[This is an old post, originally published on Blastocyst on March 9, 2014.
But it’s pretty relevant today, when we’re all on the internet together feeling pretty down about collective action and existence itself.]
Mount Moon is our Mount Sinai, and the Helix Fossil, our One True Lord and Saviour.
Oh, and one more thing.
Twitch Plays Pokémon is the best thing ever.
I don’t mean that as hyperbole, and I say it with no trace of irony. Twitch Plays Pokémon actually legitimately is the best thing ever.
To be fair, it’s not the only best thing ever. There are a few others, but the crucial point is that they are all the best thing ever for the same reasons and in the same way – or, in other words, they’re all just different expressions of a single Best Thing Ever.
The first reason is that it’s beautiful (the Aesthetic dimension). The second reason is that it shows us how to live our lives in a good way (the Ethical… or rather, the Political). But what sets it apart from many other pretty-good things (as in, things which are both pretty and good) is the third aspect: the Existential.
Twitch Plays Pokémon holds the key to the greatest question of them all: why do things have value; how can they have meaning? It’s the vital mystery that lies at the heart of hearts of all Alchemy: how to get something from nothing.
One day I’ll give this same treatment to the Bible, and will promptly be stoned (as in, to death; not on weed).
In the meantime… Twitch Plays Pokémon.
Introduction to Twitch Plays Pokémon
So. First things first: an explanation of all these things for those of you who don’t live on the internet — who are only passing through it for business or pleasure — and thus have no idea what I’m talking about. The rest of you can skip down to Part II – or, if you’re anything like me, you’ll ignore that and stick around, because the epic tale of Twitch Plays Pokémon bears any number of re-tellings. (…which, by the end of this essay, you will hopefully come to find is a rather significant statement. …but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)
The bare fundamentals
Pokémon (Red & Blue version) is a video game for the Nintendo GameBoy, released in 1996 in Japan and 1998 in the US of A (and no, I’ve no intention of mentioning the European release date, because that would make this relatively unimportant section much too long. The contents of this parenthesis are highly counter-productive).
The object of the game (traditionally, and for the purposes of understanding TPP) is to collect a series of creatures called pokémon (short for pocket-monsters) and use them to defeat the pokémon of other trainers in combat, until you become the undisputed Pokémon Champion.
(Phew. Glad we got that one sorted out.)
Twitch is a live video-streaming website specialized in video games and e-sports. Video game players film themselves playing video games on their respective Twitch channel, and people come watch them do it, usually interacting with the player and each other via the chat-sidebar (that is, a bar on the side in which you chat – rocket science, this…).
Twitch Plays Pokémon (or TPP) is a channel on Twitch in which a mysterious individual took a copy of Pokémon Red and programmed it so that it responds to the commands given to it by people watching the stream, as relayed through the chat sidebar.
An innocent enough premise, to be sure.
The thing is, though… before long, it went viral. By the time I was made aware of it, on Day 3, there were tens of thousands of people playing it simultaneously. Eventually, that number would peak at well over 100,000, with an average of about 80,000 at any given time.
This popularity had… interesting results.
The experience is less like a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time… so much as 80,000 monkeys all trying to type on the same typewriter, with half of them hell-bent on channelling the their own version of the Bard while the other half fling shit everywhere and try to break the typewriter.
In brief: it’s utter, unchained, brilliant chaos.
So, imagine that the players have to leave the room they’re in by its only door. Assume that it is perfectly clear that this is what they should be doing to advance in the game, and assume that everyone playing wants to advance in the game (if you’re already chuckling upon hearing these assumptions, you’re on the right track). To accomplish this, say that they need to move one step down, and one step to the right.
So ten thousand people input “down”. The little man on the screen goes all the way down and walks straight into a wall, which he tries to burrow into following the ten thousand subsequent orders to go “right”. So now he needs to go ten steps up, and one step to the right in order to open the door.
Ten thousand people input “up”.
…you see where this is going.
At this point, I should add that it was very rarely so clear what the players had to do. Often, some felt they should go south to train their pokémon, while others were trying to go north to challenge the next Gym Leader.
And at this point, I should tell you that roughly half of the participants were just pressing random buttons (or purposefully unhelpful ones), trying to throw the other half off course – whatever that course happened to be.
And at this point, I should point out that there was, in fact, a half-minute delay between the video and the chat sidebar – so your input, even if well-intentioned, would only take place 30 seconds later, at which point it would almost certainly be completely counterproductive.
So, what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that, from this sea of apparent senselessness, Beauty arose resplendent, like Aphrodite from the foam. Meaning, unintended but indisputable, was born from the primordial deep of Unmeaning.
The mechanics of Twitch Plays Pokémon meant that the actions being taken were almost entirely random, repetitive, and devoid of any obviously discernible intent. And if things had remained like that, TPP would essentially have been a mathematical exercise in seeing how long it would take a moderately sophisticated algorithm (not much better than a random-number-generator) to reach a win-state in Pokémon Red.
But what ended up happening was that the collective viewership of TPP attempted to make sense of the senseless, and weave a coherent narrative out of the inchoate source material. Interpretations were proposed, they spread, and became adopted by the community at large as canon – all without any top-down intervention or codification.
The first challenge facing them was how to make sense of the protagonist of the game, who sported the default name of “Red”.
Red spent most of his time walking in circles… twitching (har har) left and right and then right again… opening the start menu constantly and to no particular end… selecting completely inappropriate commands during battle dozens of times in a row…
Red was severely schizophrenic, his mind shredded from trying to satisfy the conflicting demands of the tens of thousands of voices screaming in his head.
