ABDVol.30 No.2
Japanese Children in the Multimedia Age

Manabu Sato


Trends in Video Games

Seventeen years have passed since the children of Japan were first ushered into the media revolution. Since the introduction of Nintendo's "Family Computer" in 1983, video games have increasingly permeated their daily lives, becoming a necessity through which they gain immediate access, located virtually at their fingertips, to dreams, adventure and even healing. In 1985, the first sales of Nintendo's "Super Mario Brother" resulted in unprecedented queues outside stores and sales outlets. This was followed in 1987 by "Dragon Quest II" and "Dragon Quest III". With the introduction of the latter, video games moved beyond the realm of children. Their popularity now extended to adult society as well, and competition in product development and sales was further intensified. Video game hardware evolved from the original 8 bits to 10 bits with Nintendo's "Super Family Computer" (1990) then to 32 bits with Sega's Sega Saturn (1994) and Sony's Play Station (1995) followed by 64 bits with Nintendo 64 (1996) and most recently, 128 bits with Sega's Dreamcast (1998). These developments meant that game characters became more three-dimensional, their movements smoother and more realistic. It also made possible multiple endings, increasing the dramatic entertainment value of the stories. Game software which allows the player to hook up with other players, many of them complete strangers, via the telephone network, is also beginning to appear on the market.
 The trends within the adult world of video game mania, however, appear to differ from those in the world of elementary school children with regard to such eagerly awaited technological innovations. The best examples of this, are the explosive "Tamagotchi" boom of a few years ago and Nintendo's "Pocket Monsters" (known as "Pokemon") which has been a top hit since 1996. "Tamagotchi" is a type of key-chain game, a very simple mini-electronic game attached to a key holder whose main sales point is portability. "Pokemon" is played on the old-style portable "Gameboy" with its small screen. It lacks both motion and speed and, until the advent of Gameboy Color" in 1988, it was in black and white.
 In fact, "Pokemon" was a phenomenal hit among elementary school students when it first came out in 1996, yet the majority of adults knew nothing about it because it could only be seen on the tiny screen of outdated Gameboys played by children. It was not until after "Pokemon" debuted in 1998 as an animated cartoon on television followed by summer movies and video rental and sales, that the general adult population became aware of its existence. Today, its main character, "Pikachu", adorns the body of jet liners, and the many goods derived from its various characters enjoy great popularity with both children and adults alike.

Children and Computers

The fact that such highly advanced technology as the 128 bit game machine exists must make one pause to wonder why children remain so attached to such technologically archaic video games as "Tamagotchi" and "Pokemon". One plausible reason is their low price in comparison with the latest hardware or software. Certainly cheap prices are the top factor in capturing any consumer market; however, it is insufficient when it comes to explaining the unprecedented popularity of both "Tamagotchi" and Pokemon".
 Most homes with Japanese boys of elementary school age own at least two or three expensive video game machines that can be hooked up to the television. Every year, when Christmas and New Year's approach, children launch a serious campaign to persuade their parents or grandparents to buy them the latest model. Yet these same children, even when they become the proud owners of state-of-the-art video game machines, invariably feel a stronger affinity and attachment to their portable mini electronic games or "Pokemon". It appears that the following trauma is at the root of this fascinating phenomena that connects children and computers.
 Around the same time that video games began to take off among children, the communal aspects of play and of children's daily lives began to disintegrate. Around the end of the 1970s, elementary children virtually disappeared from parks and vacant lots, hitherto their normal playgrounds. Since then it is rare to see any child over five in a local park. Along with the spread of video games, there was a parallel boom in seals and little prizes that came in boxes of caramels or candy. It was a phenomenon in which children gained a sense of community through the ownership of the same types of seals or toy characters. The spread of video games is part of a similar trend.
 The root cause of video game popularity is children's longing to restore the sense of community that has been lost in the real world. When "Super Mario Brothers" and "Dragon Quest" first hit the market, children greeted each other with the words "Are you playing it?" "Yes, I'm playing it, too," and this became a springboard into further conversation. Parents who saw that even when they got together to play, children tended to just sit around reading comics or playing video games independently of each other, complained that comics and video games were destroying children's ability to relate to other people. Personally, however, I believe that the opposite is true. Children enjoy comics and video games as a means to restore and develop their relationships with other children which had previously been severed. The truth is that each new hit in the video game industry was caused by children who saw the games as a means by which they could enjoy a shared experience or a common story. Which is precisely why children who want to convince their parents to buy them video games use such phrases as "But everybody else has one."

Monsters in a Pocket

Adults in Japan have regarded the obsession of Japanese children with video games with a frigid gaze. A survey of newspapers published in the five year period following the introduction of the first video games reveals frequent and repetitive warnings against their adverse effects including poor eyesight, weaker human relations, encouragement of violent and aggressive behavior, and difficulty in distinguishing between reality and fantasy. None of these accusations, however, is supported by hard, convincing evidence. Even more intriguing, the exact same arguments were used when comic books first appeared on the scene.
 Despite adult criticism, video games have become firmly rooted in children's daily lives. What are children experiencing when they interface with a tiny computer screen? Adults must give this phenomenon more careful scrutiny. I once witnessed a grade five class debate whether it was more fun to raise a real pet or a virtual "Tamagotchi" pet. The Tamagotchi" group won hands down. "Virtual pets don't require so much work." "They don't really die." "You can take them anywhere." "You don't have to buy food." The opinions of the "Tamagotchi" advocates were much more convincing than those of the real pet group. The last comment of the losers was "Some things that are precious just cannot be expressed in words." Although this was interesting in itself, even more intriguing was the fact that once the debate was over, every member of the "Tamagotchi" group said quite frankly that if their housing conditions or parents would permit it, they would rather have a real pet than a "Tamagotchi" pet. When interfacing with the tiny computer screen, these children are realizing such dreams, hopes and desires. This perspective makes it much easier to understand the secret of the immense popularity of "Pocket Monsters".
 "Pokemon" allows the player to collect and raise 151 different kinds of monsters and battle monsters in other children's machines. Each of the 151 has a particular feature, such as fire, water, electricity, ice, fighting skills, poison, earth, flight, etc., the degree of which is also decided for each creature. Once you have grasped this information, it is not difficult to win. Every time you win, words of praise appear on the screen. It is also possible to get your opponent's pocket monster, or to develop insect monsters through the various stages of metamorphosis. Children also find a companion in another realm whom they can love and who loves them, discover a tale of growth and development through adventure and combat, and receive praise and adulation. The monsters in their pockets give them an opportunity to experience the joy of victory and growth without harming anyone; they are a machine with a healing function.
 But it does not merely serve to tame the innate wildness of a child's nature. Rather, the computer age, while using machines to expand the inorganic cyber space, at the same time stimulates the resurgence of the untamed in human emotions. The monsters carried in children's pockets actually represent the untamed energy lying concealed within the child. No matter what developments take place in the multimedia field, they will surely never be able to tame or kill the child's innate nature. These pocket monsters will continue to seek out a space within the multimedia age in which children can be children.
(translated by Cathy Hirano)

Manabu Sato
Born in 1951. He has a long-standing interest in school reform and youth culture, and has published many books, including Progressive History of School Curricula in the United States, Learning; Its Death and Restoration, Artistry of Learning, Curriculum Criticism, Aporia of Being a Teacher, and Pleasure of Learning (all in Japanese).