Tag Archives: religion and popular culture

All Hail Helix! Religion in Twitch Plays Pokémon, part 1

10 Mar

Recently, a social experiment in the form of a community effort to play a video game became the platform for the swift birth of a viral religious mythology. The details are complex, so let me take a few moments to get you up to speed on the details you need to know.

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Fan Art depicting the religious aspects of Twitch Plays Pokemon

1. Twitch.

  • Twitch is an online streaming site where the content is video games. (The content is called a “stream” and the content creators are known as “streamers” because they are live-streaming their gaming content.)
  • Just as folks recently enjoyed watching full coverage of their favorite Olympic events, Twitch offers full access to gamers who are sharing their experiences playing games. Popular games such as DOTA2, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo 3 have all been featured by major Twitch streamers. Monetization for the site and its content producers occurs through the display of advertisements and monthly optional subscription fees. Just as more YouTube videos are watched every day than all of cable and public access television, at some point in the future, it’s likely that the streaming experience will become another major form of content for media consumers. For serious (and even casual) gamers, Twitch is a normal part of today’s gaming experience.
  • The best way to understand Twitch is to simply head to their site, pick a stream, and watch for a few minutes. I recommend whatever the stream is with the most views at the time when you open the site. Right now that’s 50,000 folks watching a professional competitive League of Legends player practice.
  • Alongside the main window of Twitch’s content stream (where the game play is broadcast) there is a continuously scrolling bar of viewer conversation. These are often moderated (to prevent spam), but any Twitch user can post comments, questions, or whatever occurs to them to share with everyone else watching the stream. This chat window can be hard to follow because it posts continuously. With 10,000 or more viewers, stream chat windows can get nearly impossible to read as you might read any other kind of text. While some instinct in me says “don’t bother,” other instincts in me say to find a smaller stream to see the value of the text chat for devoted fan interaction with streamers.

2. Pokémon

  • In 1996 Nintendo released a game for its handheld Gameboy console titled Pokémon. Players became trainers of animal creatures called pokémon. Over a series of nearly a dozen iterations of the game, players rehashed the game’s simple mechanics– capture pokémon, train them to become more powerful, and defeat all other pokémon trainers to become champion of a competitive battle league. The game stands as one of the most enduring contributions Nintendo made to popular culture. The franchise’s slogan “Gotta Catch ’em All” belied their intelligent marketing to young consumers. The video game birthed action figures, printed manga, multiple animated television series, several generations of collectible card games, and more merchandise than you could really even fathom. No, seriously, take whatever amount of merchandise you think would be utterly ridiculous and absurd and multiply it by 50 or a 100. You still wouldn’t be there yet. (The only game franchise more lucrative and loved by gamers around the world is Mario Brothers.)
  • Within the mythology of the Pokémon world, one of the early games required players to choose between a pair of end-game pokémon creatures. The Dome and Helix fossils were mysterious pokémon believed to be extinct. During game play, players resurrected one of the two fossils, and could, if they so desired, add the pokémon to their collection.

Now you have all the pieces you need to appreciate the way in which things have all come together in Twitch Plays Pokémon (hereafter TPP). Let’s get started.

A few weeks ago, a “social experiment” began on Twitch that allowed the community to play through a game of Pokémon Red together. By entering commands into the live-stream chat window, players would be controlling the actions of the character in the Pokémon game. It was a complicated system featuring options for more or less chaos in the way the community controlled the game. In “anarchy mode,” commands inputted to the chat were executed by the game in the order they were received. As you might expect, this meant a huge volume of wasted commands. The character in the game spun in circles, opened and closed menus, dropped important items on the ground, released pokémon that it had caught, and so on.

In “democracy mode,” commands were executed with slightly more control. Each command went up for a community vote, and after a short time the command with the highest vote was executed. This meant a deliberate effort on the community’s part could result in significant game progress. (Anarchy mode, while chaotic, also made game progress, although this progress may have been due to collections of Twitch accounts controlled by a single user and programmed to rapidly enter a series of commands. This kind of botting appears to have been involved in the game, but I’m not sure how reliable any of the information on this is or what its effects might have been.)

During the first TPP run-through of Pokémon Red, players began to speculate about the motivations of the game character for constantly entering the game menus. Consider this for a second. The way in which the community’s control of the game affected game play became an object of speculation for the community about why the in-game character would do such things. Why, they wondered, was the character always looking in the menus of the game? What did it mean?

The “let’s go along with it” attitude is not especially odd for the group of gamers playing this game. Pokémon is at its core a role-playing game. Community participants in TPP were simply being good role-players by asking what the game was doing when its play seemed not to fit the established roles. (I’m trying so very hard to avoid using theory here, but obviously Geertz, Bordieu, Smith, Bell, Douglas, and others would have extreme relevance on this point.) They filled this gap–consciously, deliberately, and knowingly–with religious and mythological content.