When Red received his first pokémon, the spastic hive mind ended up naming it “ABBBBBBK(”. Or “Abby”, for short.
The third pokémon to join the team was a rat-like creature who was given the name “JLVWNNOOOO”. Someone noticed that this random string of letters bore passing resemblance to the name of a certain American comedian and late-night talk show host.
The miracle here is a double one. Firstly, that a chaotic splurge of information which at first glance seems totally meaningless should have given rise to this already vibrant cast of characters; and secondly, that one person or persons’ momentary fancy was swiftly and universally adopted by the community at large, without any central control or direction. This is the stuff that memes are made of.
The story continued.
The quasi-arbitrary rush of commands meant that the players ended up opening the item menu constantly, and using whichever item was first on the list, almost always in utterly pointless ways. However, some items aren’t permitted to be used in the normal run of play, and thus generate a “RED! This isn’t the time to use that!” message. One such item is the Moon Stone. Red was constantly (and I mean, constantly) opening up his item menu and attempting to use it.
What could this possibly mean? Well… the poor child, in the throes of madness, obviously found some solace in the stone, which he imagined could give him some guidance to chart a course through the shrieking storm of commands in his head.
But soon, of course, the players managed to contrive to toss the Moon Stone away. Red was once again tossed adrift, at the mercy of the battering waves of our Hydra-headed will.
…but not for long.
The Moon Stone is just one of many identical such items in the game. However, the Helix Fossil, picked up at Mt. Moon at the expense of its counterpart Dome Fossil, is unique, and the game does not allow us to throw it away so easily. And so Red was left to open an Item menu from which every useful item had immediately been jettisoned, and attempt to use the Helix Fossil… again… and again… and again…
The Helix Fossil enabled Red to see through the chaos in his mind, and distill it into an ironclad purpose.
Thus was the cult of the Helix Fossil, our One True Lord and Saviour, finally born.
Soon enough, the Helix Fossil became the Creator God of the Twitch Plays Pokémon universe: standing for all that is holy and good, opposed forever by the Evil Dome Fossil and its minions. It gathered and guided the Pokémon team, led by its chosen one: Bird Jesus (a Pidgeot who, for a good portion of the game, was the team’s only decently powerful fighter).
The Helix Fossil drew many disciples to its cause.
There was Dux, the Treeslayer — pictured above carrying his trademark Leek. He’s the pokémon which the players managed to (after interminable hours of trying) teach the crucial move “Cut”, and thus be able to continue the game.
There was Digrat: another Ratata (like Jay Leno) who was accidentally (…or perhaps by the will of the Evil Dome Fossil?) taught the move Dig, which teleports the team out of the dungeon they’re playing in, undoing many hours of progress each time. Much misery ensued.
And on and on… Until the time of the Great Betrayer – Eevee/Flareon. The Deceiver. The False Prophet.
So. As with Cut, the players needed a pokémon to learn Surf. As intimated by the name, this can only be learnt by a water pokémon.
But they already had five pokémon, and you can only hold 6 pokémon at a time. So the hive mind went to trigger a certain event which would be guaranteed to give them Lapras… who could learn Surf and then (later) Strength. The way through the game would be made considerably easier with his addition to the team.
…but the Evil Dome Fossil intervened… or, if you prefer, the wrong command was selected accidentally, due to the aleatory controls. Instead of Lapras, they received Eevee.
But there was still hope. If given a Water Stone, Eevee can turn into a water pokémon, and learn Surf.
The Borg somehow contrived to go to the appropriate store. And, once there… they bought a fire stone.
Flareon came into existence. The team’s plans to finally learn Surf were dashed.
…there was only one way out of this bind.
There exists a method to take pokémon out of your team, freeing up space for another one to enter… the PC.
But the PC is an extremely dangerous place to visit, when you have touchy-at-best control over your controls… because it is the only place in the game in which a pokémon can be permanently lost to the player, released into the wild.
And sure enough… this was the fate that met the founding members of our pokémon team… Abby, the Charmelon… and Jay Leno, the Ratata…
Thus was the great Betrayal wrought.
The Evil Dome Fossil, acting through His chosen agent, Eevee/Flareon, had stabbed the team in the back, and led to the loss of its founding members.
It was a dark, dark day in TPP.
So, to reiterate. All that “really” happened was that the semi-random control input scheme resulted, perfectly predictably, in some sub-optimal play.
But that was not how it was perceived by players, and the gaming community at large.
THIS is how it was perceived by players, and the gaming community at large.
Hundreds of thousands of people managed to watch that spasmodic, repetitive, infuriating mess… and imbue it with such drama, such depth of meaning and narrative cohesion.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of the story.
Many, many more things happened – we could be here all day recounting them. There was Drowzee, the Keeper, encharged with banishing the False Prophet Flareon to the depths of the PC, in which he eventually met the same fate he inflicted on our dear departed Abby and Jay Leno.
The command system was overhauled, sparking the Start9 riots in protest. Eventually, the Anarchy v. Democracy system was instituted, and the stalemate was resolved.
There was the miracle of the Master Ball, when the most valuable item in the game was inexplicably (…or, due to the omni-benevolent will of the Helix Fossil) not just randomly tossed away or used on a useless pokémon. Instead, Zapdos, or Battery Jesus, was added to the team… though this new addition would precipitate the second great disaster of the run (Bloody Sunday), in which no fewer than 12 pokémon were permanently lost to us, on Day 11…
…only for hope to be rekindled when the Helix Fossil was finally born into the world as Lord Omastar, God of Anarchy and Lord of TPP.
And so on, to Ultimate Victory.
For on the first day of March, 2014… after 16 days, 7 hours, and 45 minutes…… Red finally found his peace.
