Twitch Plays Pokemon: Humanity in a Nutshell

In the three weeks or so since its inception, Twitch Plays Pokemon has come very close to taking over the internet. It has spawned its own memes and in-jokes, its own subculture, has been reported on by major news networks around the world and has somehow persuaded hundreds of thousands of people at the time to repeatedly type ‘up’ into a chat menu in the vain hope their input will make a difference. And somehow, this all makes for surprisingly compelling viewing.

The idea is brilliant in its simplicity: a stream of a Pokemon videogame broadcast live over Twitch TV, with a mod for the chat that allows viewers to enter onscreen commands that will effect gameplay- so somebody typing ‘down’ into the chat will cause the player character to move down (assuming, of course the command is not received whilst the character is in the midst of stepping from one tile to the other. Thus, people from all over the world are forced to work together, or at least in something vaguely approaching sychronicity, to progress through the game, and the more people they are the more chaotic and hard to control the whole business becomes. Naming Pokemon is a quite hilarious farce. With no central control of the game, viewers are forced to try and negotiate immediate aims and decisions through the ever-scrolling chat before even attempting to implement them, and if no clear consensus is reached then the character is essentially condemned to walking back and forth around a city or other immediate area whilst everyone attempts to move in different directions. And, this being the internet, there are more than a few trolls- those who delight in the inherent chaos of the game and make it their job to hamper progress wherever they can.

Somehow, the image of a pixelated figure walking randomly about the screen has proved wildly popular, with hundreds of thousands of people watching and contributing to the adventures, functioning as a group brain that has become known as the Hivemind. The nature of the stream has led to a large number of somewhat bizarre oddities compared to a regular Pokemon playthrough- with the game playing day and night with a rotating cast of controllers, grinding for hours on end to level up Pokemon is less soul-destroying on the player and will quite often continue for hours on end as the Hivemind endeavours to decide what to do next. As such, Pokemon tend to level up fairly quickly and battles, even against Gym Leaders, are relatively speaking straightforward to win. However, successfully walking to where the Hivemind ‘wants’ to go, unlikely to have been considered a challenge by the original developers, is a far more taxing business. A series of one-way ledges in the early days of the stream took over a day to navigate, and a subsequent mountain pass had to be attempted on multiple occasions after several ‘accidental’ uses of Dig took them back to the start- the 30 second delay between the chat and the screen doesn’t exactly help. An attempt to deposit the offending creature in the PC, another unintended yet extreme challenge involving multiple successive ‘correct’ button presses, ended with the party’s two best Pokemon being released and lost for all eternity, and attempting to buy a water stone (after many hours of heated debate) ended in similar failure. One maze required the entire nature of the stream to be restructured as ‘Democracy mode’ was initiated- hell, even getting through the door to the Pokemon Centre has baffled users for more time than it has any right to.

But perhaps the main motivator behind TPP has been the lore and humour developed within. A veritable religion has sprung up surrounding the Helix Fossil, an early game item that, being early up in the items list and unusable in general play, was consulted on many occasions- the player character was said to be ‘looking to the Helix for guidance’. Its counterpart, the Dome fossil, has become a Satanic figure, with several particularly annoying game features (such as the aforementioned user of Dig) becoming ‘servants of the Dome’. The chat has also come up with its own nicknames for the selection of Pokemon with strings of random letters for names and has more recently (at time of writing) become fixated with the captured ‘Doges’ (this is the internet after all), aka the Pokemon Poochyena.

So… why am I talking about this? Well, other than because I find the thing faintly amusing, I find what TPP represents truly fascinating, and I think it exists as the perfect microcosm of, and metaphor for, human existence and society. Think about it- we have thousands of people united only by a common goal (completing the game), yet each with very little power to achieve said goal. They do what they can, hampered by the limitations of the world they find themselves in, and a chosen few rise above the rest and at least attempt to give the masses direction toward they go. But all do not function in harmony- different voices all compete for attention, with every participant sure they have a way to make things so much simpler if only everyone would agree. Others act as saboteurs and dissenters, criminals if you will, their efforts in a stroke undoing the hard work of others as they contentedly giggle to themselves from the sidelines, whilst still others just go about their duties almost randomly in the hope their efforts will count for something. In doing so, the Hivemind has developed its own gods, religions, folklore and history, providing the entertainment and distraction needed for the stream to keep going. Sometimes, these distractions and other differences of opinion have held the stream up for hours, halting forward progress. And yet, despite all obstacles, despite what should surely be unmitigated chaos, this stream has achieved things many would have thought impossible. They have overcome their obstacles, put aside their differences and (after a fashion) made decisions, have captured some of the rarest and trickiest to obtain of all Pokemon (most notably the singly-occurring Zapdos hidden in an obscure corner of Pokemon Red) and ultimately completed two games (Pokemon Red & Crystal). They are even making good progress on a third (Emerald) at time of writing.

