Pokémon = Pol Comm: How Pokémon can illustrate some of the most important themes in my PhD research
Like most children, I was prone to being swept away by popular fads. Some, like the yo-yo craze of the late nineties, didn’t leave much of a cultural mark. Although my yoyo did, quite literally, after my attempt to perform an ‘around the world’ trick lead to our television taking a one-way trip to the local skip. Others were more significant. One was so popular it forced children into a life of crime and human trafficking. This was the cultural phenomenon that still is, Pokémon.
Released to critical acclaim in 1999 (UK), Pokémon Red and Blue saw millions of youngsters embark on an epic journey to ‘catch ‘em all’. Even now, as I approach my twenty-fifth birthday, I still enjoy each update in the series. One reason for the continual critical success and popularity of Pokémon has been the multiplayer options on offer. Long gone are the days of precarious link cables and protruding wireless add-ons, Pokémon X and Y, the latest offering, boasts a global user base. However, this improved connectivity fades into insignificance when compared to a social experiment devised by one anonymous Australian programmer.
The resulting chaos has made for compulsive viewing. Impressively, Red now has six badges to his name, but the game has by no means been plain
surfing sailing. Along the way key companions have been released, essential moves have been lost, and Red has spent A LOT of time walking around in circles. (For a summary of the key events so far, click here, or watch Red’s best bits here, or listen to a narrated history here. If you really start to get engrossed, check the Reddit board, here).
However, the purpose of this post is not to retrace the events so far, hopefully the links at the bottom of this post should suffice. For me, Twitch Plays Pokemon touches on some of the themes that I’m grappling within my own PhD research.
1) Everybody can’t be
Che Guevara Red (Morozov, 2011: 194): Can leaderless collective action be effective?
If you do spend any time watching Twich Plays Pokémon live you will notice that Red tends to spend the majority of his time either walking around in circles or opening and closing the start menu.
With thousands of users attempting to influence the decision making process, Red was often caught trying to use his SS Anne ticket or his Helix Fossil in random locations, as illustrated by @taraofforest below.
This illustrates a key debate in political communication at present. When the numbers of participants were small, before Twitch Plays Pokémon became a viral phenomenon, Red was able to achieve his aims with relative ease. His quest to conquer the Pewter City gym was swift, even with the type matchup disadvantage posed to his starter Pokémon, Charmander. However, as the numbers involved increased, the difficulties in the decision making process began to rise.
This decentralisation of power, from the single player to the many, illustrates an ongoing debate within studies of collective action. Two popular scholars, Clay Shirky (2008) and Evgeny Morozov (2011), offer two very different interpretations. Shirky, drawing on the example of Wikipedia, argues that the organisational capacities facilitated by new communication technologies empower participants to ‘organise without organisations’, bypassing the need for traditional institutions and, importantly, the rigid hierarchies that characterise them. This networked approach to collective action is undoubtedly popular as a number of movements have thrived on the legitimacy derived from a supposedly leaderless movement, including the Indignados in Spain and the Occupy movement (Gerbaudo, 2012: 134). However, Morozov (2011: 195) warns that by empowering participants with an equal stake in the decision making process, we risk obfuscation; “when every node on the network can send a message to all other nodes, confusion is the new default equilibrium condition.”
2) Organising with new organisations (Karpf, 2012)
This was evident for poor old Red, communication overload only served to slow him down and the random entry of commands was curtailing his attempt to become a Pokémon master. In response to these problems the creator added an additional feature, democracy and anarchy mode. Anarchy mode retains the original game mechanics, processing the thousands of commands into in-game actions. The newly introduced democracy mode offered an alternative approach; a voting system was introduced in which users vote for their preferred input, the most popular of which within the community is performed. This mode enabled Red to navigate a series of more complex challenges, including the complex tile-puzzle at the Team Rocket headquarters in Celadon City. Fundamentally, this mode doesn’t detract away from the autonomy of each individual player, their influence on the game remains equal. Instead the technical affordances provided by the creator seek to more effectively structure the will of the mass of online players and translate this into effective decision-making.