“Alright, alright”, I hear you say. “We get the picture. People made up a story around a chaotic massively multiplayer runthrough of Pokémon Red. But we still don’t get what the big deal is.”
You might not see it now, but the big deal is that Twitch Plays Pokémon is the biggest deal possible. It holds the key to understanding the human condition, and shows us a way to navigate it without being reduced to a twitching wreck — just like the Helix Fossil did for our dearly beloved Red.
But first things first: its beauty.
PART II: AESTHETICS
TPP as Dreamscape, and Minimalist Art
The first thing to note is that what it does, it does already standing on the back of greatness. If TPP is a collage, it’s as if it has cut up the work of Renaissance masters. It is like Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. – the effect he achieved was only possible when based on a conventionally beautiful picture of already-universal appeal.
Just so, TPP’s source material – the original release of Pokémon Red & Blue versions – has a potent attraction and universality all of its own.
The minimalist 8-bit art style (slightly behind-the-times even for its day) is distinctive enough to give the game a unique charm, personality, and atmosphere, while at the same time being understated enough to achieve the effect of suggestiveness rather than completion. That is to say, it gives enough to draw you in and allow you to imagine this is a real world, while leaving the space for you to fill it in yourself.
Because there are two ways to make a beautiful world. The first is to straight-up make a beautiful world, from the roots to the branches; however, any mistakes or omissions have the effect of making one see the artificiality of it, and destroying the sense of immersion. Furthermore, once the audience has looked around your world, that’s it – what you see is what you get.
However, if you do just enough to gesture at the endless possibilities, then all that you leave unstated is actually room for the audience to create the world themselves. It’s this effect that makes mysteries compelling, and the answers to them almost invariably disappointing – in order to make your answer satisfying when compared to the state of pregnant unknowing which preceded it, you essentially have to come up with something better than your audience could imagine.
And I don’t mean to say: a better answer than your audience could come up with themselves. I mean: an answer which is more satisfying than the experience of letting your imagination revel in the mystery and run wild, conjuring a menagerie of feelings, intuitions, ideas which can be endlessly generated and combined without the death knell of a definite answer… Which, given any decently imaginative audience, is a tall order.
But this isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. If I said “A guy named Jim died in a locked room; who killed him?”, I don’t expect you to be consumed by burning speculations as to who the murderer might have been. In order to set your imaginations running, I would have to draw you in far enough, cast a compelling enough glamour over your eyes, for you to become sufficiently invested.
And this is precisely what Pokémon Red & Blue does – and better than most any other game of its era. The adorable pictures of the many and varied pocket monsters draw you in, and then you’re left to imagine their personalities and build relationships with them over the course of many hours of common struggle. Before long, the little shrubs and those featureless ledges become forests and mountains in your mind. That’s what gave the game its vitality and sense of scale – the non-existent storyline certainly didn’t.
Thus, Pokémon Red & Blue is, even in its original incarnation, an artfully designed platform to build your own story. It’s a not-quite-blank canvas, with a few scattered dots you’re left to connect any way you choose.
But to truly understand the underlying beauty of Pokémon Red, the source material for the great work of art which is Twitch Plays Pokémon, you cannot just look at the qualities of the game itself. Because, like the Mona Lisa, it’s much more than that – it’s a shared cultural experience, which ensured that no one engaged with it in a vacuum. Even the youngest child took it into her hands with their imagination already primed for an adventure.
I’m going to relate a personal anecdote, but I want to be clear that I’m not telling it because my personal experience is in any way significant; rather, it’s the best means at my disposal for getting this particular point across about the significance of Pokémon Red for my generation.
I was promised the game for my birthday.
My birthday is January 24th.
All my peers had gotten the game, at the very latest, by Christmas.
So for well over one month, but for that one month especially, I was left to stare over my classmates’ shoulders while they played it at recess. There was no internet connection at home for me to watch gameplay footage on, and there sure as hell wasn’t anyone willing to lend me their console for a day or two.
And so, for a month, I was forced to play Pokémon without a console — reconstructed from the fragments of gameplay I had witnessed — in the fertile confines of my own imagination.
Every night as I lay in bed, I envisioned progressing along forest paths and desert byways, planning which Pokémon I would add to my team, how I would name them, what their role in the adventure would be.
Every night as I lay in bed, these detailed schemes slid seamlessly into my slumber, where Wartortle ran through the corridors of my school, and Raichu wrestled with my dead dog.
This is what you have to realize, if you want to understand what Pokémon Red meant to my generation, before it even ballooned into that massive multi-media franchise it is today.
We all of us dreamed it before we played it. Together, we created a million variations of the single, shared, joyful dream.
Pokémon Red, a decade and a half before Twitch Plays Pokémon went live, already held within it the seed for what was to blossom over the course of two weeks in late February, 2014.
Now. The particular aesthetic experience of TPP is to take this hallowed raw material, and render it repetitive and random.
John Cage – the composer and art theorist most famous for his piece 4’33 (which consists of 4 minutes 33 seconds of the performers sitting in silence, challenging the audience to listen to all the ambient noises which would be there all along, or nothing at all) – once said:
In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.
Erik Satie was an composer early 20th Century composer — most famous for his hauntingly lovely Gynompédies and Gnossiennes – who served as an inspiration for later generations of minimalist composers. The tunes he’s most famous for are, as it were, a lot like the original Pokémon: simple, beautiful, unornamented – suggestive and atmospheric rather than explicit and full-fleshed.
He also wrote a little piece, unpublished in his lifetime and undiscovered until 25 years after his death, called Vexations. This is what it sounds like. And this:
…is what it looks like. That’s a picture of the entire score.
