Everything I Learned About Mastering Skills, I Learned From Pokemon
It’s Christmas morning, 1997, and I’ve just opened my first copy of Pokemon Red Version. I’m not even sure I received any other gifts that year, because Pokemon was the only one that mattered in my mind. I remember finding a nice, quiet spot in my Grandparents’ otherwise crowded, noisy house, curling up, and not looking up from that old brick-shaped Game Boy until my Charmander had evolved into a Charmeleon, and I had earned my second gym badge. I was in heaven. Never before had I played a game that seemed so perfectly designed for my seven-year-old sensibilities; everything made sense, progress was clear, and my goals were specific. They were printed right there, on every piece of merchandise and ephemera, and sung aloud in the anime’s theme song:
Gotta Catch ’Em All!
I Wanna be the Very Best!
Judging by the enduring popularity of Pokemon, I don’t think I was alone in experiencing a unique kind of welcome into the universe of the games. Beyond being an entry point into long-form RPG and Adventure games, the world of Pokemon was one centered around the virtuous natures of ambition, completion, and above all, mastery. To become a Pokemon Master was the goal of every player, and it was no easy task. That said, it was a task that was absolutely achievable, and one that nearly all of us did. Perhaps more important, however, is the work the Pokemon games (and their related media) did to instill a model for the meaning of mastery in its players, and provide a framework in which to achieve it in a relatively easy, measurable way. Below, I’ve collected some thoughts on the lessons I’ve taken with me from Pokemon that continue to influence my life, even as I move through adulthood.
Lesson 1: Mastery is About Depth and Breadth of Knowledge
If there’s one thing that was unique about Pokemon at the time in which it debuted, it was that it was the first game I ever felt the need to study for. The game wasn’t the only piece of media I had to work from in that study, either. Strategy guides, magazine articles, the anime, even tips and tricks written on the back of merchandise packaging, all contributed to a larger pool of knowledge that was immediately applicable in the game. I knew Rock Pokemon would be weak against Water-type attacks (and immune to electricity) before ever picking up the game- I had learned that from Ash’s battle against Brock. I knew I would be starting with a Charmander because the debate had already been settled in a discussion with friends over a Nintendo Power article. I knew which way to head from Cerulean city because the map was available within the game and the strategy guide, easily referenced if I ever felt lost. The best part about this was that I wasn’t being tricked into learning, but that I was learning naturally about things I wanted to know. Pokemon was already appealing. I wanted more information, and it was readily available in multiple forms. The results were widespread and apparent; kids that couldn’t be expected to write more than a couple of sentences in a classroom without losing focus poured hours into the games, memorizing names, locations, and statistics about their favorite Pokemon, and studying up on those they had yet to capture.
This lesson, of course, was supported mechanically within the games in the form of the Pokedex. Every moment of exploration within Kanto came with the possibility of gaining a new piece of knowledge, a new entry for the Pokedex that could be referenced and cross-referenced in the future. Every battle had the dual purpose of gaining experience in combat and in informational expertise. On-the-fly decisions based on general knowledge about type advantages could win battles against unfamiliar pokemon, while ignorantly charging in could end disastrously. If a trainer wasn’t doing their homework and preparing, their playthrough would be sluggish and punishing. Gym battles would take multiple attempts, and a great deal of grinding, before they would give up the coveted badge. Speaking of which…
Lesson 2: Mastery is Fostered by Being Regularly Challenged by Masters
Thinking back, one of the most formative moments for a young player of the Pokemon games might be losing a battle against a Gym Leader. Gym Leaders are never overpowered for their placement in the game, but rather have Pokemon just above the player’s in terms of level. If the player has been moving through the preceding areas rather quickly, the Gym Leader will be perfectly leveled to challenge, but not to frustrate, rewarding strategic usage of the skills and knowledge that the player has thus far gained.
In the screenshot above from Pokemon: Origins, Brock, aware that Red is a new trainer, is shown choosing a pair of Pokemon appropriate for his level. He has stronger Pokemon, no doubt, being a master himself, but part of his role as a leader is to be a mentor for trainers of all levels, challenging them at a level that is appropriate for their experience. Brock is an expert, a master in a very particular way, and is part of a community designed to produce more masters. He’s not in the game to act against the player, but rather to work with them, to ensure a level of competence before they advance towards other, greater challenges.
For students moving through the public school system, this subtle realization that the adults around them are not antagonists, but rather facilitators towards certain levels of expertise, can be transformative. For instructors in the public school system, like myself, the same can be said. Teachers, like Gym leaders, need to be aware of their role as challenges of appropriate scale, rather than as arbiters of some greater truth. Such a truth is for the students to find between one another. Which reminds me…
Lesson 3: Comparison Against the Work of Others is Important and Healthy
One of the most important, and oft-forgotten, story elements of any Pokemon adventure is the concept of a rival. That jerkface that purposefully picked a starter that had an advantage over your own, always seemed to be two steps ahead of you, and became the league champion literally minutes before you did argggggh.
But Rival battles served an important purpose, and communicated an important point about the quest towards mastery- that there are plenty of others working just as hard as you are, and that they may often seem to be ahead of you, but that sharing a goal doesn’t make you enemies. Rather, it makes you grudging companions and friends, allies and resources for one another as you advanced and competed.
The Pokemon world presents an idealized version of rivalry, one that is devoid of negativity and malice. When the player dethrones their rival to become league champion, the attitude is one of mutual respect. Your rival realizes that you are the legitimate victor, and that he’ll have to work harder, just as you’ll have to continue to work, if he wants to be the best again. This might be unreasonable to expect in a world where competition between peers can very much lead to the denial of opportunities and even basic needs, but to have the self-confidence to put your work in the public eye, compare it against the work of peers, and to accept criticism, is the sign of one striving to improve themselves. Which brings me to my final point…
Lesson 4: There are Many Forms of Mastery
The first Pokemon games gave players two options when it came to calling themselves Pokemon Masters: becoming league champion, and completing the Pokedex. Newer games have extra options- beauty pageants, advanced breeding techniques, and secret dungeon construction all allow players to engage in the same system in vastly differing ways.
Battling isn’t for everyone. It may be the main mechanic in the game, but it represents a fraction of the game’s internal Pokemon-centric activities. Similarly, one can strive for expertise in a vast variety of subjects, and choose a specialization within even those smaller categories. Over time, one gains enough experience to consider themselves an expert, and can strive to pass said experience to the next generation of those interested in their work.
The message here is simple- learn from everyone around you, choose your passion, and follow it until you are great at it.
Follow it until you are the very best, like no one ever was.
Brad Decker is an MA of Film Studies, an English Teacher, and a Pokemon Professor. He also edits Panel & Frame, a publication dedicated to emerging voices in Comics, Literature, Film and Art. Be sure to follow both for more!