Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Core Response 3: Convergence Culture and the Pokémon Media Franchise by Damian Panton

     In “The Cultural Logic of Media Convergence” Henry Jenkins poses an interesting question in the section titled “Rethinking media aesthetics”. Citing films such as The Blair Witch Project, Pokémon, and The Matrix Jenkins argues that a growing trend in contemporary media is the proliferation of a single property over several different mediums. For Jenkins, the aspect that connects these various iterations is a form of narrative synchronization in which each portion of a larger story is delivered in a unique manner specific to its medium, but in my opinion his example of Pokémon is something different entirely.
     When Pokémon Red was released in 1998 for the Gameboy Color it was the coolest thing ever. Like the malleable children we were, nearly every boy in my grade rushed to connect ourselves to the “awesome new thing from Japan” in any way we could. We saw Pokemon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back (Yuyama, 1998) when it was released in the US the next year, we bought starter packs for the trading card game, and we began watching the anime that was dubbed and presented on Cartoon Network. Even though we were only nine or ten years old, it became immediately apparent to us that there was absolutely no narrative continuity between any of the forms of the product whatsoever. The anime would often completely omit geographic regions that existed in the game even though supposedly they took place in the same space, both the anime and trading card game would frequently alter the background of certain creatures to better fit their more lighthearted tone or give them abilities they couldn’t physically perform in one medium to satisfy another, and the few characters that existed in more than one medium would often have fundamentally different personalities in each one. Narrative synchronization, then, seems completely secondary to what the Pokémon franchise is attempting to accomplish because the only continuity between the various forms of Pokémon cannon are produced entirely by the imagination of its consumers.
     Originally conceived as a handheld videogame (hence its original name “Pocket Monsters”), Pokémon moved from a digital medium, to a cinematic one, before it became a manga, and eventually a card game. The shift from more a more modern medium to largely antiquated ones provided a unique opportunity for the franchise to penetrate everyday lives. Shortly after Pokémon exploded in popularity in my school, the gaming devices we played on were banned for obvious reasons. To fill this gap, the time we previously spent gaming was replaced by talk of the latest episode of the show or a round of the card game during recess before those were banned as well. For us, the propagation of the franchise served to turn the solitary practice of gaming into a social exchange that mobilized the collective imagination the narrative discontinuity engendered. Whereas properties such as Star Trek were not necessarily intended to have massive cult followings, franchises like Pokémon seem consciously constructed to form a subculture. It’s no surprise then that Pokemon has managed to gross over $40 billion in revenue since its inception seventeen years ago.

     The same sort of media mixing that Pokémon pioneered has been repeatedly executed in a by a multitude of other franchises such as Digimon and Yu-Gi-Oh!. Recently, the insanely popular Minecraft property was sold to Microsoft along with its creator Mojang for $2.5 billion due to its estimated potential to engage audiences transnationally like Pokémon. When Jenkins theorized transmedia storytelling, I don’t think he anticipated how much the relentless drive for profits would influence the form. Intricately woven narratives that require a concentrated effort on behalf of the consumer to move between each medium for understanding runs the risk of alienating those unwilling or unable to do so. In that case, they would probably drop the property altogether. Marginally connecting the various forms of a property is a low-risk/high-reward scenario that pulls in billions while allowing as many people as possible to participate. As long as it requires a significant capital investment to engage consumers via multiple mediums, it seems unlikely that the narrative revolution Jenkins envisioned will ever come to pass.

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