In Neal Stephenson’s famous science fiction novel Snow Crash, religion is presented as a kind of virus capable of rewriting the basic operating system of the human brain. With recent works such as T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back, the sense that religion re-writes the mind and its perception of reality has received new legs. (It’s an very old argument that can be seen in the works of Freud, Durkheim, and Marx.) What’s notable about Snow Crash and the point that Luhrmann and others have revived is that religion is a product of intentional effort. We may speak of religious experiences as emerging from places beyond reason, but institutions of religion are conscious creations. Religion rewires us. When we play at religion we get better at understanding the game we participate in and its rules. We are practicing our practice. That effort makes us adepts, experts, and professionals.
The recent Twitch Plays Pokemon (TPP) phenomenon, which I wrote about last week, continues apace. It takes serious effort to follow TPP. It runs 24 hours a day as players around the globe control the game from their home computers. I manage to follow along only by the generous updates offered by community members online. The latest version of the game, Pokemon Crystal, took nearly two full weeks to finish. At every moment fans are creating new interpretations of the game and its awkward, halting game play. Fan art occupies more than half of the popular subreddit for TPP. Participants in TPP exert continuous forward pressure on the TPP mythos. They actively elevate the game play into the religious realm. It is their effort that spurs the complex narratives. And like a virus replicating in a healthy culture–TPP creates its world and in that effort has become more adept at creating that world. Much like the world occupied by the evangelicals Luhrmann describes (or the cult followers of Asherah in Snow Crash), this is an environment that nurtures itself.
It is on this point of effort and conscious invention that I want to dwell today (as TPP begins its journey on the next game in the series, Pokemon Emerald). First, let me outline a point of pre-existing mythology in Emerald. The world occupied by the protagonist has two major forces vying for control–Aqua and Magma. Team Aqua wants to expand the oceans of the world; Team Magma wants to expand the world’s landmasses. As a creative, productive force, magma is contrasted with the chaos that would emerge with a return to the sea. In the game both sides are ridiculous. They are the kind of bumbling evil that pervades Scooby Doo. As mythical forces, however, they are the division of earth and water. What’s missing is the tempering force of sky. The give and take of water/earth is an endless cycle. It’s a literal eternal battle, too, between two legendary Pokemon. Only a third force can break the stalemate that rocks the world.
As fans of TPP brace themselves for the start of a new adventure, they already know several layers of mythology. Nearly every one of them will have played Emerald themselves. They will be aware of its pre-existing canon. So too are they aware of the canons of the games that precede Emerald’s myths within the Pokemon world (having played both Crystal and Red in TPP already). And yet there are further layers added from the playing of Crystal and Red in the community. The deities and myths that have been elevated in the last month are now givens for the new TPP world.
I think the community is getting much more than they bargained for when they signed on for the first play through. The creative outlet that the game gave to its fans is now a recognized as one of the exercise’s benefits. It is as much an exercise in the formation of mythology as it is a social experiment about the limits of cooperation within a limited digital medium.
Last week my brother asked whether I saw any religious studies potential in the affair. I replied immediately and without hesitation that I did see scholarly promise in TPP. Part of me sees the exercise’s contribution as time compression. Where else can you see the birth and evolution of mythology laid bare before your eyes with such precision? Another part of me recognizes that it is the virality of experiment and its memes that renders it immediately useful for religious studies. So often we lack a good case study to explain the way in which digital religious lives operate today. This is religion online as opposed to digital religion, I know, but I think there is a mix of both here that makes TPP so exciting.
This post was set to post Friday, but some technological glitch held it up. Since the TPP Emerald game has already begun, let me say a brief word or two about the latest version. Users were initial struggling with the option of choosing a boy or a girl character. With no democracy mode in this play through–full anarchy mode all the time so every command is executed–the first hurdle appeared when a boy was selected, then a girl, and then a girl again. The failure to sustain the initial choice led the community to speculate on the psychological or even criminal events that might have led to the final selection. The following items, posted on Reddit, highlight these and other developments over the weekend, including the permanent release of the character’s starter Pokemon, the capture of multiple versions of a hyena Pokemon, and the repeated failures to make game progression due to a rock-paper-scissors battle that had the community in perpetual loss.
[All images linked to their original posts on Reddit.]
After the community released Torchic, the Pokemon they started the game with, there was quite a lot of mourning. This comic, for instance, summarizes the complex emotions some of the community was feeling.
And then folks started arguing that another pokemon, which evolves like a cicada and leaves a ghostly pokemon shell behind, was really hosting the lost Torchic’s spirit or soul. You can read more about that in this post which references the manga Fullmetal Alchemist.
The sense of loss and anxiety is palpable, while the number of posts emphasizing a community in decline suggests the initial period of euphoria of the new adventure is wearing off and moving on to other darker emotions. Needless to say, it’s a wild time over at TPP Emerald.