Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! are two of the most popular game franchises on earth. Both involve combat between monsters, elements of competition, and heavy doses of magic. Are these fantasy worlds, targeted at a non-adult audience, spiritually safe? Should a Christian play these games or allow their children to play them?
There are two mistakes Christians can make when it comes to culture. One mistake is to be careless: to participate without considering what they’re doing. The other mistake is being paranoid: to reject something based on little or no information. Notice that the common problem is a lack of information. Each person has a different spiritual perspective, and each person has a different set of strengths and weaknesses (see 1 Corinthians 10:25–31). It’s possible for the same activity to be perfectly safe for one Christian and unwise for another (Romans 14:15). It’s good to avoid things that can be harmful (1 Corinthians 6:12), but it’s not good to be reactionary (Proverbs 18:13). The key is having an accurate understanding of the hobby, so one can make the choice that is right for him.
From a mechanical standpoint, there is nothing inherently moral or immoral about games like Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh! In games like chess or checkers or Go, one uses strategy and an understanding of which pieces follow which rules. Games like backgammon incorporate both skill and luck in a competition between two people. What’s relevant in the case of Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon are their connections to magic, Eastern spirituality, and gambling.
Of course, any game, including chess or backgammon, can become a spiritual hindrance under the wrong circumstances. Anything that distracts our attention, interest, or time from God’s will is a problem. Even if a Christian investigates Yu-Gi-Oh! or Pokémon and finds no concerns, it is still a game. Christians need to be cautious not to let affection or addiction ruin a good thing (1 Corinthians 6:12). There’s no biblical mandate to play games, and there’s nothing inherently beneficial about them, so perspective is in order.
In immediate, non-spiritual terms, the first concern any Christian should have about Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! is actually cost. Computer-based games can be expensive to begin with. The card-based versions of the games can become a money pit: packs are randomized, so, other than defeating other players and capturing their cards, the only way to gain better monsters is to buy more merchandise!
One subtle complication is the fact that both series have changed over time, in response to various factors. Both have “lightened” their content, both spiritually and in regards to violence. In the words of one knowledgeable Christian gamer, both Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! have “definitely mellowed out” over time. Given that neither was overtly malicious in the first place, that says something about the relative strength of any threats they pose.
The term Pokémon is short for “pocket monster,” and this describes the creatures used to play the game. In the Pokémon world, these monsters are actually various types of animals. Players must find and capture the creatures, train them, and then pit them against those of other players. This is made more complex by the fact that each type of Pokémon has certain advantages and disadvantages when facing other specific types of Pokémon. This is similar to rock-paper-scissors, in which strength and weakness have everything to do with the specific opponent being faced.
Most Pokémon have a magical special ability, as well. When players compete against each other, they use strategy to decide which animals to use and at what time. Most of these abilities are original (e.g., the ability to increase weight or change the weather), but others are based on spiritual concepts, particularly those of Eastern faiths. Some of these are drawn from the Buddhist or Shinto traditions. Concepts such as psychic ability, possession, chanting, and communing with spirits are incorporated into certain facets of the franchise. Even in their original versions, most of these concepts were secondary to the game’s basic premise. In the current version of Pokémon, most of these ideas will probably go right over the heads of most children—and adults, for that matter.
In more complex versions of the game, players can “evolve” their Pokémon into a larger, more powerful version of itself.
Unlike Pokémon, which is targeted at a fairly young audience, Yu-Gi-Oh! caters more to teenagers. There are some vague connections between it and Pokémon in terms of player-vs.-player competition and a similar reliance on strategy, monsters, and magic. However, Yu-Gi-Oh! is far more centered on the storyline found in the Japanese comics, known as manga. Some of the themes, images, and characters in Yu-Gi-Oh! are more mature than those found in Pokémon. The current version of the series has more of a “good-vs.-evil” flavor.
Yu-Gi-Oh! also involves concepts much more likely to raise eyebrows for Christians. The central character of the series is literally possessed by a spirit who takes control of him when he is threatened. This spirit also drives him to participate in games of chance. These aspects of gambling and possession—albeit benevolent possession—are of great concern to some Christians. The card game also draws heavily on dark concepts such as negotiating with spirits, “summoning,” and so forth. Not only is the magic more occult-like, but the monsters of Yu-Gi-Oh! are more noticeably “monstrous” than those in Pokémon.
In common sense terms, the Pokémon franchise is not dissimilar from the cartoons of Walt Disney; it has “magic,” but it is not overtly occult. The violence, such as it is, is cartoonish, not graphic. The animals themselves are highly whimsical and not scary. The style of the animated television series and the games is much closer to Bugs Bunny than anything else. In brief, the game is about training fantasy animals and competing against other trainers. To what extent the use of concepts such as animal fighting, animal evolution, and magical powers is a problem is up to the individual Christian.
Some Christians object to Pokémon all the more because it is child- and family-friendly. They see the game as a “soft” way to introduce children to magic, evolution, Eastern spiritualism, and the occult. Again, it’s important for each person, especially parents, to understand what effect any activity would have on their particular life or the lives of their children.
Yu-Gi-Oh! has a more “serious” feel, both in terms of visual style and narrative. While not on an adults-only level, Yu-Gi-Oh! is not nearly as playful or cartoonish as Pokémon. Again, this series is more plot-driven and serious than Pokémon and is specifically meant to appeal to an older audience.
Some Christians may object to Pokémon because of the use of Eastern religious ideas. It should be noted, though, that Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims have all criticized the franchise, at one point or another, for using the symbols of “other faiths” as part of the monster design. The same is true for the “magic” of the animals’ abilities, the way they chant their own names, and so forth. In the case of Pokémon, all of these connections are subtle, light, and not central to either the game or the story. And yet, it’s probably the main aspect that Christians ought to be careful of. Impressionable children, especially, need to be given clear guidance by their parents that what they see in Pokémon is purely fantasy and not a competitor with Christian truth.
Another common objection to the games is a perceived link between Pokémon and gambling. Players can win some of other players’ animals. Those with more skill and/or luck can collect a larger stable of monsters. Some liken this feature to games such as poker, where a combination of skill and luck allows a winner to take from the loser. This point is also an issue in Yu-Gi-Oh!—even more so because the main character is an avid and compulsive gambler.
Since the games themselves are more complex than a single article can explain, it’s important for Christians to do more research before making any final decision about games like Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh! Neither game is “sanitary” enough to say that there are no possible concerns. And there are definitely some disturbing aspects of the games (the “possessed” character in Yu-Gi-Oh!, for example, portrays something real—and demonic—in positive terms).
All things considered, neither franchise, taken at face value, is likely to be a significant threat to anyone’s spirituality. However, the decision to play or not to play has to be made by each family for themselves. Caution and information are key.