How you kicked a football, and who let who join which team, were, perhaps, the first ways in which boys learned to demonstrate their place in the playground hierarchy. Football was easy to organise, and hard-and-fast rules had already been established. It was a craze: we played it every break-time, and for a while there was nothing better, nothing else which could sublimate all the rivalry and competition, both physical and mental, bubbling close to the surface.
Viewed from an upstairs window, my old playground would be littered with active bodies, mid-game, filling the space with movement. Yet, for all our dedication, we boys were about to change our loyalty sharply and absolutely; Pokémon cards were about to arrive…
There had been other, preceding fads, such as yo-yos, or finger skateboards (does anyone remember those?) However, these involved a certain amount of dexterity and focus which meant that, no matter how appealing, they would always ensnare the few and not the majority. With their immediate mass appeal nothing was to shock both the landscape and politics of the playground more violently than Pokémon trading cards.
The arrival of this Japanese franchise had already rocked the gaming world, providing hours of entertainment for those wishing to catch, train and fight these strange little creatures (most of which appeared part cute pet, part violent monster.) And when the game was converted into a playing card format, it spread like a sudden and intoxicating wave flooding into schools throughout this country. The rules resembled those of Top Trumps, but these soon lost their importance, as the cards quickly changed from the tools of a recreational game into collectible commodities themselves. Instead of bits of fun, they became status symbols. Now, fuelled by greed and money, the cards began to change our behaviour.
Viewed from that same upstairs window, the playground was no longer filled with active bodies, but tight groups of children, huddling together like drug dealers, witnessing the swapping and purchasing of these cards. What had unwittingly been brought to this space was, of course, the sharp sting of capitalism and the fetishisation of commodities. Pokémon’s slogan – “Gotta catch ’em all” – speaks for itself.
These useless little cards were worshipped, fawned over, and closely guarded. Very soon, the hierarchies were restructured, as the cards took on a commanding role in school politics. Inevitably, those with more money (or indulgent parents) were able to buy more card packs, hoping to get hold of an elusive ‘shiny’—a special card with a light-reflecting background. Interestingly, with this rudimentary form of capitalism, and crude version of commodity fetishism, came a darker, more dystopian side (of what?). The cards began to encourage criminal behaviour. They initiated a noticeable increase in stealing and fights breaking out around the campus. At my school, one small boy, with a particularly impressive collection, had his own personal cohort of ‘big kid’ bodyguards; such was the lunacy of this craze. At last, after an outcry from outraged parents, the headmaster recognised the seemingly innocuous card game for what it was: pernicious and damaging. Once the preserve of the quieter children who couldn’t play football, Pokémon cards were now given the same treatment as a dangerous weapon. The cards were banned in schools throughout the UK. The days of Pokémon trading became like a distant, half-remembered bad dream and the boys went back to playing football.
During the rest of my time in education, no other fad had quite the same impact until, that is, my first year of university. At Cambridge, we seemed to come upon new trends a little later than everyone else. So, on a weekend trip to a northern university I happened upon a new craze in development. I was taken to a club where, usually, the sticky-carpet dancing to Beyoncé and Sean Paul was accompanied by frantic downing of VKs and tequila shots. Yet on this occasion, I noticed something different: each person had a key tied around his/her neck like some kind of talisman, which they would momentarily dip into pocket-sized packets of white powder. After a few hours, instead of a slurring, lurching mass, the club was filled with spiky fingers, wide eyes, and wandering jaws. It was strange: there was a feeling of intensity and a vulnerability that would never have existed in that type of place before the advent of Mephedrone—for it was indeed the impact of this new drug, a new ‘craze’, that I was observing.
My friends from this same university informed me that this substance could be ordered by mail and delivered straight to your pigeon hole, like a book from Amazon, and that it was cheap, effective, and, most importantly, legal. Yes, legal.
Like Pokémon, it lured all sorts of surprising victims into its thrall. Soon students who had never before dabbled in drugs, were bulk buying the stuff and selling it on, unwittingly becoming dealers. Others, regarding its legality as proof of its harmlessness, took to taking Mephedrone every time they went out, regardless of where they went, and apparently unaware that it was turning them into addicts.
Why, like the Pokémon card craze, was its impact so immediate and absolute? Because, Mephedrone was the perfect credit crunch drug: costing very little money, working almost instantaneously, and being above the law. It was as if young people were sticking two fingers in the face of the government, saying, “yes there’s a whole lot of crap going on in the world, and no one has any money, but we’re still going to go out and get fucked, and you literally can’t do anything about it.”
This drug should never have been legal. It was dangerous. Now, partying on a Friday night and not getting home ’til Monday morning wasn’t just something that crazy Berliners did, with Mephedrone it was happening throughout the UK. Needless to say, as time passed, this substance manifested a darker side: frequent users were identifiable by their full-body rashes, blueing limbs, and the beginnings of psychosis. And sure enough, even in sleepy ivory towered Cambridge, the Mephedrone craze began to change both the landscape of the playground (or nightclub,) and the politics of social behaviour. If Pokémon cards seemed intoxicating at the time, and induced a mania that became a temporary way of life for some people, then Mephedrone literalised these aspects. As a drug, it brought to life the psychological facets of a craze and made them manifest, by causing actual physical intoxication and bodily dependency from its users.
Like Pokémon, it took a while for the authorities to notice what was going on and make it illegal. When they did, many went diligently back to their alcopops, just as the boys went back to their football games. Did some of the Pokémon traders become Mephedrone dealers? I wonder.
But like Pokémon, the mephedrone craze seems to have receded from memory, a brief glitch in our collective history. And I can’t help wondering, what would have happened if either mephedrone or Pokémon cards were allowed to continue their influence? Pokémon cards fostered greed, jealousy and blind competition. Mephedrone played on vulnerability, the inability to stop, and the desperate need to connect with others. What made the Mephedrone phenomenon so intense is that when the already-intoxicating potentialities of a craze take the form of a highly addictive legal drug, it becomes a sort of ‘super-craze’—a mammoth, national problem.
But equally terrifying, at the very least – for the notion of Free Will – is the realisation that the only way to halt the invasion and possession of youthful consciousness was through the intervention of Big Brother. In order to realise that these things were dangerous, they had to be declared so. I guess we’ll never stop needing the bell to signal the end of playtime.