Pokemon, a video role-playing game created by the Japanese game designer Satoshi Tajiri for Nintendo Inc., is now finding its way into U.S. classrooms in the form of a supplemental educational game for students.

Based on the popular and long-running franchise, Pokemon Learning League is a web-based suite of interactive lessons in language arts, math, science, and life skills for students in grades 3-6.

Characters from the Pokemon series, animated in the bug-eyed, hip-hop-infused tradition of Japanese Manga, take part in storylines that teach lessons aligned with state and national standards. Pokemon USA Inc., the distributor of the brand outside Japan, says the components of the Learning League are developed by education writers and producers and are evaluated by an advisory board of elementary educators and ed-tech professionals.

The game is delivered via a three-step, “scaffolded” process in which students are first introduced to educational concepts as they watch a short segment featuring the Pokemon characters. Students then are presented with a problem for which they must collaborate to reach a solution. After that, they must apply what they have learned to interactive challenges.

There are more than 150 different species of creature, or Pokemon, in the Pokemon World. Players in the game–students, who are referred to as Pokemon trainers–are charged with teaching the creatures and helping them evolve to battle villains. Each player, or team of players, receives points based on how well he or she carries out the various strategies. The trainers work with adult mentor characters who guide them through the process of evolving their Pokemon, teaching the creatures right from wrong and helping them to hone the skills that will best exploit each creature’s inherent traits in battle.

The company says the characters in the Pokemon World demonstrate “pro-social” behaviors and are meant to emphasize important social values such as teamwork, friendship, skill building, and being a good student.

Yves Saada, vice president of interactive media for Pokemon USA, said the Pokemon Learning League evolved from the recommendations of parents, many of whom believe in the inherent educational value of Pokemon content.

“Parents will often tell me their kids learned to count and read from the Pokemon trading-card game,” Saada said. “The Learning League mixes the animation from the TV show and develops the content according to standards. It is web-based, meant for supplemental use in schools, in virtual schools, and on home networks.”

So, what’s the secret to the brand’s success with kids?

“What we’re really focusing on is creating a product that kids will like,” says Saada. “Once kids like it, teachers will. … [In the] Pokemon video games, users compete to get a badge of honor, for example, a badge of geometry. Kids are coming back every day to the site, play with it, learning with it. Almost organically, teachers will be drawn to the product, once we have demonstrated that it is very efficient.”

Unlike some other commercial franchises that have failed to integrate successfully into the classroom, Saada said, the Pokemon game was developed with education in mind.

“We started with the standards, then tried to see how the back stories met the standards,” Saada said. “It’s a supplemental resource to reinforce the content in the classroom. We want to reinforce what the teacher teaches in the classroom.”

Heather Miller, an education consultant who worked with Pokemon in developing the program, gave an example of how a lesson on the mathematical concept of probability is taught through a Learning League narrative.

“[The Pokemon character] Pikachu has been kidnapped by the evil Team Rocket. [Pokemon main character] Ash Ketchum and his friends must save Pikachu, but Team Rocket has set traps,” Miller explained. “The heroes want to get through to Pikachu without falling into a trap. Ash can ask questions through a mentor in the game. Those questions include, ‘Where were [the villains who kidnapped Pikachu] before? Where might they be now?’ In other words, questions concerning probability.”

In such a case, the digital Pokemon mentors would supply students with graphs and expressions of numerical fractions, interpreted as ratios. These mini-lessons then would be followed by activities.

“It is a scaffolded, very structured exercise,” Miller explained. “In order to work through it, the student must be able to read the expression of probability through circle graphs.”

In the third and final part of the exercise, Miller said, students engage in a group activity involving probability that will enable their Pokemon heroes to save Pikachu.

“Students are producing, not just analyzing and interpreting. They are actually being given information, and they then have to produce a probability graph to show that they understand probability,” Miller said. “Students, parents, and teachers are able to check through the web site and see how each kid has done on each video as she or he progresses through the lesson.”

One key feature of the Pokemon Learning League, which Miller calls “very valuable,” is its assessment functionality, which uses interactive videos for review.

“Many of the kids taking part in pilots said it’s better than the textbook,” Miller said, though she cautions the Pokemon game is intended to be used only as a supplementary resource–and not as a replacement for standard curricula.

“Once [students have] learned [a concept] through every other means, the Pokemon resource offers extension exercises to bring the concept home,” she said. “It is great for an extended-day classroom period, and each exercise can be done in around 15 minutes.”

Pokemon USA is making the site available to educators free of charge through Jan. 1, 2007. At that point, the company will offer schools a per-building subscription structure, with a per-household subscription structure for consumers.

Links:

Pokemon Learning League
http://www.pokemonlearningleague.com

Pokemon USA Inc.
http://www.pokemon.com