Friday, February 21, 2014

Twitch Plays Pokemon

Some of you may already be familiar with the recent internet phenomenon known as Twitch Plays Pokemon (TPP). If not, a brief primer:, a website that streams live feeds of people playing video games, is hosting a rather unique playthrough of a modded, emulated version of Pokemon Red in which the player character (Red) is controlled collectively by people watching and commenting on the feed, with the "players" typing button commands into chat which are then interpreted and executed by poor Red. The result can be described as entertainingly chaotic, with Red spastically wandering around, opening and closing the Start menu, and (more rarely) inadvertently releasing his cherished Pokemon. See for yourself (it's worth watching, if only for a few minutes); Randall Munroe of xkcd has posted his take on it, as have others.

So why am I referencing this short-lived internet trend on my blog? To reflect on it, of course! I can certainly understand the appeal of watching TPP (though maybe not of trying to play it). It's entertaining to watch the chat commands rapidly scroll by and Red attempt to execute them, with the action bordering on nihilistic absurdity. And at the same time, this (admittedly artificial) difficulty to completing the most basic tasks, while entertaining, also turns what began as a children's role-playing game into an epic group effort that has captured the attention of hundreds of thousands. People (I imagine) get to celebrate as Red makes it to the next trainer battle or catches a Pokemon, and howl in confusion as he releases his cherished starter Pokemon, ABBBBBBK( the Charmeleon. Whether they'll make it through the whole game is anyone's guess.

It's even more interesting to see how the game has captured peoples' imaginations. In his random flailings around the Start menu, Red often seems to select the Helix Fossil in the Item menu. And so the Helix Fossil has become an internet meme of its own, a sort of magic 8-ball that holds all the answers. Red's current strongest Pokemon, aaabaaajss the Pidgeot, has become "Abba Jesus" the glorious leader of the team; similar identities have been assigned to most of Red's Pokemon. People have divided into factions supporting the two control modes, Anarchy and Democracy, almost like political parties (or houses of Hogwarts). A whole mythology has begun to spring up around the idiosyncratic, near-random happenings of this playthrough, giving us artistic depictions of moments like when Red inadvertently released his Flareon (which was supposed to be a Vaporeon), or what I can only describe as the information-age version of Gematria linking Flareon with the evil Dome Fossil, the dualistic opposite of the good Helix Fossil.
"Bird Jesus [Pidgeot] banishing the False Prophet [Flareon]"
My choice of the word "mythology" in that last sentence was not accidental. I see more than idle internet diversion going on in TPP. After four weeks of studying the cultural and philosophical background to the Old Testament, I see the same kind of mythmaking at work here that so many pagan Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures engaged in. In the absence of science, ancient cultures' myths were their way of exploring and understanding the world around them, of infusing both daily life and the historical goings-on of nations with meaning. ANE myths tended to reflect the societies that made them. Hence the phenomena of nature (the waters, the sky, the land, the storm, the sun, etc.) were associated with humanlike deities dwelling in a society much like the mythmaking one. Ancient Egyptians, protected from incursion on all sides by natural features and sustained by the dependable rhythm of the Nile, saw life as orderly and under the wise rule of the gods, including their divine-human ruler, the Pharaoh. Ancient Mesopotamians, by contrast, lived in a region with unpredictable weather and flooding, with life dependent on irrigation; they saw the gods as clashing and competing, creating humans to do the grunt work of sustaining society.
Anyway, today we tend to turn to science (or some similar manifestation of our post-Enlightenment worldview) to explain things, except the weightiest matters of life, afterlife, meaning, morality, and so on, for which we turn to religion (though it's becoming increasingly possible to believe that there is no need for this). But when confronted with something we truly can't explain or (effectively) control, like Red's bizarre behavior while making his merry way through Kanto, we turn back to mythological storylines to put it together in our heads.

From a more detached perspective, though, I can't help but see TPP as the projection of all the chaos, diversity, and pluralism of our modern world, which at times seems to be going in every direction at once, onto a single (virtual) individual. Seen in this microcosm, we laugh, celebrate, and mourn with Red's exploits. Being able to see and understand our own society in this way is as hard as it is scary. Most days I don't feel like trying.

And from a theological perspective, I ask the question: I wonder if this is how we look to God? Like bumbling, spastic lunatics who can't tell their Charmeleon from an Elixir, wandering directionlessly through life and doing things that, ultimately, don't make any sense? It's a different perspective on what "sin" is than the classic view of willful rebellion, but no less accurate.

Update: The Helix Fossil has been revived. The theological implications are enormous.

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