Transmedia Storytelling and Transnational Fandoms: The Pokémon Franchise at the Turn of the 21st Century

A blog post by GMTaC Research Assistant Iago Bojczuk.

In the late 1990s, Time magazine had the following headline stamped on its cover page: “Pokémon: For many kids it’s now an addiction—cards, video games, toys, a new movie. Is it bad for them?”That edition came out only five years after the Pokémon universe emerged out of the inventive mind of the Japanese video game designer Satoshi Tajiri. In the following years, Pokémon rapidly became a worldwide phenomenon, leading many to even call it “Japan’s most successful export.”

With passionate fans from across Asia and the Americas consuming all kinds of its texts, the Pokémon franchise became the hallmark of one the most prominent examples of transmedia practices––one that steadily encompasses active transnational fandoms. Based on my experiences as a Pokémon fan growing up in Brazil, I would like to explore my relationship to the fandom and how that may differ from other millennials who grew up in Japan or the U.S.

The November 22, 1999 cover of Time magazine
The November 22, 1999 cover of Time magazine (source)

In her examination of the history of media fandom, Francesca Coppa identified ‘interaction’ as a critical element in shaping fandom as a way of life.3 Regardless of the media format, different levels of interaction between fans engender creative artworks, in-person conventions, communities in virtual spaces, and many others. Although fans are now capable of interacting on a global scale through fast-paced, highly participatory, and somewhat diversified media systems, the early stages of media fandom primarily encompassed a much smaller scale.4

According to Coppa, with the advent of the Internet in the 90s, fandoms underwent a form of ‘modernism’ that dramatically changed their interactions with one another. However, it was not until a later period of that same decade that Pokémon was first broadcast in Japan. First aired in the United States in 1998 on TB II (Cartoon Network and Warner Brothers Network), Pokémon easily captured American audiences as one the most relevant transnational fandoms. 

When discussing its cultural relevance in the U.S., it is important to acknowledge that many “fans were more likely to reference later exposure to shows like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z as their first remembered experience of Japanese anime.”5 Empirical research also indicates that “while many subjects explained that they did not know that shows like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z were Japanese in origin at first, they usually learned of these titles original cultural contexts by the time they reached mid-adolescence.”6 Both cases illustrate the uniqueness in the development of fandoms in relation to transnational media texts at an early age, for they not only entail complex spheres of cultural disparities and storytelling conventions but also, perhaps more influentially, language barriers. These examples offer an important insight into the development of Pokémon as a transnational fandom.

Considering the swiftly evolving cyberspaces both in the United States and in Japan in the late 90s, Coppa’s discussion of ‘neighboring fandom’ sets the foundation for the franchise’s fan culture in the U.S. In this case, neighboring fandom refers to the consequences of the cultural and interpersonal influences that fans exerted on each other via Internet communities which, in this context, presumes a wider audience.7

In this case, the approach to ‘interaction,’ which Coppa identified as an essential element for fandom communities, assumes a technological and cultural profile—that is, one that is enhanced due to the emergence of new media technologies and one that assumes interpersonal and, therefore, inter-fandom relationships beyond national, cultural, and linguistic borders.

As a matter of fact, it is well discussed among media scholars that the Pokémon franchise, including its evolving shape, offers one of the best examples of convergence. In his discussion on convergence, Henry Jenkins pinpoints three core aspects of this phenomenon: i) flow of content between media platforms; ii) cooperation between different industries; and iii) migratory behavior of audiences.8

In addition to having multiple examples within each of these categories, the Pokémon franchise also entails an active fandom of members who were born in the 90s and are now at the forefront of media innovation—from virtual reality gamers to savvy social media users. While the discussion of convergence within the Pokémon franchise tends to focus on ‘how’ the fans’ experiences relate to the general text, very few members who are outside the fandom are able to answer ‘why’ the franchise became a successful example of transmedia storytelling.

Following the unrivaled passion for gaming culture in Japan, Pokémon first emerged as a video game in the mid-90s and promptly branched out into other types of media: films, cards, toys, board games, and, more recently, as a smartphone augmented reality (AR) game. On the one hand, many argue that the Pokémon success is historically conditioned by the high-level collaboration it established with leading video industries in Japan in its early stages—Nintendo, Game Freak, and Creatures, for instance. On the other hand, many fandom communities contend that Pokémon was not initially thought to be transmedia.9

However, Henry Jenkins asserts that “by design, Pokémon unfolds across games, television programs, films, and books, with no media privileged over any other.”10 In the core conception of transmedia, each medium will allow consumers to have a unique type of experience in consuming a particular text that is already well established or, in other words, “complex fictional worlds which can sustain multiple interrelated characters and their stories.”11 From card games to animated films and varied merchandise, fans managed to consume any product as a point of entry into the Pokémon franchise. Regardless of the transmedia nature of Pokémon, both the technological convergence and transnational fandom development played side-by-side roles throughout not only its development as a media text but also as a platform for interaction. It is based on this observation that I draw on my own relationship with Pokémon, spanning from to my childhood to the present day.