The note jotted at the top reads:
In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities
On September 9, 1963, John Cage organized a concert in which, for the first time, the advice of Satie’s cryptic note was taken quite literally. He, and a small cast of other pianists, played this piece eight hundred and forty times, at the Pocket Theatre (Pokétheatre?) in Manhattan.
It lasted for 18 hours and 40 minutes.
By the end, the audience had been reduced to six people – two of whom were apparently asleep.
This is what one member of the audience said of it later:
The music first becomes so familiar that it seems extremely offensive and objectionable. But after that the mind slowly becomes incapable of taking further offence, and a very strange euphoric acceptance and enjoyment begin to set in…
Is it boring? Only at first. After a while the euphoria…begins to intensify. By the time the piece is over, the silence is absolutely numbing, so much of an environment has the piece become.
So, is Twitch Plays Pokémon boring? …only at first. Only for the first hour or so. Then, the commands on the right start to blur into a constant stream of white on black, like the waterfall at the edge of the world which feeds its many oceans. The action of our little Red on the screen takes on a hypnotic, almost necessary quality. Reality is reduced to a series of empty tics, endlessly repeating in subtle variations. And after a while, your mind adjusts, and you begin to go native in that foreign reality.
And no, I don’t for a second claim that I, or anyone else, thought of it as a hyper-intellectual avant-garde art experiment. Far from it – our numbers wouldn’t have even reached John Cage’s 6 audience members if we had. We were compelled to stay by amusement; curiosity; sheer, dumb disbelief; and a deep furnace of frustration at why Red doesn’t just fuckin’ teach fuckin’ Cut to his fuckin’ Dux.
But nevertheless, we stayed; and I assure you, the effect was quite precisely out of this world.
I watched the players struggle through the Rock Tunnel for an unspecified amount of time, but one more easily countable in hours than in minutes.
The Rock Tunnel is a fairly long and complex maze. Without using the move Flash, it remains cloaked in darkness. You can’t see Red, or any features of the map – only the outline of the walls, shifting up and down and around him.
I watched these lines shuffling endlessly up, left, and down, for Helix-Fossil-only-knows how long.
The music in pokémon, as in any 8-bit game, is intended to be able to loop a short tune for a long time. But it sure as hell wasn’t meant to be used like this. It took maybe ten minutes to become infuriating. A while later, of course, it just… was.
It was just those shifting lines. And the perennial, senseless stream of irrelevant commands on the right. And that friggin’ music. For hours.
…I’m telling you, man. That was a trip and a half.
When I got up from my computer, the world around me seemed an alien place, and the prospect of getting up to make myself food, nigh on incomprehensible.
For many gamers, moments like this might have been their first exposure to the aesthetics of Cagean Zen.
In its repetitiveness, it induces the same sensation as the music of the American minimalists – Steve Reich or Terry Riley or Philip Glass. It’s like the experience of drone music – in its metal variation by bands like Sunn O))), or the ambient electronic sounds of Brian Eno.
In its randomness, it’s like the noise music of Merzbow, or the great, chaotic tone clusters of avant-garde classical composers like Penderecki, wherein you’re overwhelmed by a violent, dissonant mass of sound, and feel your mind bending under its onslaught into odd, impossible shapes. It’s a chaotic information overload, which has our brain furiously struggling to find some meaningful patterns in it, then, finally, giving up with an exquisite gasp.
So, on that level alone, Twitch Plays Pokémon is beautiful.
But of course, that is only the beginning. Because people playing, and people watching, did not treat it as a hypnotic, mind-numbing meditative experience, and just let it wash over them unmoved. What they did was pick out from its chaos key events, and despite all the odds, somehow found a way to give them meaning, bringing a cohesion and a narrative to the whole.
And therein lies the reason why the Helix Fossil truly is Our Lord and Saviour – and Mount Moon, our Mount Sinai.
But first… politics.
PART III – POLITICS
The Possibility of Progress
This point should really be obvious, but I feel I have to include it, for completeness’s sake.
Art never takes place in a vacuum, and as a result, the pursuit of beauty for beauty’s sake (and at the expense of everything else) has the tendency to occasionally feel rather empty. And so, I feel, the greatest works of art do not sequester themselves from the world which surrounds them, but instead actively engage with it.
In fact, the greatest art does more – it brings to that world an indication of how it can move forward. To me, all the best art is Messianic (in the political sense that one day justice will prevail, and not so much the weird, paranormal-supernatural Gnostic hogwash): even in its abstraction and its stylistic obsession, it hints at the emancipated world to come.
And so, like other great works of art, Twitch Plays Pokémon has a clearly discernible message of ethical and political import.
So clearly discernible, in fact, that I feel a fool for spelling it out.
And so, reluctantly, let’s state the obvious: Twitch Plays Pokémon shows people can advance towards a common goal even in situations which seem geared towards nothing but conflict. People don’t need overlords or centralized authority to cooperate, and they can overcome significant barriers to collective action. Just like the latter half of February 2014 can bear witness to people who spontaneously organize against oppressive regimes in Venezuela or in Ukraine, just so, we can all beat Pokémon even if we use the same controller and play a version running 30 seconds out of time.
There. I said it. It’s done.
…only… it’s not actually quite done…
There’s just one little element of this political picture to fill in.
So, there’s the usual, old, tired debate about humans and history. Is history linear, an axis along which we can reliably progress, or is it circular, in which civilizations are condemned to relive the demise of their predecessors? More to the point: can humans work together for a common goal, or is it in their nature to squabble and bicker forever?