Society at large is, to me at least, not too dissimilar. Each and every one of us goes about our daily lives, doing what little bit we can in the grand scheme of things. Some of us attempt to make the world a better place and do so, others have no such lofty goals but end up doing so anyway, whilst others, either deliberately or through well-meaning but failed attempts, end up dragging us down as a collective. Some have risen to ‘lead us’, many of whom make very little difference to the way we each individually function, whilst other things, from organised religion to what’s on TV this evening, have kept us distracted and motivated to keep on going. We have struggled, we have failed, we have bogged ourselves down for aeons as we all pull in different directions, and yet somehow we have prevailed- and not just that, we have thrived. We have built this amazing world around us, a society that puts the food in my belly, the roof over my head and the internet connection that lets me write this and watch the very stream that has inspired this post. The Hivemind of planet Earth has somehow achieved great things, and for those cynics among you who so often wonder how, I would look no further than Twitch Plays Pokemon.

Web vs. Money

Twice now, this blog has strayed onto the subject of legal bills attempting to in some way regulate the internet, based on the idea that it violates certain copyright restrictions, and everything suggests that SOPA, PIPA and ACTA will not be the last of such attempts (unless ACTA is so successful that it not only gets ratified, but also renders the internet functionally brain-dead). However, a while ago I caught myself wondering exactly why the internet gets targeted with these bills at all. There are two angles to take with regards to this problem; why there is any cause for the internet to be targeted with these bills, and why this particular problem has bills dedicated to it, rather than simply being left alone.

To begin with the second one of these- why the web? Copyright violation most definitely existed before the internet’s invention, and many a pirate business even nowadays may be run without even venturing online. All that’s required is a copy of whatever you’re pirating, some cheap software, and a lot of blank discs (or USB’s or hard drives or whatever). However, such operations tended to be necessarily small-scale in order to avoid detection, and because the market really isn’t large enough to sustain a larger-scale operation. It’s rather off-putting actually acquiring pirated stuff in real life, as it feels slightly wrong- on the web, however, it’s far easier and more relaxed. Thus, rather than a small, fairly meaningless operation, on the internet (which is, remember a throbbing network with literally billions of users) piracy is huge- exactly how big is hard to tell, but it’s a fairly safe bet that it’s bigger than a few blokes flogging ripped off DVD’s out of the boot of a car. This therefore presents a far more significant loss of potential earnings than the more traditional market, and is subsequently a bigger issue.

However, perhaps more important than the scale of the operation is that it’s actually a fairly easy one to target. Modern police will struggle to catch massive-scale drugs lords or crime barons, because the real world is one in which it’s very easy to hide, sneak, bury information and bribe. It can be impossible to find the spider at the centre of the web, and even if he can be found, harder still to pin anything on him. Online however is a different story- sites violating the law are easy to find for anyone with a web connection, and their IP address is basically put on display as a massive ‘LOOK HERE’ notice, making potential criminals easy to find and locate. The web is a collective entity, the virtual equivalent of a large and fairly open ghetto- it’s very easy to collectively target and wrap up the whole shabang. Put simply, dealing with the internet, if a bill were to get through, would be very, very easy

But… why the cause for dispute in the first place? It’s an interesting quandary, because the web doesn’t consider what it’s doing to be wrong anyway. This is partly because much of what a corporation might consider piracy online isn’t technically illegal- as long as nothing gets downloaded or made a hard copy of, streaming a video isn’t against the law. It’s the virtual equivalent of inviting your mates round to watch a film (although technically, since a lot of commercial DVD’s are ‘NOT FOR PUBLIC PERFORMANCE’, this is strictly speaking illegal too- not so online as there is no way to prove it’s not from a public performance copy). Downloading copyrighted content is illegal and is punishable by existing law, but this currently often goes unregulated because the problem is so widespread and the punishment for the crimes so small that it is simply too much bother for effective regulation. The only reason Napster got hit so hard when it was offering free downloads is because it was shifting stuff by the millions, and because it was the only one out there. One of the great benefits that bills like SOPA offered to big corporations was a quick, easy solution to crack down on copyright violators, and which didn’t entail lengthy, costly and inconvenient court proceedings.

However, downloading is a far smaller ‘problem’ than people streaming stuff from Megavideo and YouTube, which happens on a gigantic scale- think how many views the last music video you saw on YouTube had. This is what corporations are attempting to stop- the mass distribution of their content via free sharing of it online, which to them represents a potentially huge loss in income. To what extent it does cost them money, and to what extent it actually gets them more publicity is somewhat up for debate, but in the minds of corporations its enough of a problem to try and force through SOPA and PIPA.

This, really is the nub of the matter- the web and the world of business have a different definition of what constitutes violation of copyrighted content. To the internet, all the streaming and similar is simply sharing, and this is a reflection of the internet’s overarching philosophy- that everything should be free and open to everyone, without corporate influence (a principle which is astoundingly not adhered to when one thinks of the level of control exerted by Facebook and Google, but that’s another story in itself). To a corporation however, streaming on the huge scale of the web is stealing- simple as that. And it is this difference of opinion that has led to such controversy surrounding web-controlling bills.

If the next bill proposed to combat online piracy were simply one that increased the powers corporations could take the prevent illegal downloading of copyrighted content, I don’t think anyone could really complain- it’s already definitely illegal, those doing it know that they really shouldn’t and if anyone wants to grumble then they can probably stream it anyway. The contentious part of all the bills thus far have been those which attempt to restrict the streaming and sharing of such content online- and this is one battle that is not going to go away. At the moment, the law is on the side of the web. Whether that will stay the case remains to be seen…