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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

An Eternal Golden Helix Fossil: Three Years On, What Can We Say About Twitch Plays Pokemon?

Three years ago I wrote an academic article about Twitch Plays Pokemon. The article was never published anywhere, but despite that blow to its notability TPP continued on, and is still going three years later. This week, I take a look at this article, which in many ways is a predecessor to my Reload the Canons! series, and comment on what I got right, what I got wrong, and how the issues surrounding TPP have shifted and changed over the past three years.
Reload the Canons! is an ongoing Storming the Ivory Tower project where I play through The Canon of videogames. Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect. You can support Reload the Canons! and my other projects on the Storming the Ivory Tower Patreon. 

For slightly more than a month, thousands of otherwise unconnected individuals have gathered together via the online video streaming platform Twitch to collectively play a succession of video games together. Called, simply, Twitch Plays Pokemon, the collective gaming experience relies upon the simple button inputs of all the viewers to command the protagonists of, thus far, three of Nintendo's venerable Pokemon games.1This was, of course, written three years ago. And yet a lot of this remains the same: Twitch Plays Pokemon has been running almost continuously during that time, with a variety of iterations. The explosion of strange lore at the start hasn't really been matched again, at least in terms of wider cultural impact, but the basic dynamics seem to have remained largely the same. These thousands of people, often acting with conflicting aims, managed to collectively act as the player for these games, successfully completing two thus far.2This is another example of the kind of "assemblage" thing I've been banging on about for a while now--each Thing that makes up TPP, players and game and platform and so on, contributes to the completion of the game and operates according to its own "agenda" of a sort Media outlets covering Twitch Plays Pokemon typically call it a “social experiment,” taking their cue from its as-of-yet anonymous creator's description.3This creator, incidentally, has become somewhat less anonymous, opening up about their experiences on Reddit in a way that, I think, definitely impacts the reading of the game that follows here. Their two statements are worth reading, but TW for abuse, gaslighting, police brutality, and just generally a bunch of heavy shit. But the strange multiplayer game and the vast network of creative activity surrounding it might be better assessed through contemporary art theory, which allows us to understand it as not just something participants experience but one which they actively add to and transform. The project is remarkable for its dramatic disruption of the boundaries between producer and consumer, artist and audience, and player and coder, resulting in a network of subversive creative objects that do not just represent an abstract social metaphor but exist as political utterances in their own right.4Which is... weird. In some sense the politics of making art and the politics of the art or utterance itself are maybe at odds, as we'll see.

The game is fairly simple conceptually. It makes use of the video streaming platform Twitch, and a chat box that allows stream viewers to discuss the videos. This basic system is paired with the Pokemon games that provide the other half of the project's title. These games take place in a stylized, two-dimensional setting which the player navigates from above, moving the player character around the map of the world. The setting is a world where humans live beside the titular Pokemon—animals with strange and otherworldly powers that humans can capture, befriend, and pit against one another in the competitive battles that form the core gameplay element.5Look I was writing for an academic audience, I can't assume that they know the pokemon.

The simple and forgiving game mechanics (forgiving in that they are not time-sensitive), paired with a wide world full of hidden details, made Pokemon an ideal game to choose for an experiment such as Twitch Plays Pokemon. The project transforms the chat window on Twich into a command window by way of a user script and hacked, emulated versions of the various Pokemon games. This allows viewers to input commands by typing them, which then controls the actual game being streamed. Viewers can also input the commands “democracy” and “anarchy” to change the way the game commands are implemented—either by popular consensus in democracy mode, or through the implementation of every single command in the default anarchy mode.6Democracy mode seems to be the default now, from what I can make out of the current run. The result is that thousands of people can play a single game, issuing a relentless stream of contradictory commands that cause the player character to gyrate across the screen. Naturally, the results are frequently highly chaotic.

Over the course of a month, the massive mob of viewer/players that the game accumulated7...Which is a weird joiner that you might remember being pretty critical to A Horizon of Jostling Curiosities slowly navigated two player characters through the challenges of two such games. Their unlikely double victory, paired with the evocatively-named democracy and anarchy systems, inspired the sociological reading mentioned above. In this understanding of the game, Twitch Plays Pokemon represents the potential for humans to work together, even in a chaotic environment where they are often accidentally working at cross purposes. It is an affirmation of the will to succeed despite adversity, and an affirmation of the democratic spirit.8Man this actually does feel dated if only because this kind of journalism seems to have largely been obliterated by the sociopolitical realities of 2017. Not that these takes were ever wrong per se... I just think they were a bit simplistic. It doesn't matter now, of course. Now we're all too busy worrying about what new calamity the morning will bring.