Interestingly, 38 Degrees, the political activist movement and a key case study within my PhD research, act in a similar manner. 38 Degrees’ organisational ethos is ‘People. Power. Change’; the groups’ central function is act as a conduit for it’s membership, removing the layers of elite-level decision making that characterised political groups of the 20th century. 38 Degrees seek to structure grassroots engagement in two respects. Firstly, during my ethnographic study of the organisation, I observed that the group fuse a vast range of qualitative and quantitative data sources from its membership to guide their campaign decisions and strategy. One way in which they do this is through ad-hoc surveys of their membership to decide on key strategic decisions, such as their survey as to whether or not the group should campaign against plans by the NHS to compile a database of medical records for the potential use of private firms. In just 24 hours the group had a response from 137,000 of it’s members, with 93 per cent backing their plans to organise a mass opt out. Just like the democracy mode, the organisation can act spontaneously with the backing of it’s membership.
Secondly, the group offers the platform Campaigns By You, which provides members with the technological affordances to structure and undertake their own campaigns, retaining complete autonomy over the decision-making process. In both cases, albeit to a differing degree, it is the mass of individual participants that direct the group strategy, with 38 Degrees offering the technological capacity to structure this. Just like the democracy mode, 38 Degrees assimilates the fragmented, competing individual voices of its membership, and offers cohesive, collective action.
When we explore groups like 38 Degrees in detail it becomes evident that the study of collective action online requires a much more nuanced approach than the initial interpretations offered by Morozov and Shirky, as they blend the logics of traditional political organisations and ‘horizontal’, leaderless networks. David Karpf (2012) proposes that we consider this phenomenon as organising with new or different organisations. These new organisations challenge our traditional understanding of collective action as they are structurally fluid (Chadwick, 2007), and, in contrast with more ideologically cohesive groups of the past, their use of digital tools enable individual participants to join large-scale collective action on the basis of more individualised identity frames (Bennett and Segerberg, 2012). In terms of the comparison with Twitch Plays Pokemon, it is important to recognise that the game reaches a collective decision by a technological means, whereas 38 Degrees rely on a central staff to structure the wants and needs of their membership. However, this doesn’t necessarily lead to regimented hierarchy as in the past. Paolo Gerbaudo (2012) describes this as ‘soft leadership’ where staff members act as choreographers, organising and structuring whilst minimising their encroachment on the will of individual members:
Just like conventional choreographers in the field of dance, these core organisers are for the most part invisible on the stage itself. They are reluctant leaders or ‘anti-leaders’: leaders who, subscribing to the ideology of horizontalism, do not want to be seen as leaders in the first place but whose scene-setting and scripting work has been decisive in bringing a degree of coherence to people’s spontaneous and creative participation in the protest movements.
(Gerbaudo, 2012: 13)
3) The internet as distraction?
The claim that our use of the internet (Prior, 2007: 111) and social media (Morozov, 2011) detract from our awareness and understanding of ‘important’ matters, like politics, is not necessarily a new one. Andrew Cunningham eloquently describes how this particular case illustrates both the incredible reach that an act of digital self-expression can have, seemingly from someone without any significant reputational capital, while probing two important questions; (1) what makes content go viral? (2) and of the, often mundane, things that do ‘go viral’, what tangible benefits do they offer?
In any case, Twitch Plays Pokémon encapsulates the best and worst qualities of our user-driven, novelty-hungry age. Today’s Internet has an extraordinary propensity for creating things that (1) grow quickly, virally, and organically through word of mouth, (2) provide hours of entertainment, and (3) waste days of peoples’ lives for no apparent purpose (see also: Flappy Bird).
Some have been dismissive of the benefits of social media, the vehicle for content like Twitch Plays Pokemon, arguing that the likes of Facebook and Twitter offer little more than lolcats, baby photos, and selfies. However, if we arbitrarily categorise certain cultural phenomena as either beneficial or harmful without careful exploration, we risk missing the effect of those cultural artefacts that span the fluid boundaries between political and non-political (Bennett, Wells and Freelon, 2011; Jenkins, 2006). Remember the glut of remixed logos in support of marriage equality last year? These instances of self-expression may offer an entrance point for others to learn about salient political topics (Chadwick, 2012). Evidently, Twitch Plays Pokémon is not an example of widespread learning, but the way in which the pro-democracy and pro-anarchy communities have mobilised and organised may offer a range of technological and organisational capacities that could be activated in political and civic contexts in the future (see Zuckerman, 2008).
