SHERMAN OAKS, CALIF. — At the far end of the playground - below the shouts of kickball, beyond the sight of teachers and principal - a clandestine deal is going down.
"I'll give you a Blastoise for your Zapdos if you give me a Magneton for my Dewgong," says one fourth-grade boy to another. Backs to the school yard, they make a hand-to-hand exchange with the furtive agility of conspiring Las Vegas card sharks.
Like other recent toy fads such as Beanie Babies and Power Rangers, the back-lot bartering reflects youthful exuberance over the latest craze of kiddie consumerism: Pokmon. But unlike earlier fads, Pokmon - through its cartoon TV show and trading cards of 150 "pocket monsters" - has become a sticky gum wad in the cog of American education.
With some rare cards going for $60 or more, the trading at school is raising hackles in districts nationwide over the issues of regulation, fairness, even gambling. To remedy the situation, many schools have gone so far as to ban Pokmon trading from their campuses. Ban or no ban, however, the cartoon's popularity is already leaving an imprint on school life, from student government to spelling lessons.
"If I ask them to write, they write about Pokmon, if I ask them to draw, they draw Pokmon, if we do math, we add and subtract Pokmon," says Karen Barnett, first grade teacher at Dixie Canyon Elementary here in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "A parent had to make me a spelling book full of Pokmon names so when we are doing letters of the alphabet, I can spell the names the kids are calling out."
Pokmon has become a $5 billion worldwide marketing phenomenon, encompassing a TV show, comic books, video games, T-shirts, and trading cards.
With the cards, collectors can play a game in which they trade monsters with different characters and powers and train them for battle. The game has brought more than just a tempting diversion during recess, lunch, and study time, it's also brought tears and sometimes fights when students feel they've made a bad trade and demand a take-back.
"We got to the point where parents were calling us to say, 'My son traded away this really valuable card and we need to get it back,' " says Sam Jacobs, principal of Walpole Elementary School in Walpole, N.H. Not long after the opening of classes this fall, his school banned the trading of Pokmon cards.
"The school administration and teachers were becoming watchdogs and intermediaries in all these trades that had gone astray," says Mr. Jacobs. "We don't have anything against ... the trading, we just prefer they take it somewhere else."
A host of other schools - from New Jersey to Washington State - have enacted similar bans. But students have not always accepted them without a fight. In Walpole, nine-year-old Joe Tyson ran for class representative to student council on a platform of changing the school's policy on Pokmon trading. He won.
"We welcome any proposals Joe might bring up in council setting," says Jacobs. One such consideration, he and other principals say, is to set aside one or two days per year as on-campus Pokmon trading days, in which all trading goes on in full view of teachers and parents.
That might not be enough for some parents, who say the whole Pokmon system is unfair.
In San Diego, the parents of five children took their complaints straight to court. They filed a class-action suit alleging Pokmon makers are encouraging their children to gamble.
The complaint alleges that collecting such trading cards is a form of illegal gambling; children buy pack after pack looking for valuable characters, but the odds of actually getting them varies greatly.
Decks of 60 cards can be purchased for $9.99. "Booster packs" of 11 cards cost anywhere from $3 to $15, and they are sealed so collectors can't see which characters are inside until after the packages are purchased.
"Many kids are spending all their money on cards without knowing what they are getting," says Brewer Moran, an assistant professor of marketing at Babson College in Massachusetts. "Just like the gambler who thinks his next hand will be a winner, the children continue to ante up because they think the next pack will contain the coveted card."
Whether or not Pokmon nurtures obsessive behavior in kids, sociologists and marketing experts say its greater-than-usual appeal lies in creating an entire world where kids are in control. Dozens of creatures appeal to different age groups and genders. Understanding how to play against opponents using the strengths and weaknesses of characters takes knowledge, focus, and skill.
"It's like any kid who has ever stumbled into J.R.R. Tolkien or other literature worlds in which he or she can be master or an authority separate from the world of adults," says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University in New York. "It can be a terribly heady thing in a culture where everyone else is an authority figure, a stranger, and where kids don't get to be expert on anything."
Part of the problem, say Professor Thompson and others, is the adult-exclusive world of Pokmon is also one in which disparities of age and experience can lead to dramatic inequities. Younger kids don't know which cards are the most valuable and become easy prey.
"An entirely separate childhood economy has been created complete with its own currency, gold standard [rarer cards], paper standard [common cards], supply and demand," says Thompson. "There is an exploitation of those who don't know the system, don't have the entrepreneurial skills, and the savvy."
At the same time, this micro economy can teach children lessons that may be useful later in life. The key is parental oversight, observers say.
"You could do a lot worse than have kids trading cards with imaginary monsters," says Marilyn Deutsche, principal of Dixie Canyon Elementary. "We would just like to maximize the learning they can derive from it, and minimize the rip-off."
And that could take a little vigilance. "It is hard for everyone to be informed consumers today with the increased understanding of marketers who are surveying every sociological angle about what we want, who we are, what we need," says Professor Moran. "Like everything else, we have to pay attention to where these things lead to excess."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society