This reading sidelines the mountain of derivative and transformative works generated by Twitch Plays Pokemon, however, and ignores the potentially more radical politics of its basic nature. The fanbase of viewer/players creates everything from comics dramatizing imagined narratives for the game, to artwork depicting the in-game heroes and their teams of pokemon, to, most strangely, a full mythology about particular items and characters within the game, complete with religious artwork and recorded choral hymns. Twitch Plays Pokemon thus consists not only of the game hack that fuses a decades old game with recent web technology, it consists also of a large network of lore and secondary artistic production. The rapid expansion of this body of work over the course of the game's early days, propagating with no fanfare, funding, or institutional support, should pique the interest of any artist, critic, or curator interested in participatory art. Privileging this wider participatory field over the simple playing and watching of the game exposes the extensive labor that goes into producing Twitch Plays Pokemon as a cultural phenomenon.9Though not so much the labor of the Streamer, who apparently was pretty trashed by the experience of keeping the game going during the early months. In fact, there's a way in which the highly automated nature of the system almost occludes the Streamer's labor, which certainly comes out in this article. Though, in fairness, that might just be because I suck at thinking about the people behind the art I analyze.

This article is less concerned with a qualitative judgment of the artwork produced than with a qualitative judgment on the kind of labor used to produce it.10Though this is kinda dangerous in the same way contemporary articles on, say, Anonymous dangerously brushed the content of a lot of 4chan's culture off as simply "lulz" and not politically significant. Whoops, turns out it really, really was politically significant. TPP isn't 4chan, but I think the critical move I'm making here has something in common with this desire to downplay the problematic in favor of a defense of Internet culture against conservative critics. This labor is “non-productive” labor—it is labor without expectation of monetary compensation, taking place outside of both the directed, rationalized traditional work environment and the institution of the art market (to which this work is largely invisible).11Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter (London: Pluto Press, 2011). 186-87⁠ In analyzing this labor it is worth considering the recent writing of Gregory Sholette on what he terms “dark matter:” forms of creative labor that exist on the margins of major economies.12Ibid. 1⁠ The artistic participation here is not likely to result in consecration or attention from the art world 13 To put this another way: there's no incentive for curators, who are in a sense investors of time and energy into the profile of a particular artist or movement, to try to push TPP as significant art-historically because they aren't going to ever see any sort of return on that investment. TPP isn't going to appreciate in value you know? But the sort of zine culture that a weird pop culture blog is a part of can spend that time for the immediate returns of sweet sweet Patreon cash. Become a supporter today!, and is unlikely, even in the cases where larger news venues shed light upon particular works, to result in any sort of monetary gain for individual artists involved. This places the artists within the vast surplus labor force of amateurs and “failed” artists that keep the art market afloat and legitimize its stratification by “perform[ing] a price-enhancing role” that elevates a consecrated few, as in Bordieu's old formula, to the level of successful producers.14Ibid.120 Bordieu's the dude I'm really drawing from here, though I'm pretty sure the citation is to Sholette's reading of Bordieu. Basically, it's always worth remembering that elite criticism exists largely not just to set taste but to set the PRICE for taste.

While nonproductive in the sense of it producing no material objects and resulting in no monatary recompense, then, it is productive in an immaterial way: it produces forms of culture via the kind of casual communicative actions not generally considered work.1544Terranova, “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.”⁠ 41 The “memes” produced by the Twitch Plays Pokemon community—particular inside jokes, catchphrases, embedded notions of behavior, and so on—are the product of this immaterial labor, and are produced in a fundamentally distributed way, with no central nexus of authority ultimately dictating the success or failure of a particular notion.16This makes it sound sort of abstractly meritocratic which it's really not. Participants in this culture bring particular baggage to the table which makes particular jokes and ideas more or less appealing. Nevertheless, there's no Disney branding team pushing a particular continuity here, and that I think is the significant thing to pull out here. We can note its distributed nature without making any particular claim about that nature being moral. ...Or at least we could if I didn't kind of imply that we can all through the piece. Whoops?

