Pondering Pokémagic

OK class, it's time to learn about effective interactive design. Today's case study? Pokémon.
June 8, 2010

OK class, it’s time to learn about effective interactive design. Today’s case study? Pokémon.

I was reminded of the power of the Pokémon brand recently when I spotted three style-conscious high school boys, each with a red-and-white Pokéwalker pedometer hanging off their belts. These guys are supposed to be too old for Pokémon, but apparently they didn’t get the memo.

The gadgets, which are included with the recently released Pokémon SoulSilver and Pokémon HeartGold video game titles (US$40 apiece for Nintendo DS and DSi), are part of the property’s interesting recipe for creating interactive design that works.

And adhering to the recipe is what’s helped the Pokémon franchise hold up so well against the continual ebb and flow of video game technology. It also helps us understand why there’s a Pokémon store in Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Of course, the best way to understand why Pokémon works so well is to cough up 40 bucks and play it yourself. But if you don’t have the time or money, start by watching the first 12 minutes of one of the new Pokémon demo spots filmed in real time ( Now consider these eight ingredients for success.

1. Success, right up front: All DS Pokémon games start the same familiar way. The MUC (Minimum User Competency), in this case reading, is well-matched with the task at hand. All introductory videos can be skipped, and it is possible to experience success in the first few seconds of the game.

2. Hooks to a child’s life (a.k.a. meaningfulness): Pokémon games let players explore towns, talk to mentors, have friends and take care of pets, which start out weak and become stronger with the player’s help. And the fight against bad guys could be pulled right out of Carl Jung’s archetypal playbook.

3. Free exploration: Pokémon takes place in maze-like sets of connected villages, and players can go where they please, using a map for help. So Pokémon provides structure, within which players can exercise creativity – they can always get out of whatever they get into and there’s no single way to play the game.

4. Feelings of ownership: The Pokémon players I interviewed while reviewing this title described their Pokémon experience as ‘mine.’ This sensibility is engendered right at the outset. Children enter their names at the start and they’re then embedded into the game’s dialogue. This tried-and-true technique is applied with mastery here. Kids can also customize their persona, play as a male or female and give their Pokémon creatures silly (or serious) nicknames.

5. Surprises: You never know what is going to spring out of the grass, or when it will happen. This element of surprise is enhanced by the knowledge that there’s a special Pokémon creature waiting for the player at the end of the game.

6. Collectibility: A big part of the Pokémon experience is accumulating items that represent the game experiences. Critics might call it consumerism (see a child’s collection of Pokémon swag at or digital trick-or-treating, but the idea of collecting pulls kids in – like magic.

7. Emotional attachment: As players progress, they bond with their little critters, which travel from screen-to-screen and continually get stronger. They also get messages like ‘You’re really good’ and ‘You treat your Pokémon with such kindness.’ There’s a lot of positive energy in Pokémon. It makes players feel like family.

8. Real-world skills: Any teacher knows a child becomes a better reader by reading, and Pokémon’s game script is presented via myriad bite-sized sentences that must be read in sequence to participate fully in the game. There are also graphs to read and interpret, plus numerical quantities – up into the thousands – to compare and contrast. Spatial memory is exercised while reading the maze-like maps. Socially, Pokémon competence can earn bus-stop credibility and give children an excuse to trade, negotiate and gossip. Finally, the Pokéwalker counters criticisms that video games can’t promote the pursuit of fresh air and sunshine.

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