Strung Out On ‘Pokemon’

My name is Stephen, and I can't stop playing "Pokémon." When did my obsession start? When did I go too far? And does anyone have a solution?

A couple of weeks ago, after years of gingerly dipping my toe into the pool of "Pokémon" games, I made my dive. I plunged into "Pokémon Pearl" for the Nintendo DS in an effort, as I've said before, to try to understand the "Gotta Catch 'Em All" phenomenon (see "First Look At 'Pokemon Pearl' "). I went in aware of the risks of infectious obsession, wearing the figurative hazmat suit and Geiger counter, certain that any bites of the "Pokémon"-playing bug could be treated.

Could I resist? I thought so. That was before I logged 14 hours and 49 minutes with the game. That's my current play time, which kind of averages to an hour a day. It kind of doesn't though, because last Friday I was knocked out for a good chunk of the day with general anesthesia to treat a quibbling medical issue that led to a weekend of couch-bound recovery. I had been looking forward to the recovery for days because I knew it would afford me more time feeling excused from going outside in the nice weather and staying home playing "Pokémon." It all goes back to those little monsters.

The measure of my obsession isn't best described with 14:49. It's just as well counted at 19,192. That's the number of steps my little "Pokémon Pearl" lead character has taken since he got a pedometer a couple of hours into the game. The number ticks up one at a time as I step him across grassy fields and through dank caves. It looks like the pedometer will roll over to zero after I reach 99,999. I intend to take it there. So far I've seen 49 Pokémon in the game. I've captured 27.

My most telling "Pokémon" statistic might actually be three, which is the number of "Pokémon" games I played this weekend. One: I played "Pearl." Two: I popped the Game Boy Advance's "Pokémon Sapphire" into the compatible slot on my DS to see how far I'd gotten in that one. I remembered trying it for about four hours a few years back, catching a handful of Pokémon. Actually, the GBA cartridge revealed that I had caught 27 and had played the game for 12 hours and 32 minutes. What does it say about the "Pokémon" experience that I've blocked eight and a half hours of it from my memory? And that I keep playing these games anyway?

Game number three: That's "Pokémon Ranger," a DS game from the fall that went all out with the DS stylus control by challenging players to catch Pokémon — not with the standard strategy of turn-by-turn attacking and the cross-finger toss of a never fully reliable toss of a Poké Ball, but with the furious scribbling of circles on the system's touch screen. A Pokémon appears on that lower screen. You draw loops around it in one continuous line. That simple technique is complicated by uncooperative Pokémon that try to break the line even as you power that line up with flames and blades of grass. I had lost this game but found it last week and got lost in it over the weekend. I spent quite some time Saturday trying to capture a fire-breather who needed to be encircled 21 times. It was frustrating and rewarding but only sounds silly when written out like this.

I played "Ranger" for six hours this weekend (remember, I was couch-ridden). I didn't mind that it was taking me away from "Pearl," because I was playing it for "Pearl." Most "Pokémon" games allow players to transport Pokémon from one game to the next. I read online that beating "Ranger" would allow me to bring one mighty Pokémon from "Ranger" to "Pearl." The directions I've found suggest I have several hours of work — I mean, playing — ahead of me before I can make the transfer. I have to play "Pearl" even longer to bring the 27 Pokémon I caught in "Sapphire" during those forgotten 12 hours of play to join the 27 I have in my "Pearl" menagerie.

And why am I doing this? I'm doing it because "Pearl" is going to let me use all these Pokémon in online battles and trades. The battles will be restricted to people I know who will exchange 16-digit friend codes with me (see "Cracking Nintendo Friend Codes"). I have two friends ready to battle already. One of them has been unsure about this whole "Pokémon" thing. The other seems to be a pro. He keeps trash-talking me on Instant Messenger, telling me that we'll have a competitive match even though his Pokémon are lower-powered than mine. He says he knows some tricks. The Pokémon I'm trying to bring over from "Ranger" could be my ace.

I've sent out for some support from Japan. A week ago, I put one of my weakest Pokémon up for trade, requesting a powerful Cranidos dinosaur Pokémon in exchange and certain there would be no takers. But according to the online-enabled Global Trading Station in "Pearl," a player in Chiba, Japan, wanted to make the deal. A friend told me that Japanese "Pokémon" players are making these supposedly bad trades because they want Pokémon that are logged as having been raised in the U.S. That's their level of obsession. I like it. It makes me feel normal in comparison.

This is the kind of person "Pokémon" games turn you into. You go from collecting Pokémon in one game to collecting "Pokémon" games for some grander competition. There's a Wii game coming in June that will let me bring all my Pokémon into that system. I think I need to straighten myself out before then. Can I kick it? Yes, I can.

What's the measure of your obsession?