In fact, I had no access to the Internet until I was about 13 years old. As such, I had no access to any Pokémon online community until I was a teenager. Yet the notion of being part of a fandom existed even without my own acknowledgment as a child. Curiously enough, I did consider myself a big fan of Pokémon. Looking back, I trace my fan identity as a consumer of the Pokémon franchise in three distinct periods: as a child, as an adolescent, and as an adult.

Considering that TV was Brazil’s most prominent media technology of my childhood years, I remember watching Pokémon every day during lunchtime. Of course, I was too young to realize why that was the case, but now it makes complete sense – after all, classes at a primary school in Brazil usually end before noon, and kids then return home around lunchtime. Having lunch while watching TV became a routine cultural practice, that is, a way to maintain children’s connection to a channel and therefore increase ratings. Thus, I believe this marked the early phase of my fan identity, one that was much more passive as well as normalized by routine.

I believe that it was not until I became a teenager that I started to develop a more active and conscious fan identity. Unlike most youth in Japan, no one that I knew had a Game Boy (which was extremely expensive in Latin America), but we had daily access to the Pokémon anime on TV and, following right after, a series of ‘pogs’ (in Portuguese we call it tazos) in the early 2000s.

Pokémon pogs
Pokémon pogs (source)

These Pokémon pogs used to come in small bags of chips that were sold in school. It was clearly a marketing strategy to sell as much as possible by being compelling to kids, but it also epitomized transmedia storytelling for what was yet to become a big Brazilian fandom. To a large extent, I believe this fan identity emerged because of the competition aspect that it brought into interpersonal relationships in the school environment; it became a common practice between friends to ‘battle’ with each other during breaks.

Each person tried to have as many pogs as possible, and you could get new ones if you won the battle. Starting with this sense of competition, I remember that my peers began to call themselves ‘collectors’ in school, which resembled the notion of a Pokémon trainer since the main goal was to have as many pogs as possible. This cultural practice reflected a sort of geek hierarchy and reinforced what we had consumed as children from the anime on TV. Toy Pokémon were also packaged together with small soda bottles, which became a trend among many kids in school.

 
Pokémon toys sold with soda bottles
Pokémon toys sold with soda bottles (source)

As an adult, I do not feel that I am as strongly connected to the Pokémon universe as I used to be, but I still think I remain a fan. I do not think that this is particularly related to any level of maturity, but rather due to the ways I seek pleasure via entertainment or social experiences, often conditioned by the people I interact with on a daily basis. This appeared to be the case during the launch of the location-based augmented reality game Pokémon Go in 2016.

Although I was no longer immersed in the narrative storylines within the Pokémon universe, I found it extremely exciting to be able to explore another form of entertainment through my smartphone, which not only enabled me to have different real-life experiences with friends—either by walking together in search of Pokémon or by talking about them—but also by rescuing memories from childhood and adolescence. The nostalgia associated with Pokémon among those who were born in the early 90s had a significant influence, since they are the ones that are savvy users of technology and the ones most impacted by convergence culture.

Therefore, I conclude that transmedia storytelling played a decisive role in shaping my fan identity growing up in a developing country. Based on my personal experience, I also believe that the Pokemon fandom in Brazil was not shaped by what Coppa refers to as ‘modernism’ to the same extent that it happened in places like the U.S. or Japan, as it was not until recently that the country started overcoming the digital gap and democratizing access to the Internet.

The fandom was deeply shaped by other media platforms, made possible through convergence culture and deployed by other industries. Although I do not have the answer to the question posed on the cover of Time magazine, I hope I offered a novel perspective on the role of transmedia in allowing different types of ‘interaction’ not with the text itself but, perhaps more strikingly in my case, with other members of the fandom.

After all, as Jenkins would likely agree, there are countless ways in which a transmedia text can shape how we consume it, but the experiences it allows in the real world and with other people are difficult to assess or predict as media technologies continue to evolve in incredibly creative ways. 

References:

1 Peckham, Matt. Pokémon at 20: The Story Behind the Game. Time, 26 Feb. 2016, time.com/4236157/pokemon-20-anniversary/.

2 “The Legacy of Pokémon for Millennials.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 28 Feb. 2016, www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2016/02/pok-mon-s-20th-anniversary.

3 Coppa, Francesca. “A Brief History of Media Fandom.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. Eds. Hellekson, Karen and Kristina Busse. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. p. 43.

4 Ibid., p.43.

5 Rich, Danielle Leigh. “Global Fandom: The Circulation of Japanese Popular Culture in the U.S..” PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2011. p. 26.  http://ir.uiowa.edu/etd/490

6 Ibid., passim.

7 Ibid., passim.

8 Jenkins, Henry. “”Get a Life!”: Fans, Poachers, Nomads.” Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. p. 2.

9 “Mario and Pokemon.” Transmedia and Crossmedia Convergence in a Connected World, convergenceishere.weebly.com/mario-and-pokemon.html.

10 Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 30 June 2014, www.technologyreview.com/s/401760/transmedia-storytelling/.

11 Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, 21 Mar. 2007, henryjenkins.org/blog/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html.