4) The Wonders of the Internet
Twitch Plays Pokemon is, to me, the most wonderful thing online right now, a microcosm of the Internet at large.
Andy Baio, @waxpancake
Granted, this post is more an outlet for the PhD-infused mess that my brain has become, over analysing every microcosm of my life and then finding tenuous links to my research, rather than any kind of substantive piece. But, I do genuinely believe that, what started as a quirky social experiment, has become something really quite special, a fascinating example of digital culture in 2014. It has everything: anarchic trolls trying to bring the game to it’s knees; memes that traverse the boundaries of religious and political symbolism; a number of media outlets helplessly trying to decipher what the heck is going on.
The community that has formed around this project is truly astounding. As Nick Statt notes, an entire micro-society has formed spanning across Twitter, 4chan, Reddit, and a range of independent gaming websites. The introduction of the democracy mode created a philosophical rift amongst the community between the purists, who stressed the advances made without democracy mode, versus those who valued the additional layer of quality to ensure to help Red successfully navigate the more complex elements of the game.
For some, Twitch Plays Pokemon will emulate the very topic that formed the launchpad my research, slacktivism, as a large group of people from around the world come together and make minor contributions that, cumulatively, have no evident value. I disagree. Phenomena like this fuel my interest in the internet and the various digital sub-cultures that thrive within it’s murky depths. The speed in which the various communities mobilised, and the organisational ingenuity on display once they formed, illustrate the unique organisational capacity of the web. But it was the unusual subject matter and ingenious creativity on show that really piqued my curiosity. Imagine Brian Cox fawning over a night sky. That has basically been me for the past week, albeit over an 8-bit sprite who takes over 12 hours to work his way around a simple ledge.
Anyway, I hope you’ve found some enjoyment in this slightly tongue in cheek post. I’ll leave you with a quote from Nikola Suprak:
There is a famous saying that given a enough time, an infinite group of monkeys with an infinite group of typewriters could eventually reproduce the works of Shakespeare. Now we’ve found out that several thousand monkeys given several thousand computers can eventually become a Pokemaster. And, in truth, isn’t that the far more impressive accomplishment?
Andrew Cunnigham, Ars Technica | The bizarre, mind-numbing, mesmerizing beauty of “Twitch Plays Pokémon”
Michael McWherter, Polygon | How Twitch is crowd-sourcing an amazing Pokémon multiplayer game
Sam Prell, Joystiq | Twitch Plays Pokemon: Its history, highlights and Bird Jesus
Carolyn Rice, BBC News | Thousands play Pokemon on Twitch simultaneously
Aaron Souppouris, The Verge | Playing ‘Pokémon’ with 78,000 people is frustratingly fun
Nick Statt, CNET | 'Twitch Plays Pokemon' is now a fight for the soul of the Internet
James Vincent, The Independent | Twitch Plays Pokemon: ‘like watching a car crash in slow motion’
Zuldim | Let me tell you about Twitch Plays Pokemon
Bennett, W. L., Wells, C., & Freelon, D. (2011). Communicating Civic Engagement: Contrasting Models of Citizenship in the Youth Web Sphere. Journal of Communication, 61(5), 835-856.
Bennett, W. L., & Segerberg, A. (2012). The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics. Information, Communication and Society, 15(5), 739-768.
Chadwick, A. (2007). Digital Network Repertoires and Organizational Hybridity. Political Communication, 24, 283-301.
Chadwick, A. (2012). Recent Shifts in the Relationship between the Internet and Democratic Engagement in Britain and the United States: Granularity, Informational Exuberance, and Political Learning. In E. Anduiza, M. Jensen & L. Jorba (Eds.), Digital Media and Political Engagement Worldwide: A Comparative Study (pp. 39-55). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Karpf, D. (2012). The Moveon Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gerbaudo, P. (2012). Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Action. London: Pluto Press.
Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. London: New York University.
Morozov, E. (2011). The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. London: Penguin.
Prior, M. (2007). Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. London: Allen Lane.
Zuckerman, E. (2008, 08/03/2008). The Cute Cat Theory Talk at Etech. Retrieved 23/08/2013, from http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2008/03/08/the-cute-cat-theory-talk-at-etech/