Cyberspace in Cartoons

(from September 15)
Week 3: Cyberspace in Cartoons

It is difficult for a child to comprehend what the Internet truly is and how it really functions, even in today’s modern, web-driven world. So when the media that surrounds them tries to explain the concept, the process has to be basic and all sorts of jargon have to be removed. After all, it would be too complicated to tell a child that “When a packet comes in on a link, the router very quickly looks at the destination IP address, decides which outgoing link to use based on a limited Internet ‘map’ it holds, and sends the packet on its way” (Abelson 306). With a description like that, the packet-transferring system that is in place in reality has little effect on a child’s imagination. Therefore, it is easier to tell a child to imagine a world like ours, but only in a realm within the computer, where computer data moves from place to place. While films like Tron (1982) and The Matrix (1999) portray the concept of “cyberspace” differently, one of the more intriguing examples for children comes from a 1997 episode of the wildly popular children’s cartoon Pokémon.

In theory, the episode titled “Denno Senshi Porygon,” also known as “Electric Soldier Porygon,” has a rather harmless premise to it. A transfer system for monster balls has been malfunctioning, so the creator of the transfer program believes there is a virus causing the problem. When the creator realizes that the show’s antagonists are the ones inside the program blocking the flow of the monster balls, he sends the show’s protagonists inside the program as well to fix the issue. What the heroes experience inside the computer world is very much the widely accepted definition of cyberspace, that is, “A land without frontiers where all the world’s people can be interconnected as though they were residents of the same small town” (Abelson 13). Everyone retains their same bodies, they encounter the villains, and a battle takes place as if it were the real world. However, the landscape is digitized, with lights representing data consistently passing by, and real-world barricades act as metaphors for the act that has stopped the monster ball transportation process. Only by physically moving aside said barricades do the heroes solve the problem, signifying the use of rudimentary approach to fix a far more complicated issue, which is easier for children to accept. However, this episode is infamous because of what happens when the protagonists leave this concoction of “cyberspace.” A vaccine considers the heroes to be the source of the vaccine, so it attempts to destroy them. The clash between the two results in rapidly flashing red and blue lights, causing many children who first watched the episode on television in 1997 to have epileptic seizures. The Japanese government banned the episode, never releasing it outside the country, and has since added a warning for children to sit back from the TV in a well-lit room to every animation episode they produce. All of this happened because of one children’s cartoon’s portrayal of cyberspace.

Even though this cartoon episode never made its way to the United States, the fact is it was going to before the controversy occurred. Many other forms of media targeted for a younger audience elaborate on the concept of cyberspace, whether characters go inside a computer or are transported to an entirely digital world. It just so happens that the Pokémon example is so fascinating because of the massive popularity the franchise had at the time with that young demographic. Despite all that, with all the forms of media that portray it, the false concept of “cyberspace” remains ingrained in our digitally-cultured society. If only such an idea could be deleted, as if it were bits of data.

Abelson, Hal, Ken Leeden, and Harry Lewis. Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion. Addison Wesley Professional (Pearson), 2008.
“Denno Senshi Porygon.” Pokémon. TV Tokyo: 16 Dec 1997. Television.