When I was quite small, I was obsessed with Pokemon. I couldn’t actually play Pokemon, since I didn’t have a Gameboy and the party line in my household was that Gameboys would rot your brains. But I was obsessed nevertheless. I was obsessed because it was a thing I couldn’t have.
So I watched the show religiously. I had a bajillion cards organized in two three-inch D-ring binders. I also had a Pokemon Pikachu II, the silvery-glittery Pokemon pedometer meant to connect with the Gold and Silver games. I didn’t have the games, but the pedometer worked kind of like a Pikachu-themed Tamagotchi even without the games, so it wasn’t a huge problem. By accumulating steps, you’d earn Watts, and these watts could then be used in a betting game to accumulate more watts. If you had the Gameboy game, they could be sent there; where, I assumed, they served some perplexing and unknowable brain-rotting service. Alternately, you could give them to the Pikachu. The Pikachu would be so pleased by the gift that he/she/it would perform some wild trick. The more Watts, the crazier the trick. If you were a cheapass, the Pikachu would just stick its face real close to the screen and make a happy face. There was another trick, I think, where it would give you an acorn or some other shitty seed you certainly weren’t ever going to need, in the same way a cat offers its owners dead mice. And then there was the top trick—Pikachu would leap into the air and fireworks would explode around it. I don’t know whether the fireworks were incidental or the Pikachu was supposed to be a licensed pyrotechnican, but that’s what would happen.
I adored my Pikachu. I first received it just before a summer trip to Yellowstone National Park, as a way to entertain me in the car, I think. It worked. See, I had an epiphany in the first few moments after unwrapping it and turning it on: sitting in my mother’s minivan, I lifted the Pikachu up to the cabin light to get a better look at the screen, heard the clicking and rattling of its internal components, and realized that I could shake it with my hands to accumulate Watts.
This, of course, immediately became the main objective of my waking life. I would get up in the morning and run around the house while shaking it in my hand, because I reasoned that this combination of violent movements would cause the footstep meter to rise the fastest. I quit playing computer games entirely during that summer. Any time spent seated was wasted time. I set myself ludicrous benchmarks: 10,000 steps before lunch was the normal one, and one, in fact, that I regularly met. I developed an idiosyncratic way of shaking the device; I’d hold my upper arm out rigidly, angled up above my shoulder, and shake the Pikachu up and down as fast as possible at cheek height. I could do more reps more quickly that way, I learned.
At the swimming pool my sister and I swam at, we were suddenly the cool kids. However, this lasted for only about half a week before my devotion to the Pikachu began to bore my friends. My good friend Elizabeth particularly hated it. It kept me from swimming with her.
“I need to get to ten thousand,” I’d tell her. “Uh, you just get in the pool, and I’ll jump in when I get there.” I’d stand and shake it on the side of the pool, staring off crosseyed into the distance, while she did flips in the deep end and gave me resentful glances. I actually got tennis elbow from shaking the Pikachu that summer—a huge knot of muscles gathered at the base of my forearm, just above my elbow. It ached whenever I pressed it.
The Pikachu was an infinite well of mysteries. I don’t think I ever found all of Pikachu’s tricks; the first time I discovered the fireworks one was on the Fourth of July, and I was so baffled by it that I assumed it was some kind of holiday event. Because I had no Gameboy game to worry about, I could use the Watts for whatever I pleased; chiefly, I used them to play the card game with Pikachu. Though it was only a guessing game, I developed the belief that I was an expert at it. I played constantly. Waiting in line for a seat at Applebees; at the doctor’s office; in the car; I even once played it in an airplane during takeoff, chancing (I thought) a bloody death for the entire crew. Such was my adoration for Pikachu: capricious, unwise, in defiance of sense and safety. Pikachu and I were closer than Ash and his Pikachu. We were business partners. My obsession was clinical and calculating; my methods were tested, double-checked, analyzed, and finally, rigorously scheduled. We were in the business of collecting footsteps. We were in the business of collecting Watts. We maxed out the Watts once, my Pikachu and I. I gave it 999 Watts in celebration, and the Pikachu adored me for it. It had max happiness. I had max happiness.
That was a good summer. During the following school year, because Tamagotchis and Tamagotchi-likes had been banned the previous fall, I carried the Pikachu secretly in my pocket. I would jiggle my leg and tap my toes on the floor to keep the footstep meter running. But we had lean times, Pikachu and I; without the ability to shake for benchmarks, the store of Watts was slowly depleted. I stopped giving it gifts. I had to play the card game in the bathroom, in secret. Life was tough. When the next summer began, I had almost kept my Pikachu running for an entire year. The hoary old thing was scratched, half-broken, and weak on battery power, but I kept it clipped to my waistband anyway. The clip had been bent, though, and it gripped my clothes with less surety now.
This is key to my story.
See, I would frequently go kayaking or canoeing with my sister and my father on a lake near our house. We’d bring our own canoe, or rent the kayaks they had there for a dollar an hour. I forgot to take the Pikachu off one day while kayaking, and when we got home, I realized it was gone. It was hard not to cry. I assumed that the little thing was dead at the middle of the lake, Pikachu’s ghost drifting sadly among the catfish. We called the lake office; they said they couldn’t find it anywhere on the beach. We drove back to the lake. When we arrived, however, they’d already discovered it exactly where I’d bent to pull the kayak back up onto the beach, knocked off by the edge of my life-vest and drowned under a foot of water. The lifeguard gave it back to me I pretended to be very thankful.
“I had it for almost a whole year,” I told my mother in the car on the way home. “That’s a long time for one of those toys to last,” she said. Unhelpfully. That the Pikachu had been such a magnificent survivor only made its death worse. I felt emptied. I felt as if a real creature had died.
Wielding a glasses repair kit, I disassembled its corpse on a sheet of Kleenex on the floor of my room. I soaked the water up off the tiny green chip with a stack of q-tips. I rolled a slice of keenex into a tiny rope and threaded it down around the screen area, soaking up hidden drops. I let both halves of the toy dry in a sunny spot for two weeks.
When I turned it back on, the memory had been wiped. All the footsteps and watts and max happiness meters were gone.
I totally lost the drive to play with Pikachu after that. He/she/it was dead.
So: my new PokeWalker is a sorrowful, sorrowful thing. I can hardly use it. It feels false and deadening. Also, they figured out a way to make it immune to most kinds of shaking. There’s no point to it anymore.
If it can’t be like the old times, I don’t want it at all. Which, of course, says a lot about me. And about gamers. We want what we want, of course, because we can’t have it.