This system has great potential to turn exploitative, as the mass surplus of free labor is mobilized to support a particular limited set of interests.17Tiziana Terranova, “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy,” Social Text 18, no. 2 (2000): 33–58.⁠ 41-43; This is shockingly apparent now in the wake of the Streamer's description of their own abuse and struggle to turn TPP into something that could help them escape their abusive situation. In that light, the idea here that all this free labor is inherently radical seems almost hopelessly, naively optimistic. But within this exploitative system lies potential for an artistic counter-public sphere. Here the urge to create—traditionally conceived of in Marxist theory as an innate drive—is expressed outside the institutions that dominate the art—or gaming—industries.18Sholette, Dark Matter. 44-45.⁠ Sholette expands upon this basic idea in great detail in his chapter “Glut, Overproduction, Redundancy!” Twitch Plays Pokemon, in an age of photorealistic graphics and a push for immersive, real-world game design (so engrossing that the line between games, military training devices, and the computerised drones that kill militants and civilians alike across the globe is now blurred, if not completely occluded) elevates simple black and white pixelated graphics depicting the barely-coherent adventures of a character who stumbles from encounter to encounter, often quite literally taking two steps back for each step forward.1On the one hand the rise of an army of Retro Graphics Indie Games might put paid to this idea, but consider: the current iteration of TPP replaces all the text with markov chain gibberish derived from the chat stream, pushing the game further and further into incoherence. This, and things like the god trash aesthetic of things like Car Boys and Monster Factory, suggest an ongoing push away from fidelity, even the new-old fidelity of clean, minimalist pixel art. I think the pushback continues. And yeah I'm taking an easy swipe at AAA gaming here but honestly they got Oliver North, a fucking war criminal, to promote Call of Duty. AAA gaming deserves everything it gets and more. (And yes this shouldn't be footnote 40 but my numbering got fucked up and it'd take me about half an hour to fix it so this is footnote 40 now.) The community has aggressively embraced this outmoded aesthetic and this incomprehensible gameplay system like an immaterial ghost of Hebdige's punks, who adopted an anti-aesthetic as a symbol of rebellion.19Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Critical Quarterly (London and New York: Taylor & Francis, 2002).⁠ 106-112. I talk a little bit about Dick Hebdige in my Suicide Squad article. In the fast-paced text of the chat, ASCII art and text emoticons rule, recreating the days of text-based web communication before the advent of modems fast enough to handle image downloads. 20 ow there's emojis but that's not that far removed from say AIM so whatever. God I'm old.

These creative acts against the dominant game and 'Net aesthetic represent a nascent counter-public sphere that becomes actualized through numerous fan-driven archiving efforts.21Up to a point. This kind of labor has turned out to be just as likely to reinforce existing publics. Things like TPP's cultural meme of "let's beat Misty" morphing into "let's rape Misty" didn't so much break with mainstream culture as extend logically from it in a space with limited moderation capacity. It's not really possible anymore to be naively optimistic about the radical potential of free form internet culture. These projects are dedicated to preserving and sharing, at least in the short term, the art, fiction, and fan-mediated knowledge of the events of the game (i.e. the record of game events reinterpreted in narrative form, using unique terminology and conventions rather than a simple account of the literal wins and losses in the game). The participatory creation of a unique culture building continuously on itself, all without any ultimate economic aim, seductively and dangerously challenges challenges conceptions of labor and time as things that must be productively spent.22Ibid. 32-34.⁠ Ibids work a lot better in a more traditional text format actually. Furthermore, the construction of these archives makes the dark matter constituting the Twitch Plays Pokemon artistic community continuously visible, elevating the amateur material to a consecrated level among followers.23Basically, there's no point to any of this, ostentatiously so, and that's pretty rad because it's all sort of operating outside of "market incentives" or whatever!

The game's origins are similarly non-productive. The creator of the game seems to have created it for their own curiosity and amusement rather than any monetary gain, and the code running the game is freely available for use by anyone.24We now know that it's a bit more complicated than that, and has a kind of mental health origin and eventually developed a pressing need to transform this weird pointless labor into something that could help them raise money to escape an abusive situation. The reality of this kind of net experimentation is that the experimenters often seem to be economically unstable, and sometimes marginalized, in a way that calls into question the morality of treating the non-monetization of such projects as inherently good. The nature of the game as an open-source, hacked and actively modified creation is worth analyzing in more detail. Revering the public domain, supporters of open source information preach an availability of materials—particularly code—for public use and transformation. Connected closely to the development of these ideas is the notion of hacktivism, where hacking is used to achieve particular political ends, or to make particular political statements.25Do you remember life before Gamergate? What halcyon days. Both might be considered in terms of their relationship toward a mediascape largely dominated by corporate interests—they are both positioned in opposition to the regulation of both labor and consumption by liberating code in various ways.

While their origins date back to the earliest days of computer technology, the articulation of these principles might be drawn from two major documents. First, The Mentor's 1986 “Hacker Manifesto:”

“This is our world now... the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals.”26The Mentor, “The Hacker Manifesto,” 1986,
Second, John Perry Barlow's “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace:”

“Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here. ... Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. …. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost.”27John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” 1996,
Twitch Plays Pokemon sits at the meeting point of the two concepts. It is an unauthorized modification of the game, designed to do something the original was never intended to do, the code released in open-source format on the internet. Pure information, it can be “reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost” without concern for whether Nintendo sees a share of what, now, is a game liberated from its origins and transformed into a new and unique experience by a hacker's intervention into the code. Twitch Plays Pokemon thus is the heir of decades of radical redefinitions of how users interact with digital media.28And in this sense, it represents the prelude in a lot of ways to my wider Reload The Canons project, which is why it's been included in here. You might think of this kind of weird intervention into my existing article as a kind of mirroring of form and content... but that might be pushing it. Like the unproductive cultural labor of the art world, the Internet depends upon the constant creative work of Open Source laborers and the producers of immaterial cultural information, and in Twitch Plays Pokemon we see that labor mobilized for the good of the community itself.29Terranova, “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.”⁠ 48-49