Now, people point at Twitch Plays Pokémon and go “see, progress is possible. Largely undirected human systems can move forward.” And they say it in this kind of deterministic way, like Hegel spoke of History and Progress, or Marx spoke of the logic inherent in the means of production. It’s History doing the progressing here; you puny little flesh-and-blood humans have about as much a hand in it as Neil Armstrong’s left testicle had in the moon landing.
But what’s really interesting about the political dimensions of Twitch Plays Pokémon isn’t this clichéd, impersonal point about cooperation winning out over conflict, of human nature being more Angel than Demon.
What’s really interesting isn’t just the fact that we managed to work together against the odds and cooperate towards a common goal.
What’s really interesting is that we, not just as individuals, but as a collective, managed to do so consciously, willingly. It wasn’t just the successful running of some social algorithm. What’s miraculous is that the Twitch Plays Pokémon community managed to articulate a common political vision, to actively construct a common political project.
It wasn’t just the gears of History grinding forward. There was undeniable agency at work. The cogs in the machine were all singing marching songs and brandishing placards and muttering amongst themselves about how the whole thing shook when the carburator got going.
In case this distinction isn’t yet making sense, let’s consider an alternate scenario.
Imagine that Twitch Plays Pokémon consisted solely of tens of thousands of people punching in commands. They were each locked in separate rooms with no way of communicating other than the controls to Pokémon Red. Most of them tried to beat the game, and in the end, the game was beaten.
Now, the only thing you could say about this is what people have generally been saying about Twitch Plays Pokémon anyway. “There is some property of large human groups which tends towards order and progress.” The lesson to draw is some law about systems (in this case, systems of humans). It’s like people who say talk about “the market” as if it were a sentient being. “The market responded with scepticism to the Federal Reserve’s latest statement.” “The market increased quality of life tenfold, and led to vastly improved health outcomes.” The actual people doing the producing don’t have any idea or coordinated project to do these things; rather, it’s a quality in the patterns of their behaviour which is doing the work.
In this alternate scenario, there wouldn’t really be much room to meaningfully say that the actual humans involved in playing the game really meant this thing to happen; it’s just a thing which happens through large groups of humans.
But, of course, this is not what happened. I mean, yes, that happened, but that’s not the only thing that happened.
As I stated before, people started telling a story about the chaotic progress of the game.
That is, people were all able to conceive of a coherent, common vision of what these macro-events entailed. I wish to emphasize that we – not just as solitary individuals, but as a huge, disparate group – came up with myths and heroes and villains that rendered the events as something understandable in terms of human intentionality and endeavour. This whole canon of TPP narrative proves that there was a real aspect of self-awareness, of consciousness of what this uncoordinated collective of players and spectators were all communally working towards.
Thus, the TPP gives us hope not just for the outcome of political endeavours so much as for their process. When we cooperate towards a common goal, if we cooperate towards a common goal, there will be a meaningful sense in which we can say that there is real, collective agency at work. TPP gives us reason to think that we might be able to not only get together and do great things, but together have a coherent idea as to why we’re doing these things, and to have our actual desires for these things to happen really play a part in them happening.
It can edge us away from the defeatist attitude towards problems like political oppression or climate change or economic inequality – the idea that, if these things are to get fixed, it’ll be when technology advances, or the culture changes, or the Aquarian Age descends upon us, or even when some vague, cataclysmic future revolution just happens to happen.
TPP indicates to us that it doesn’t have to be the Invisible Hand of the Market or the Middle Finger of Fate which prods us along to human advancement. It’s just possible that large groups can gather around a commonly conceived, non-hierarchical political project and deliberately bring it to fruition.
So the real political lesson to be drawn from Twitch Plays Pokémon is this. It’s not that cooperation naturally wins over conflict in human affairs, and order invariably beats chaos in the end (yawn). It’s that human affairs have a place for collective agency – that cooperation can happen on our terms, in a way that we can direct and understand.
Sorry for that little aside. Now, on to our feature presentation.
PART IV – METAPHYSICS
Meaning out of Unmeaning
Alright. So. Finally. Here’s the deal.
Now, this might come off a little ironic by this point, but I’m gonna go pretty quickly here, cus you didn’t sign up to read a book, and I don’t have the courage to write one. So just roll with my dubious assumptions – they’re leading somewhere as quick as I can make them go.
Let’s start at the beginning.
There are two levels within which meaning and value can be applied.
There’s the really big stuff. The “meta”-level stuff – you know, like in metaphysics. Life, the Universe, and Everything.
And then there’s the “little” things. The things one level lower: within life, the universe, and everything. Like, babies. And family, friends, hobbies, garden chairs, masturbation, conurbations, and the League of Nations. You get the gist.
We good? Good.
Now, nihilists have a very fine take on this: there is no meaning or value to anything at all.
They look at the universe, and see it has no purpose. There’s no intrinsic meaning in it, no goal in its being. It doesn’t have inherent value. Then they scale down a bit (unless you’re a solipsist, in which case they scale up), and look at their own existence. And they see that it too does not have any kind of discernible meaning. They can see no reason why we exist. Existence, per se, is senseless, with no inherent value.
And from that, they look at the particular things within their existence, and find they also have no meaning and no value. They look at their loves, their hates, their most intimate desires, and see in them the reflection of the emptiness of the cosmos writ large, like a starless sky seen upon the surface of a pond.
But there’s another take on this. It’s the view most people associate with traditional religion – the view that everything has meaning. I’m not quite sure of this, but I think perhaps most Normal People (who haven’t been brainwashed in some way, or are facing particularly stressful circumstances) still have this running at the back of their minds, in sort of “default mode”.
They look at the contents of human life, and find they have value. Making people happy has meaning. Winning a sports game has meaning. Grieving for a loved one has meaning.
