One evening during reading period, on a night my GPA will never forget, one of my blockmates asked me a simple question: “Have you ever heard of Smogon University?”
Though the name suggests a sketchy, get-your-degree-in-four-months-for-an-absurdly-inflated-price sort of institution, it turns out that Smogon University is an online community devoted to competitive Pokémon battling. I thought I knew all there was to know about Pokémon. You catch these cute yet strange little critters (which can eventually become very large critters), and you use attacks based on whatever your opponent’s weaknesses are. Most of these tactics are pretty obvious: water beats fire, fire beats grass, and so on. Its supersedes tic-tac-toe in intellectual sophistication—but just barely.
I quickly learned that I really didn’t know anything about Pokémon. Have you ever tried to optimize your Pokémon’s EVs and base nature? Have you ever made sure your team had a good balance of walls, revengers, and offenders? What about defending against Rain Dance, Baton Pass, and Endeavor teams? I hadn’t either.
Within a few hours of my introduction to Smogon Univeristy, I was knee-deep in the knitty gritty of Pokémon battle strategies. It was impressive, in a frightening way, just how much there was on this site. The Strategy Pokédex was “The Art of War” for Pokémon, ten times over. There was a newsletter featuring Sports Illustrated-style tournament coverage and strategic analyses done by “6A9 Ace Matador,” who appears to be the Bobby Fischer of Pokémon.
Some “students” at Smogon had even gotten together to write a free online Pokémon-battling simulator. “Shoddy Battle” let you pick whatever Pokémon you wanted, assign them various stat values and items, and jump straight into battling. And, oh God, this was the trap. Free. Online. Strategy game. Offering something like that to a computer science concentrator and strategy game junkie is like offering a recovering methhead a free eight-ball.
I ended up staying up embarrassingly late that night, scrawling notes to myself in pursuit of crafting the perfect team. The choices were endless, agonizing, and thrilling: Do I lead with Infernape or Celebi? Should I opt for a weather-based team or not? I can’t say why the more obvious and pressing question—“Why am I taking notes on Pokémon at two in the morning?”—never occurred to me.
When I finished crafting my team, I logged onto the Smogon server with all the excitement of a doe-eyed debutante. I had done my background reading, my team was perfect, and I was going to be Lord Empress of Pokémon by the end of the night. And I proceeded to get completely destroyed in my first battle. The match was over in three minutes, and I hadn’t even put a dent in any of my opponent’s Pokémon.
I started another game, and I lost even quicker. To add insult to injury, this time I fell victim to a Clefairy, one of the pinkest, most cuddly, most harmless looking Pokémon. Ultimately, then, the collective might of a bunch of Pokéaficionados far outweighs one eager little Harvard student pulling an all-nighter just to see how well her shiny new Pokémon team does.
And yet despite this brutal initiation, I was hooked. There is a certain nostalgic charm to the whole idea of competitive Pokémon; it is enjoyable now because it was enjoyable then. Although it’s essentially chess on steroids with sound effects and bright colors, it’s sustained by an affable collective of gamers who still love those silly little Pokémon games. It is as much a source of pride to take an exam at Harvard as it is to fight a great battle at Smogon, and it’s equally thrilling to be a part of that online community—except for that one guy who called me a “n00b fgt” when I finally won my first game.
—Columnist Julia E. Hansbrough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.