The digital interventions here are quite familiar to the contemporary art world as well, albeit cloaked in different guise. While the stakes are certainly different, the capture and reinterpretation of elements of the game reflects the current vogue for the plundering of archives, seen in projects by Jens Hoffmann, Fred Wilson, or Harald Szeemann.30X Weng, “The Archive in Exhibition Making: Material, Concept and Strategy.,” Journal of Curatorial Studies 2, no. 1 (2013): 70–89, F Wilson and H Halle, “Mining the Museum,” Grand Street 44, no. 44 (1993): 151–172.⁠ Not gonna lie I don't really remember what any of these cats do now. The game is an appropriation of an element of pop culture for a complex artistic end that bears little relationship to traditionally productive labor. This intervention results in the collapse of a number of binaries inherent in the construction of the source game, just as the plundering of the archive collapses the binaries of fine art and industry or craft.

First, the hacker intervention into the game dismantles the boundary between user and coder, developer and consumer. Now they become one and the same and the consumer becomes a new developer for a new audience. We might put this another way and consider it a collapse of the boundary between the working artist, established within the industry, and the amateur artist, who now appropriates the products of the working artist for their own ends—what Sholette describes evocatively as the Night of the Amateurs. The participants within the game similarly disrupt the traditional structure of things by taking on a role both of spectator and player. These viewer/players have a measure of control over the game, but the lag caused by the sheer number of participants means that any individual action is disconnected from its input, resulting paradoxically in both a dramatic increase and a dramatic decrease in the potential for participation—users are more than observers but less than singular, commanding consciousnesses reigning over the game world. Finally, the boundaries between producer and consumer are dealt a final blow through the proliferation of artwork responding to the game, which then coalesces into a new dark archive of cultural production, a curatorial project unbounded by physical constraints and driven by amateur enthusiasts. Even the question of in-game agency is subverted, as the often seemingly random actions of the player character take on an uncanny nascent will of their own. As the agency of individual players dissolves, the characters gain agency, often a rebellious agency oppositional towards the commanding voices directing their actions.

This fascination with role-switching and the elevation of the game character to the status of rebellious hero fighting against adversity provides some hope against the threat of capitalist co-option. The threat looms already, as the owners of Twitch eye the stunning popularity of the game and consider the possibility of expansion.31Christopher Dring, “ ’Twitch Could Become a Games Platform in Its Own Right,” MCV, February 28, 2014.⁠ The free and immaterial labor of cultural production represents a tempting resource for capital,32Terranova, “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy.”⁠ Ibid.⁠ It's worth highlighting again though that the Streamer, in seeking out greater support from Twitch, isn't betraying, in some sense, the promise of the project. That's capitalism baby. And honestly reading this over again in light of their situation is pretty unsettling and a little sickening? It's a jarring and important reminder of the fact that there's real people affected by these abstract leftist principles, and adhering to Artistic Integrity in the face of real human suffering is straight bullshit. and there is no particular reason to see Twitch Plays Pokemon as fundamentally different. Yet, the kind of “freezing” of subcultural creativity that Hebdige warns of in his analysis of the movement of capital into subcultures already seems anathema to a culture that has reinvented its own mythology twice now.33Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style.⁠As optimistic as this is, remember that Suicide Squad's producer is now Trump's secretary of the treasury god fucking help us.

Twitch Plays Pokemon represents not just a communal will to succeed, but a will to succeed at something completely pointless, something completely outside the useful realms of production. Its culture is distributed rather than centralized, as is its means of production, its means of achieving goals, and its means of interpreting its own collective experience. Even the mastermind behind the whole process intervenes only minimally.34Though intervention is necessary, because of the kind of drift into oppressive violence noted earlier in memes becoming malicious. Distributed models are an ideal but having an actual moderator staff, and community organization to push back against this kind of violence, is critical if you don't want to, say, accidentally give rise to global fascism because you thought letting nazis onto your forum was critical for Free Speech. The result is a participatory art experience that attracts attention by reworking established institutions in a way that encourages a further hacking of culture, distributing its latent radical politics downward, whether the players know it or not.35And while I've done a lot of questioning in this article of some of my past arguments, viewing TPP three years on does, I think, basically back up a lot of what's here. It's easy to look on this piece in retrospect as naive, I think, but there's still a great promise in web based fannish remix and mod culture, and I think the role of the critic now is to help bring that potential to the surface in the face of the reactionary turn of geek culture.


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