lost (disease and violent death), but it wasn't enough just to play a variation on Old Maid: following an exchange the different characters would, at length, either lament or express relief at the outcome. In fact, the dialog between the characters (and the girls who played them) determined the shape of the game.
There seemed to be two objects to the game: 1) see who can get the other participant to laugh the hardest; 2) keep the game going for as long as possible. It didn't really end until this summer, when both girls gave their cards away after admitting they'd finally lost interest.
And yet an aspect of that early experience lives on in their video gameplay. If I eavesdrop on a Saturday morning session of LEGO Batman (always two-player mode, usually villains) I'll catch them talking to each other in the exaggerated tones of the characters they're manipulating. In fact, watching them play the game can be frustrating because there are frequent, extended periods when their gameplay isn't concerned with the dictated objective, but with horsing around in the environment and, yes, getting the other player to laugh.
It seems that, for my daughters at least, there are two impulses being met in games like this: the comic impulse, and, in assuming distinct voice and specificity of “another” character, the “acting” impulse.
When a person truly discovers those profound pleasures, she will rarely let go of them, and then usually only under great social duress (“Grow up and put the Barbies away, already!”). In fact, I'm wondering if these impulses are ever released at all? Is it not more likely that they are sublimated in the act of reading or watching, or given dictated expression in community theatres and church basements, or occasionally set free to entertain during a meal shared with a trusted audience?