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American Times: Greenwich, Connecticut: Little monsters have captured my children

WE HAVE become used to warding off unwelcome creatures invading our home. There is a racoon that regularly prises open our dustbins, wild turkeys across the road and assorted skunks that ambush me on my cycle route from the station. But nothing compares with our present infestation of Pokemons.

For a description of a Pokemon you would be better talking to my eight- year-old son, Jonathan, or anyone else in his elementary school class, or, for that matter, to almost any child in America. Everyone in Topeka, Kansas, has been familiar with them since 1,000 Pokemons rained out of the sky on the city one day last December, tossed from a plane.

A Pokemon, short for Pocket Monster, is not a live animal, but the product of a savvy brain at the Nintendo Corporation in Japan. A Pokemon appears in a game of the same name designed for Nintendo's hand-held Game Boy toy. The game, introduced in Japan in 1996, arrived in America last September. It reaches British shores shortly. You have been warned.

The phenomenon gripping pre-teen America is Pokemania. And mania is an apt description. In seven months, Nintendo has sold 2.5 million of the Pokemon cartridges that are inserted in the Game Boy to play the game. Then there is the proliferation of spin-off products such as action toys, a board game, a twice-a-day TV show and a soon-to-be-released film.

Pivotal to my son's very existence is the collection of trading cards that feature the different variations on the Pokemon. If I have understood correctly from snatched conversations over breakfast, there are 151 Pokemons. It is the mission of everyone in Jonathan's class to accumulate as many of these cards as possible. Some, of course, are more desirable than others.

Twice this Sunday, I saw my son, who has 38, vanish into a huddle of boys for a shuffle of respective packs and swapping of cards - once at a birthday party and later in a deli with children he had never met before. His school, like schools across the US, has enacted hasty rules banning the cards, and all things Pokemon, from the grounds in class- hours.

"If I see a Pokemon card between 8.30am and 3.15pm, they've lost it," his principal, Doug Fainelli, told me. "I can't allow them to be a distraction and I had to act because of the tremendous need the children have to deal in them. They were getting in the way of class."

I admit we succumbed quickly, giving Jonathan his Game Boy and vital Pokemon cartridges for Christmas. The trading cards and his habit of getting up before 7am to catch the early-morning TV show crept up on us. But the game appears surprisingly benign. True, battles are fought between Pokemons. But there is no blood, no death and no guns. This will not turn children to killers.

Roughly, the game is a variation on stones-paper-and-scissors. Different Pokemons have different in-built weapons to overwhelm those weedier than they. Thus, Koffing has little nozzles that emit noxious vapours. Charizard breathes fire. In battle, the vanquished simply faint - nothing gory there - and their strengths pass to the victor. Pokemons, which must travel a hazardous route of ambushes and obstacles, capture other Pokemons with a Poke Ball. Defeat all "bad" Pokemons and reach the end of the route and your Pokemon becomes a "trainer".

Nor has Jonathan's life been lost to the game. Homework still gets done. Such restraint may not be present in all households as the marketing of Pokemon intensifies. The Pokemons Nintendo air-dropped over Topeka were stuffed toy versions of Pikachu, the yellow mouse-hedgehog-catlike creature clearly the star of the species.

There are Pokemon web-sites too. Last week, children across America logged on for the first "retirement" of two of the 151 characters, Beedrill and Kakuna, a stunt designed to make cards depicting them more valuable to collectors.

Our first Pokemon crisis came on Monday, when Jonathan's younger sister, Polly, could no longer stand exclusion from this exciting parallel universe. At The Fun House, our local toy shop, we met disaster. Pokemon trading cards, the owner exclaimed, you must be joking? He has a standard order for 100 boxes a week, and he's lucky to get one a month.

But he saw the first tide of tears in Polly's eyes then he was leaning below the counter. He produced four of the cards from a stash, hidden for just such moments, and gave them to her. So the infestation gets worse.

David Usborne