And they scale up this point of view to the bigger questions as well. The universe itself has a purpose. Life has intrinsic meaning. Everything happens for a reason – maybe different reasons, depending on whether it’s something in a human life, or a something in the cosmos at large… but a reason nonetheless.
Now, there’s something not quite satisfying about the thorough-going nihilist’s point of view. And that is: no matter how much I might agree that the universe is to all appearances senseless, and that I cannot discern any apparent reason or purpose to my own life… nevertheless, I just can’t shake the reality that meaning and value… happen. (At least sometimes.)
Whatever my views on the meaning of life, if someone comes and stamps on my foot, I would become quite angry. The physical integrity of my foot is of great value to me. And no matter how much I might believe my life is purposeless, it’s still just a bare fact that I would rather spend a day strolling in the sunshine of early Spring and eating fresh fruit than I would watching repeats of the X-factor in Simon Cowell’s personal sex dungeon. The former just is a more meaningful and valuable way to spend a day, for me.
Meaning happens, in my life.
…at least, that’s how I feel the majority of the time.
Whether that majority is closer to 51%, or 99.9%, I haven’t quite sat down to figure out yet.
But the traditional religious view has its own problems.
Let’s leave aside anyone who contemplates the cosmos and the nature of their own existence, and comes away with the impression that it makes any kind of sense. I’m not even referring to people whose favourite book tells them that the universe has a purpose (though I think if they read it properly, they’d find it doesn’t quite say what they might imagine it says), and who thus believe it has one even though they can’t see it themselves. That’s a different beast.
What I mean is, let’s leave aside someone who looks at the whole of Reality, and tells me they can make out a specific purpose in it, a meaning, a value arising from the thing itself. Let’s please, please leave them aside.
But let’s take a more relatable case….
“Look, let’s face it,” they’d say. “Love is valuable. Honesty is meaningful. There are things which I find beautiful, and there are things which I find good. That is surely the case.”
“Surely, then, my existence must have a purpose? Surely, the cosmos which contains these things must have a purpose? How can it not be so,” they ask. The proceed from the bottom up, and say that if the “small” things make sense, then the big things must too. One person’s modus ponens – as the old proverb goes – is another’s modus tollens.
Perhaps the classic example of this procedure comes from Kant. He follows Pure Reason, does his metaphysics, and finds there to be no convincing reason to believe in a God, a guarantor of meaning and purpose in the universe. However, the fruits of his Practical Reason – his ethics – are really swell, and he needs God to make them work… therefore God exists.
Neat trick, Kant.
Kant may be the classic case, but my favourite is that of my pal Søren K., in his moonlighting as Johannes de Silentio.
The first words of the first chapter of his Fear and Trembling go thus:
If a human being did not have an eternal consciousness, if underlying everything there were only a wild, fermenting power that writhing in dark passions produced everything, be it significant or insignificant, if a vast, never appeased emptiness is beneath everything, what would life be then but despair? If such were the situation, if there were no sacred bond that knit humankind together, if one generation emerged after another like forest foliage, if one generation succeeded another like the singing of birds in the forest, if a generation passed through the world as a ship through the sea, as wind through the desert, an unthinking and unproductive performance, if an eternal oblivion, perpetually hungry, lurked for its prey and there were no power strong enough to wrench that away from it – how empty and devoid of consolation life would be!
Aw. Man. Søren. You’re speakin’ my language, bro.
But, in the very next sentence – just when you think he’d really gotten it – he goes and completely ruins it.
–how empty and devoid of consolation life would be!
But precisely for that reason it is not so.
He literally goes “gee, wouldn’t it be terrifying if nothing ultimately had any meaning? Yes, it would. …therefore things have meaning.”
To me, that’d be like the love of my life getting down on one knee and going “Will you marry me…… to this other person over there in your capacity as a civil registrar?”
The only possible response (to Kierkegaard, not the marriage proposal), as has been pointed out by others, is that of Freddy N. in Chapter 2 of his Beyond Good and Evil:
Nobody will very readily regard a doctrine as true merely because it makes people happy or virtuous–excepting, perhaps, the amiable “Idealists,” who are enthusiastic about the good, true, and beautiful, and let all kinds of motley, coarse, and good-natured desirabilities swim about promiscuously in their pond. [Translation: hahaha, fuck you; you’re all a bunch of dweebs.] Happiness and virtue are no arguments. (…) A thing could be TRUE, although it were in the highest degree injurious and dangerous; indeed, the fundamental constitution of existence might be such that one succumbed by a full knowledge of it–so that the strength of a mind might be measured by the amount of “truth” it could endure–or to speak more plainly, by the extent to which it REQUIRED truth attenuated, veiled, sweetened, damped, and falsified.
Nietzsche 1 – 0 Kierkegaard.
Because, look. Fact of the matter is: the cosmos and our existence do not ultimately have any specific, overarching meaning.
But also, look… things do have meaning in our lives. (…………………………………sometimes.)
And that, my friends, is the problem. I mean, that is The Problem. The Problem, to which Twitch Plays Pokémon is the promise of the solution.
Nothing has any meaning. And yet, things have meaning.
Good luck workin’ that one out, chumps.
That’s the infinite-cash-value question.
How do you turn lead into gold, folks?
How do you get something out of nothing?
How do we bridge that endless gap?
I have frankly no idea. It appears quite clear to me that our logical apparatus just starts to break down at the merest sniff of this order of questions. (You know, the “what are the ultimate foundations of our values” kind of questions. I’m gonna cut this bit out, but we can Agrippa and Gödel this shit up some other day.)
