Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pokemon Debate Continues

In an earlier post I drew parallels between Pokemon and Poker as imperfect information games. As our kids have become more avid Pokemon card collectors and players I have realized that there is a distinct element of gambling involved in the collecting process. Cards are generally sold in packs of 10. The distribution of cards is non-uniform across the range of all cards. Generally speaking, each pack of 10 cards will contain 6-7 "common cards", 1-2 "uncommon" cards, 0-1 "rare" cards. As I watched the way the kids' eyes light up as they opened a new pack in anticipation of the possibility of receiving one of the elusive "rares" (which are obviously the more powerful cards in the game), I realized that this randomization of reward preys directly on the gambling preference. There have been studies that show that compulsive gamblers are more likely to have been exposed to gambling at a young age (younger than 10 years old) than non-problem gamblers so if this is any parents out there are concerned about gambling issues, its certainly something that should be taken into consideration.

On the brighter side, I also mentioned in my last post that I had hoped that wanting to play the game properly would motivate Richie to learn to read. Amazingly, I think Pokemon did just that. He relies on a mix of memory, sight reading and phonetic reading to work out what the cards do. Unsurprisingly his memory for the card rules is quite good relative to mine so when we play he's often correcting me about the correct use of a particular cards during the game. The game also requires basic arithmetic (addition and subtraction by 10s, multiplication by 2), and emphasizes some statistical concepts about sampling, but it's not especially challenging really. (As an aside, Richie learned what negative numbers were from Pokemon, because you need to determine if a pokemon is knocked-out by an attack (i.e. it has zero or fewer health points after damage and modifications are taken into account).

My general assessment so far is that the single-game strategy in pokemon seems more constrained and basic than in chess or go. It seems that the real art and skill is in deck building and the meta-game. Once you have chosen your deck and your opponent has chosen their deck, there is less correlation in the outcome of a match with skill level than there is in the other games I mentioned. But the skill really only gets tested completely when you have access to many different cards, strong opposition and a shifting universe of available cards. Without some of these features, the creative process is less demanding and less beneficial.

I would say that in addition to this negative gambling aspect parents should be aware that the entire Pokemon concept is based on "gotta catch 'em all!" (this is the pokemon theme phrase). The movies, cartoons, video games, etc. all feature collecting or catching as many pokemon as possible and training them into stronger and stronger versions to do battle.

If your child has any sort of obsessive impulse, this can be an issue because there are hundreds of Pokemon types (maybe 400 or so) and each type has multiple versions from past card series. The rarer ones are difficult to obtain so you end up with many duplicates of basic or common cards, but few of the more desirable rare cards. Needless to say this can quickly become expensive.

Overall, I'm comfortable with the game. The kids certainly enjoy it and I think the negative aspects aren't all that bad if the game is played in moderation.

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