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.

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Fitting in

This is my third post in this little mini-series on the subject of sex & sexuality in general, and this time I would like to focus on the place that sex has in our society. I mean, on the face of it, we as a culture appear to be genuinely embarrassed by its existence a lot of the time, rarely being referred to explicitly if at all (at least certainly not among ‘correct’ and polite company), and making any mention of it a cause of scandal and embarrassment. Indeed, an entire subset of language has seemed to develop over the last few years to try and enable us to talk about sexually-related things without ever actually making explicit references to it- it’s an entire area where you just don’t go in conversation. It’s almost as if polite society has the mental age of a 13 year old in this regard, and is genuinely embarrassed as to its existence.

Compare this to the societal structure of one of our closest relatives, the ‘pygmy great ape’ called the bonobo. Bonobos adopt a matriarchal (female-led) society, are entirely bisexual, and for them sex is a huge part of their social system. If a pair of bonobos are confronted with any new and unusual situation, be it merely the introduction of a cardboard box, their immediate response will be to briefly start having sex with one another almost to act as an icebreaker, before they go and investigate whatever it was that excited them. Compared to bonobos, humans appear to be acting like a bunch of nuns.

And this we must contrast against the fact that sex is something that we are not only designed for but that we actively seek and enjoy. Sigmund Freud is famous for claiming that most of human behaviour can be put down to the desire for sex, and as I have explained in previous place, it makes evolutionary sense for us to both enjoy sex and seek it wherever we can. It’s a fact of life, something very few of us would be comfortable to do without, and something our children are going to have to come to terms with eventually- yet it’s something that culture seems determined to brush under the carpet, and that children are continually kept away from for as long as is physically possible in a last-ditch attempt to protect whatever innocence they have left. So why is this?

Part of the reasoning behind this would be the connection between sex and nakedness, as well as the connection to privacy. Human beings do not, obviously, have thick fur to protect themselves or keep them warm (nobody knows exactly why we lost ours, but it’s probably to do with helping to regulate temperature, which we humans do very well), and as such clothes are a great advantage to us. They can shade us when its warm and allow for more efficient cooling, protect us from harsh dust, wind & weather, keep us warm when we venture into the world’s colder climates, help stem blood flow and lessen the effect of injuries, protect us against attack from predators or one another, help keep us a little cleaner and replace elaborate fur & feathers for all manner of ceremonial rituals. However, they also carry a great psychological value, placing a barrier between our bodies and the rest of the world, and thus giving us a sense of personal privacy about our own bodies. Of particular interest to our privacy are those areas most commonly covered, including (among other things), the genital areas, which must be exposed for sexual activity. This turns sex into a private, personal act in our collective psyche, something to be shared only between the partners involved, and making any exploration of it seem like an invasion of our personal privacy. In effect, then, it would seem the Bible got it the wrong way around- it was clothes that gave us the knowledge and shame of nakedness, and thus the ‘shame’ of sex.

Then we must consider the social importance of sex & its consequences in our society generally. For centuries the entire governmental structure of most of the world was based around who was whose son, who was married to who  and, in various roundabout ways, who either had, was having, or could in the future be having, sex with whom. Even nowadays the due process of law usually means inheritance by either next of kin, spouse or partner, and so the consequences of sex carry immense weight. Even in the modern world, with the invention of contraceptives and abortion and the increasing prevalence of ‘casual sex’, sex itself carries immense societal weight, often determining how you are judged by your peers, your ‘history’ among them and your general social standing. To quote a favourite song of a friend of mine: ‘The whole damn world is just as obsessed/ With who’s the best dressed and who’s having sex’. And so, sex becomes this huge social thing, its pursuit full of little rules and nuances, all about who with who (and even with the where & how among some social groups) and it is simply not allowed to become ‘just this thing everyone does’ like it is with the bonobos. Thus, everything associated with sex & sexuality becomes highly strung and almost political in nature, making it a semi-taboo to talk about for fear of offending someone.

Finally, we must consider the development of the ‘sexual subculture’ that seems to run completely counter to this taboo attitude. For most of human history we have comfortably accepted and even encouraged the existence of brothels and prostitution, and whilst this has become very much frowned upon in today’s culture the position has been filled by strip clubs, lap dancing bars and the sheer mountains of pornography that fill the half-hidden corners of newsagents, small ads and the internet. This is almost a reaction to the rather more prim aloofness adopted by polite society, an acknowledgement and embracing of our enjoyment of sex (albeit one that caters almost exclusively to heterosexual men and has a dubious record for both women’s and, in places, human rights). But because this is almost a direct response to the attitudes of polite culture, it has naturally attracted connotations of being seedy and not respectable. Hundreds of men may visit strip clubs every night, but that doesn’t make it an OK career move for a prominent judge to be photographed walking out of one. Thus, as this sex-obsessed underworld has come into being on the wrong side of the public eye, so sex itself has attracted the same negative connotations, the same sense of lacking in respectability, among the ‘proper’ echelons of society, and has gone even more into the realms of ‘Do Not Discuss’.

But, you might say, sex appears to be getting even more prevalent in the modern age. You’ve mentioned internet porn, but what about the sexualisation of the media, the creation and use of sex symbols, the targeting of sexual content at a steadily younger audience? Good question, and one I’ll give a shot at answering next time…