At any rate, what I will say is that, when reason fails us, we have no choice but to turn to art.
And the thing about the very best art – that is, the thing about the Best Things Ever (like the Bible, or Twitch Plays Pokémon) – is that it helps us bridge that gap.
It gives us the concepts and instils in us the emotions through which we can start to deal with the fact that we are meaning-junkies in a meaningless world.
It doesn’t mollycoddle us with empty reassurances that every little thing is gonna be alright.
It doesn’t quite tell us how to bridge the gap – I don’t think anything could. But it shows us.
The Greatest Art basically does this:
Hey man, what’s up. Whatcha doin’ just sittin’ around there? Huh? You’re contemplating the ultimate meaninglessness of the cosmos and your own existence? Huh. Yeah dude, I know – it blows pretty hard.
Although… could let me see it a sec?
You hand over the cosmos and the nature of your existence to The Greatest Art, who places it in its palm.
Alright, so you see this shit? It’s just a meaningless, incoherent jumble, right? Just a series of atoms and events bumping off each other, no? OK. Now watch this.
The Greatest Art waves its other hand over its palm, snaps its fingers a few times, whistles a little tune.
K, look at it now.
See? Sweet, isn’t it?
I made it all beautiful and stuff. I made it deeply fascinating and shockingly significant.
What’s that? How did I do that?
The Greatest Art shrugs.
Dunno man. I’m just a personified abstract concept in a thought experiment; I’ve no idea how it is that you can take something utterly senseless and imbue it with undeniable meaning and value. But look: there it is.
This is what The Greatest Art does. It takes our reality, and by some alchemic trick, renders it meaningful and valuable (as in, beautiful and good). It takes the Biggest Things and allows us to engage with them in the way we have no problem doing with the “little” things. And it reinforces the absurd truth that, somehow, we can make sense of things in a senseless world.
Now, my personal favourites don’t actually claim that they’ve discovered something which is true about the cosmos in the same way that we say it is true that it’s sunny outside today. It think that that sort of hubris severely diminishes its power. So, you know, if your Ancient Egyptian religion goes:
K, you see the Sun moving in endless circles up and down for no discernible reason? Well, it’s actually literally doing that on purpose to tell us the reason it made us, and it proves that there should be One King just like there is One Sun, and its name is Ra-Horakhty, and you have to worship it or I’ll kill you.
…I’d be kinda like “um, nah, I’m good actually, you can keep it.”
But if it just goes “Yo, isn’t that a cool way to look at it?”, I really have to agree with them. Ancient Egyptian religion, if you don’t take it too seriously, created some amazing things.
I mean, just look at this:
That’s awesome – in the fullest sense of the word.
And, in its way, Twitch Plays Pokémon does exactly the same thing. It takes something which is just as patently random, arbitrary, stupidly senseless, endlessly frustrating, as our cosmos and our very existence… and renders it beautiful, and meaningful, and so, so much fun.
I mean… just look at this…
(Every single thing depicted here corresponds to a unique character or event in the game. I bow to you, whoaconstrictor of Reddit.)
And when Twitch Plays Pokémon does this, it gestures at the possibility of us being able to do the same thing more broadly. Just like it took the meaningless jumble of this video stream and rendered it understandable and fulfilling, just so, we can look at the apparently meaningless jumble of history and our own lives, and turn them into a work of art like this.
On that count alone, Twitch Plays Pokémon is (one instantiation of) the Best Thing Ever.
…buuuuuuuut… you didn’t think we were done yet, did you?
Because just as there’s a silver lining to every cloud, there’s an endless void stretching past every silver lining.
So I beg that you follow me on one last flight of fancy, and assure you it will be the very last one we go on today.
So far, we’ve sort of worked with the assumption that metaphysics and ethics/aesthetics are separate, separable entities – that there’s a hard line between big questions about the cosmos and little ones about the contents of our lives.
In truth, of course, it’s a porous division. The two seep into each other. Who among us can resist looking at the stars, and despite all reason, actually believe they shine for us?
And that’s great.
…but there’s an insidious underside to this coin, of course.
Because you can take a thing which we all agree has value (a human life; a great book), and if you scratch a little at the surface, you can get to that yawning gap which looms over those ultimate questions about existence.
Because you can take the most beautiful work of art and slowly, relentlessly, strip it of every value you once saw in it.
For the truth is that, when you look at it hard enough, anything and everything can start to look like white noise.
Have you ever seen a magic trick? It’s great, isn’t it – the sense of awe and wonder which results.
And then, may I ask – have you ever had the trick of a magic trick revealed to you?
Something really weird happens there. Being told how a magic trick works doesn’t only prevent you from feeling that same sense of wonder every time you see the trick again. That much would be obvious. Something else occurs as well: it somehow retroactively invalidates all the awe and wonder that you felt when watching that magic trick in the past. You try to remember what it was like to feel that way about this magic trick, and you find the feeling cold and alien, as if it had happened to another person altogether.
Once you realize it’s a trick, all the magic seeps away.
And so it is with all things. Consider them long enough, and you begin to see the rules according to which they function. And once you concentrate on the rules according to which they function, the light in which you saw them before fades away, revealed for an illusion, a will-o’-the-wisp. It becomes very difficult to see it again in that illumined, organic way you did before.
Stare at anything long enough, and you reveal the cold clockwork underneath.
Stare at anything hard enough, and it becomes a series of mechanistic, meaningless motions. It is reduced to a purely formal play of interlocking parts, pointing at nothing beyond themselves.
I really, really enjoyed playing Skyrim. My game file had over 100 hours on it by the time it was inadvertently deleted.
