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Pokémon Has Solutions for the Problems Facing America’s Jewish Community

The popular video game franchise has precious advice to offer about communication, continuity, and keeping the faith

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A member of the trade walks past a “Pokemon” display during the 2008 Licensing International Expo at the Jacob Javits Convention Center on June 11, 2008, in New York. (Timoth A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
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Earlier this month, as a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project found that one in five American Jews identified as having no religion, communal leaders and members of the clergy rushed to the turrets to fire away at what seemed like a dark force looming in the future of the faith. And as the poll found millennials in particular to be far from the fold, much of the conversation revolved around just how to make young Jews more committed, more engaged, more Jewish.

I’ve found the answer. It’s simple: Take a page from Pokémon.

On the off chance that you’ve managed to avoid small children, nerdy adolescents, your television, or Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the last decade and a half, Pokémon is a franchise of video games, cartoons, and trading cards. It is owned by Japanese entertainment giant Nintendo, and is the second-most profitable video game franchise in history, after Nintendo’s own Mario juggernaut. About the same time the Pew poll made news, the company released the game’s latest iteration, Pokémon X and Y (each new game is always released in two competing versions; more on that soon). It’s well on its way to breaking all sorts of records. As I stood in line to get my copy on the day of the game’s release, I looked at my fellow nerds and was thrilled with what I saw: Middle-aged women and young children, the prepubescent and the post-college, all huddled together and talked excitedly about the game they loved.

This is no trivial thing. Video games, like all entertainment products, are governed by the ebbs and flows of popular taste, selling millions one year and tossed in the remainders bin the next. Even those franchises that, like Mario, retain their popularity very frequently show their age; a peek at the mustachioed plumber’s sales records is a study in slow but steady decline.

Not Pokémon. Originally released in 1996, the franchise, with some exceptions, is doing better every year, retaining old fans and winning new ones. And it owes much of its success to a series of soulful strategic decisions that have much to teach anyone who, like rabbis and parents and Jewish Federation officials, wonders how to forge bonds that last a long time. Here, then, and with the obvious caveats about how comparing a game to a religion only takes you so far firmly in place, are Pokémon’s lessons for the Jewish community:

The Game Is What It Is: Pokémon is a turn-based role-playing game. This means that its key moments of action—the fights between the fantastical creatures that players catch and train for battle—are never represented on screen. You press a button, and then receive a report describing the outcome of your attack. All you look at is a bar representing the creature’s health and a series of numbers indicating its various vital signs. By the hyper-kinetic and viciously violent standards of contemporary games, this is very timid stuff, closer to Monopoly than to Grand Theft Auto. And there likely isn’t a Pokémon player out there who has not wondered if, at some point, we may be allowed to see the thrashing unfold. But the sages of Kyoto knew better. The game, they realized, wasn’t about pressing buttons mindlessly and engaging in rapid brawls. It was about strategy. The game’s creatures belong to several categories, each with its strengths and weaknesses, and pitting one against the other is a process of making subtle choices and deft calculations, like chess with adorable animated game pieces. It’s complex, it’s abstract, but kids love it, primarily, I believe, because they enjoy the challenges inherent to the game, enjoy the opportunity to reach back into the rulebook and study its fine print. I’m hardly the first to note that children and adolescents need rules and structure in order to thrive; rather than drown the game in fun and flashy distractions, the makers of the Pokémon series created a universe in which the rules are the game. They took the rules seriously—believed that the game’s world was interesting enough even without whistles and bells—and their young players did, too.

The Game Is Affordable: Throughout the franchise’s entire existence, Pokémon games have only come out on Nintendo’s considerably cheaper series of handheld devices. Analysts have perpetually waited for the company to release a Pokémon game for the glitzier, more expensive home gaming console, which would mean charging around $60 per game rather than the $35 retail price for handheld titles. Nintendo refused. It understood that keeping the games cheap was a sort of subsidy that made sure more and more people got involved and stayed involved. It sacrificed the bottom line and paid for continuity, an uncommon choice for a corporate behemoth.

The Game Contains Multitudes: Most games have one goal—save the princess, say, or defeat the alien invaders. Pokémon is different. The games’ objective, if they have one, is to catch all the creatures in the Pokémon universe, currently numbering at more than 500. It’s a very difficult thing to do, which drives players to devise their own strategies, choosing which creatures they like best and will pursue first. To serve this open-ended logic, the company releases two iterations of each new game, similar in many respects but each featuring exclusive creatures. The idea isn’t to get players to buy both games; the idea is to allow each player his or her own point of entry into the universe by bonding with a special and appealing creature. It would have been easier to take a more streamlined approach, design a single product, and push everyone in one direction. Nintendo made a commitment to engaging its players’ diverse and divergent sensibilities instead, and it paid off handsomely.

The Game Is About Communication: From the franchise’s earliest days, Pokémon games broke ground by allowing players to play with each other, first by connecting their devices with a cable and later on via Wi-Fi. Even playing alone feels like a communal exercise, as many of the game’s characters seem to be eager for conversation. This sort of communion, with real or pixilated friends, is priceless; it’s also exactly the sort of thing that our goal-oriented, focus-grouped world offers not nearly enough of and that we still crave as a staple of human existence. Pokémon won and retained its following because it offered, above anything else, a nice digital environment where you could go to just hang out. Amen to that.

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Pokémon Has Solutions for the Problems Facing America’s Jewish Community

The popular video game franchise has precious advice to offer about communication, continuity, and keeping the faith

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