Twitch Plays Pokemon Philosophy – A Metaphor of Mankind’s Progress

At a first glance, the experiment carried out on twitch.tv and referenced by some major newspapers seemed to me quite pointless: how can a game,

  • played by thousands of people at the same time,
  • with an input of one (or a few) commands per submission, and
  • with added delay (so that you can’t even guess what your command will actually do)

be of any interest? Facts told me that I was wrong, they said it through logic and emotion, and with such intensity that made me totally change my mind.

I’m not going to descrive how twitch worked (and still works), or to tell the while story. I’m going to focus on the major social, psychological and philosophical issues it opens. And that’s because there are so many of them! So, let’s get started.

From Trend to Myth, from Myth to Religion
I got acquainted with Twitch when some friends of mine told me of its existence. Inwas skeptical at that time, but it was undoubtful that lots of people already played it. Lots of people do lots of useless things lots of times, hence this is not the reason why my attention got caught.
Trend eventually became a “myth”: people actually found out an intriguing tale from the (approximately) white noise coming out of the game. The story told about a guy named Red who was assigned the difficult task to reach a goal while under chaotic winds. That reminds me of Ulixes trying to reach Itaca while Poseidon’s will hampers a straight voyage. Red had a team of valuable allies. Some of them was lost because of the will of an abstract entity (which is, actually, a group of players, together with casualty). Then, some random things happened. And that’s where the magic that enchanted me began.
First and foremost, because of game design, random commands brought the main character to try using a useless item (namely: “Helix Fossile”), multiple times, purposeless. The purpose was invented by the community: Helix Fossile, a chunk of bits, was elevated to the rank of god (who will someday awake). The repeated act of randomly selecting the item was something like “prasing the god”. Charming. That was finding sense out of nonsense.
The fact is, the whole story was given a sense: a wrong choice in the evolution of Eevee to Flareon [incoming names will be, mostly, pokémon names] was interpreted as “the raise of an evil prophet”, which later “banished the hero’s allies” (and that is improperly attributing casual events to entities); the evolution of Pidgey in Pidgeot, and the great amount of experience gain caused by some difficulties in making progresses on the game map was considered as a “initiation of a true, just prophet”. Even the input modes Twitch offered (anarchy and democracy) where assigned a moral value: anarchy was justice and democracy was the will of the evil god (“the Dome”, which is another item/pokémon). I found this quite fascinating: as it happens in the early stage of mankind’s history, when people cannot explain natural events, a god was called out and other major figures found themselves responsible of totally unrelated events.
All of that was, surely, for fun: nobody is interested in randomness, while giving funny, somewhat mythic meaning to events is always appealing. My opinion is, though, that all of that was not only for fun.
Anybody needs some assurance out of uncertainty. Even at the cost of inventing things. That’s engraved in our deeper nature. Anybody needs to believe in some “organizing reason”, in some good, powerful entity that could guide towards what is needed, or dreamed. Total randomness is unacceptable: it must be faced with irony or with given meaning. And Twitch opted for both.
So, in the end we have a purposely created god, the Helix, who guides the hero who consults him towards success. We have a prophet, an angel, a king, a prince(ss), and some random “all terrain veichle” (again: irony). We have a set of mythological creatures, a hero, and a destiny. That destiny was eventually accomplished. And this brings us to the second part of the article.

“E baciò la sua petrosa Itaca Ulisse”
Even if it’s a bit unclear how so many people managed to finish the game in an acceptable amount of time (around 20 days), the fact is that the game was finished: Itaca (which is the “Hall of Fame” in the game) was finally reached by Red.
In the game efforts actually converge to a determined goal: a symphony emerges from the white noise, and, slowly but relentlessly, guides the hero. The SNR (Signal/Noise Ratio) is variable, but everyone reading the story with a sufficient time-span can be aware of reached goals. Total randomness would require much more time. That time could be even abnormous (if some objectives were failed) and could tend to infinite. But we’re talking about 17 days. This means that the symphony was quite audible. And that’s awesome.
I found the whole thing awesome because it gives me a hope: as Red (even after some great loss, because of a evil-willing counter-symphony and randomness) approaches and eventually reaches his goal, mankind could follow the same difficult and glorious path. Even if our contribute to mankind is disordered (our action are doubtlessly sub-obtimal – that means we could surely do something more useful than what we’re doing now, like, I’m writing an article on Twich instead of writing down my Master Thesis, so, you know… :P), even if we can’t even guess how our contribute will actually impact the world, that contribute is still useful. That contribute still follows some symphony. And we’re giving, and will relentlessly give, that contribute, because our nature compels us to do so. Is there a “Helix” guiding us in our journey, or are we whispers in the white noise? It doesn’t really matters, because future can hear us. And I foresee, and deeply hope, that we will someday reach our “Hall of Fame”. Twitch gave us a fair empirical evidence on that! 😀

Aaand, that’s all for now! I hope you enjoyed the reading. If not, remember that the article is son of randomness (or of the will of some major entity) as I am, so, don’t blame me! Next one will be surely better, if we trust in science! 😉

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