Why Pokémon players dream of an electric saviour

Opinion: Internet has not lived up to its aspirations


My 12-year-old suggested at dinner that instead of talking about Jesus, today I should talk about Bird Jesus.

As the laughter subsided, I said that none of my regular readers would understand the joke, and a significant minority would probably find it offensive. My other son suggested the cultural phenomenon that led to Bird Jesus has not been extensively covered in Ireland, and a change would be as good as a rest for the regulars.

So, Bird Jesus is a Pokémon, a kind of pixelated creature. Pokémon started as a Nintendo video game about 16 years ago, and rapidly developed into a trading card game, an animated television series, movies and lots and lots of other merchandise.

There are over 700 different Pokémon. Although the game appeals to females too, there seems to be something in the male brain that allows them sit engrossed in a video game for days on end.

But now it has gone to a different level. There is a massive online game, going on for nearly two weeks, called Twitch Plays Pokémon .

At its height, 100,000 people were controlling, or, more accurately, attempting to control the same game. As one continent goes to sleep, another starts to play.

Remember, the 1990s version was designed for one player, and it was a massive innovation when two Nintendo DS consoles could “talk” to each other and co-operate.

The Guardian describes Twitch Plays Pokémon as half art installation, half reality TV show for the 21st century.

The graphics are primitive, and black and white. The anonymous developer designed it so players can enter com- mands like “up” and “down”, but the commands enter an enormous queue, and there is a 20-second delay so your command has to anticipate the best move for the future.

Why, most of you are asking, would anyone want to do that? Easy. It’s a vast experiment in trying to behave like a benign hive mind, fuelled by a passion for Pokémon that most of the players probably developed before the age of 10.

Most of the time, nothing is happening, but sometimes, against all odds, this vast throng manages to achieve something. Just as often, it all goes horribly wrong. Simple things like walking 12 steps along a ledge can take hours, because one wrong move means you fall off. With thousands of players, one wrong move happens a lot. Yet they pick themselves up, and start again. Insane. Beautiful.

The nickname Bird Jesus came about because a high-level Pidgeot (a bird like Pokémon) won so many battles that he was revered as a saviour.

A virtually useless item , Helix Fossil, was selected by accident so often that players began talking of “turning to the Helix Fossil for guidance”, so this humble creature is now the God of this universe.

The whole thing has a glorious kind of tongue-in- cheek, ironic and knowing atmosphere, while also being taken completely seriously.

Impossible goal
Vast numbers of human beings are co-operating in a seemingly impossible situation, to achieve a virtually impossible goal, even if it doesn’t matter much. Sure, the trolls and haters are there, too, trying to disrupt and destroy, but they are not winning.

Maciej Ceglowski, a Polish-American computer geek, spoke at the New Zealand Webstock conference in mid-February. Although it was before Twitch Plays Pokémon even started, he provided some insight into why people are losing large chunks of their life to this game.

Ceglowski muses that the internet was to be this great “decentralising, democratising force. No one controlled it, no one designed it, it was just kind of assembling itself in an appealing, anarchic way”.

But today the internet could not be more centralised, with a handful of big companies controlling virtually everything. “Each of us leaves an indelible, comet-like trail across the internet that cannot be erased and that we’re not even allowed to see.”

So the internet is now based on permanent surveillance of all users. Endless information is amassed and sold in order to market more effectively to us, and for more scary purposes.

But what really animates Ceglowski is that the early dreams for the internet could still be realised. But getting individuals, governments and multinationals to wean themselves off the system is far more difficult than getting a Pokémon trainer to walk on a ledge without falling off.

Maybe the Twitch Plays Pokémon people are just doing the equivalent of consuming soma, the drug that Aldous Huxley’s characters take in Brave New World because it helps them avoid pain and deeper questions.

Or maybe they are bumbling around, trying to show that if the internet can spur a massive live experiment in co-operation, that the decentralising, democratic impulse is not entirely dead.

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