Intro: If Twitch plays Pokémon then who is playing Pokémon?

Moderation would have me speculate that there are only a finite number of ways human beings can possibly invent to entertain themselves. But finite numbers can still be monstrously large, and thus we have Twitch Plays Pokémon in which thousands of people wrestle like angry 90s 8-year-olds to press the buttons on a Gameboy. Essentially the chat box, which is usually used for highly insightful and worthwhile commentary on the live video, has become the input system for the game itself. People direct the character by typing commands like ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘A’, ‘B’ etc. Interestingly, after two weeks of play the hivemind has actually managed to make good progress in the game. Though many of the instructions are no better than random noise – or worse, given the perpetual attempts to derail the process – there are enough genuinely interested people to ensure that the hero is slowly stumbling towards victory.

I agree at this point that the pastime is a strange one. It is precisely the sort of idea that, had a science fiction author come up with it, would have been derided by critics; real humans would never waste time on something so pointless. Its inclusion in your work makes the whole thing unbelievable and is an unwelcome distraction from an otherwise interesting plot. Two stars. And yet at this very moment there are tens of thousands of people frantically trying to force an 8-bit character to move up instead of walking repeatedly into a wall who are succeeding in making this a priori evaluation of unlikelihood seem hasty.

This type of interaction is an interesting one because it gives participants an investment in an outcome while removing individual responsibility and therefore the potential discomfort that the eventual failure would cause. Are our players in Bad Faith or are they experimental scientists exploring new facets of democratic systems? It is quite easy to dig out an old copy of Pokémon and play through it yourself, but the smallest achievement of getting your command through to the Twitch stream’s character is felt more forcefully than anything that could be done alone. For starters, we are no longer talking about a game of Pokémon, we are talking about the game. Realism about possible worlds cheapens our successes and failures (in another possible world I succeeded at my last job interview) and likewise a million different copies of Pokémon makes us acutely aware that catching them all means nothing – or as Wittgenstein observed, the meaning of the universe (if there was one) would have to lie outside the universe – in our bragging rights to our classmates, not as part of the game itself. Massively multiplayer games get around this by allowing us to create meaning since we are now in a shared world in which others exist, so our usual coping strategies for other consciousnesses come into play. World of Warcraft would be utterly dull even as a normal multiplayer game, let alone as a single player

The world must be persistent and it must be shared. It must be persistent in order to give it some feeling of grounding and necessity, not conditional on me turning the computer on. It must be shared in order to find meaning through others’ ascriptions of meaning, and it is all the better if the other players are ‘thrown’ into it like the apparently random array of people we meet in the real world. The recognition of other consciousnesses ascribing meaning then allows the exhibitionist in us to emerge and thus we act out through our single-button inputs. While we let it matter, we know that it does not. Nor can anyone convince us that we are to blame if it fails, since our portion of blame is infinitesimal when our fellow players are taken into account.

The desire to fall into a das Man state of group think in which the will is subordinated to a general will-composite is what I wish to consider over the next few posts. There are a few places I want this to visit. I want to look at vitalist metaphysics and a pseudo-teleological framework for evolution which sets as its aim the fusion of consciousness as some in the trans-humanist movement would favour. Likewise I want to look at the constitution of the political subject and consider the differing forms of social grouping (for which we will hopefully venture intrepidly into the Critique de la raison dialectique). The fact that we have begun with a look at an isolated phenomenon of the contemporary web should also give a clue about the variety in content coming up. Games will be one of the sources of material and I hope to expand on some the things I have mentioned in passing here.

I make no apology for the hiatus.