It was an utterly engrossing game, for all the reasons everyone’s already specified before. But what really made it enjoyable was the fact that I used the same character to do everything I could in the game.
As a result, he was the Dragonborn who saved the world from the evil dragon, and the noble Archmage of the College of Winterhold who saved the world from the Dragon Priests… but he was also the head of the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood of assassins. On top of that, he marries this hyper-straight-laced paladin whose made it her mission to eradicate the Thieves guild (the game engine didn’t seem to find a problem with that). And because she comes with a friend who moves in with you when you get married, and who’s really annoying, just sitting there at your table eating your food… I killed him while the wife wasn’t looking and disposed of the corpse.
Oh, also – most importantly – my character spent 2/3rds of his time just wandering randomly around the rugged countryside, going into remote caves and clearing them of the bandits within, chasing deer for no reason, immolating rabbits with city-levelling hellfire – just generally exploring and goofing around.
To put it simply: it looked pretty chaotic and senseless at first glance.
So, of course I made a story which gave the whole thing coherence and meaning. It’s not that I wanted to complete all the quests and couldn’t be bothered levelling up a new character – of course not. The explanation was that he was a deeply Machiavellian, ends-justify-the-means kinda guy. So when accomplishing his goals meant doing away with baddies openly – great. But… seeing as there’s gonna be an underworld anyway, might as well be the one in charge of it – that way, you can minimize the damage they do, and utilize them for your own ends. All that gallivanting about in the woods was him preparing the ground for some continent-wide magical ritual, laying his voodoo mojo in all those caves he’d cleared of bandits. And murdering his wife’ friend, you ask? It was his only crime of passion, and actually ended up bringing the two of them closer together when she found out, and she turns to the dark-grey, ashen side…
And so it went for 100 merry hours.
But then, of course, the veneer started to wear thin.
I began noticing that everything – even the most well-scripted event in the game – was just a fetch-quest. You went to someone, they told you to go someplace to fetch something, and then bring it back. There are only so many words you can use to paper over the fact that all you’re doing is making me walk a long way, kill some baddies, and walk back.
And the world melted before my eyes. It didn’t feel real anymore. I had always, in the abstract, known that it was just 0s and 1s. But now I felt it. I really noticed it. And the magic spell was broken, never to be recovered. I’ve had a go at playing it again a few times over the years, but it was no use. I played it mechanistically, like one would a Sudoku – I didn’t get invested in it again.
I’d figured out the way it worked; it had become predictable; and the gameplay mechanics which before had gestured at something greater (a story about a Machiavellian dark mage taking over the world) were now reduced to all they ever really were: empty, mechanistic, repetitive actions, devoid of any external meaning or value. No quest. No glory, or perdition. Just going to Point B to satisfy Condition X, so you could go back to Point A and trigger Condition Y. Up, down, down, left, A, B, right, left, left, B, B, A, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down…
The same is true of all that is of value. Great books can be broken down to a series of tropes and rhetorical techniques which, once identified, can ruin the state of mind you need to be in to recognize the book as something other than just symbols on a page. Once you recognize an author’s perennial themes and obsessions, and you can predict and mimic their trademark take on things, it becomes nearly impossible to read them. Doing so makes you ever so slightly nauseous, disorientated by that ever-present double-sight of déjà vu.
And the same is true of human relationships as well. Once you’ve had a few dozen of those deep, life-affirming, soul-to-soul conversations with other people… you start to recognize the not-particularly-broad palette of insecurities and vanities which drive them. After a while, you begin to see humans as not-particularly-sophisticated automatons, who need periodic oiling – except that the oil takes the form of a string of sounds which flicks levers in their head labelled “I am a worthwhile person” and “People enjoy my company” and “I will not die sad and alone”. And once you start seeing it like that, it is not long before it begins to alienate you from other people, and yourself.
The most finely crafted art can be broken down to its barest essentials, the trick behind it revealed, its shining exterior reduced to series of arbitrary, inherently meaningless internal processes which gives the lie to the organic way you saw it before.
….and now, perhaps, you begin to see what makes Twitch Plays Pokémon so truly unique:
It has already reached that point.
The problem with anything beautiful is that, if you stare at it long enough, all the beauty fades away.
The problem with anything good is that, if you think about it hard enough, all the value seems to vanish.
But with TPP… that process has already happened.
It has already happened… and then been transcended.
We have gone from beauty and meaning, to total meaninglessness and noise… and then back again.
And we did it together.
Twitch Plays Pokémon has taken something beautiful — the original game of Pokémon Red — and reduced it to its clanking undercarriage… to all it really ever was, if only we’d had the presence of mind to view it that way: a series of meaningless tics, of empty repetitions and endlessly repeated gestures and repeatedly repetitive variations and repetitions which repeat and repeat and…
TPP takes what we held dear, and breaks it down into little pieces.
And then TPP shows that even when you reach that point — even when you part the veil of ethics and aesthetics and reveal the rigid cogs which compel it behind the scenes… even then, great beauty and meaning can arise.
Once we take the carefully constructed order of a work of art, and reduce it to arbitrary chaos… it is still possible to find new meaning in it once again.
Collectively, if not alone, we can take the wreckage and reassemble it anew.
Even when we fall to the lowest rung in our game of existential Snakes and Ladders, we have the means to pick ourselves up and continue scaling higher.
That’s why Twitch Plays Pokémon is the Sinai of the 2010s Internet Generation.
And that’s why the Helix Fossil is our One True Lord and Saviour.
At the very least, for precisely those hours we spend watching and thinking about Twitch Play Pokémon.
And, in microcosm, it points the way to finding just such redemptive meaning in the Great Big Cosmos as well.