Toward the end of the game, after players had collected a Helix fossil, selecting the fossil in the inventory resulted in an error message that informed players they couldn’t yet use the fossil. In an effort to explain why the in-game character was consulting the fossil so often, players began to claim that Helix was a kind of deity to whom the character was turning. When the community finally turned the Helix fossil into a pokémon, all hell broke loose.

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Evangelicals for Helix?

Community members that supported the choice rejoiced and proclaimed that the character’s most powerful pokémon was in fact the champion or protector of the deity. This spawned the instant meme of “Bird Jesus” because the strongest and first pokémon on the community’s team was a bird. That spawned images like this:

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Lord Helix’s protector, Bird Jesus.

Community members that rejected the choice argued that the un-chosen fossil was the real deity. A religious schism expressed the community’s lack of explanation for their collective game play. It was the backstory that game randomness meaning. And because they saw it this way, the deity Helix became an incarnation of the value of chaos.

(Sidenote: In the second play-through the TPP community appears to be working out a solution to Chaos’ reign that may result in a battle between order and chaos. This is being actively supported by the TPP leaders through their “hacked” version of the game. They seem to be saying they’ll rig the final battle in the second game to be against the team from the first play through. I’ll update this when I know more.)

If you’ve come this far, you might be ready now to appreciate the kind of madness (in a good way) that this has spawned. Pokémon fans are nothing if not utterly devoted to their game. Their nostalgia and sense of play (in terms of role-playing) has created a serious virality of religious innovation that acknowledges pre-existing in-game content and real-life religious influences. Not only are their products syncretic–combining both real world elements and pre-existing franchise approved mythology–but they also have explanatory power over the community’s experience of the chaotic play-through. These are smart readers of culture and religion and they’re using that skill to create mash-ups that are just astonishingly inventive.

Take this Reddit post by user aseanman27 as your gold standard. In it you’ll find an utterly fascinating image that details all of the steps and missteps of the emergence of TPP mythology. The image is enormous or I’d include it here, but stop reading right now and open the image. Really.

Should it all make sense to you? Absolutely not. If it does, I can guarantee you were about 10 or 12 when pokémon came out and that you had access to a Game Boy Advanced or Game Boy Color. I’m actually working myself to get far enough into the game itself that I understand all the elements that make up this chart. I’ve got about 6 hours of gameplay on a iOS Game Boy Advanced emulator version of Pokémon Emerald that I understand far better the kinds of things happening on the stream than I did previously. Should you do that? Probably not. But I will be posting a series of explorations of the TPP mythology that delve a bit further into the convoluted fray. After all, upon completing Pokémon Red, the folks behind TPP jumped right back in again began another play-through of Pokémon Crystal. The mythology continues apace right this second.

It’s not often we get to see even a pseudo-religious mythology arise. To see it happen over the course of the last few weeks has been astounding. If it has been too far out of your comfort zone to register, I hope I can help. Feel free to comment below on whether you’ve been watching, what you’ve seen, or to ask any questions that have occurred to you about this phenomenon.

Just to stimulate that appetite a bit more, here are a few more viral image compilations:

For more on TPP, I suggest

But above all visit,

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In RGST? Get a Comic Now.

26 Nov

Proof that Comics Have a Place at the RGST Table

Saturday morning’s AAR session on comic books, “Heroes, or superheros?,” was a spirited example of the vibrant dimensions of the study of religion in popular culture in religious studies today. In a room filled with both men and women, I heard four fascinating papers that used “religious transcendence” to bridge the gap between “comic books and comedic performances.” In conjunction with the Religion and Science Fiction group’s session on “Seen and Unseen,” however, the true merits of comic books emerged.

In the earlier panel, the overlap between film studies became a moment to reflect on the generous body of theoretical literature that exists for religious studies scholars to drawn upon to analyze visual material. Christine Atchinson’s paper was somewhat over-laden with theory, but it impressed upon me the truly interdisciplinary qualities of popular culture research. We are not an interpretive island but rather one archipelago of a vast continent of materials. The regionalism (or specialization) inherent in a topic as broad as popular culture fosters a vibrant pluralism. We can be syncretic in the best possible ways. Or, more meta-theoretically, pastiche is impressive when we’re all bricoleurs.

Then Brenda Beck gave a fascinating presentation on her work adapting an Indian folk epic into an animated TV series. I was way out of my area, but this didn’t stop me from seeing the merits of her work. Visual presentation of folk material allowed her to highlight and embed the animation with scholarly interpretations. Class was a big issue in her folktales, and she was able to help the artists emphasize this element. It’s an important lesson. When we translate items visually we must choose what to encode. All of those choices made interpretation matter. If you have a sensitive and careful analyst, then those choices can really inform your audience about issues they might have overlooked. Perhaps we should, hint hint, make more effort finding objects and ideas that deserve visual translation. I’ve long thought that I wanted to make YouTube shorts on religious topics. Getting students to make short Vines is another option. You don’t need your object to be long—just long enough to say one thing in an interesting way.

Finally, A. David Lewis’ paper (read by Isaac Weiner because Lewis’ had travel problems) was a provocative analysis of Islamic heroism as the solution to the denigrated Western superhero comic model. Lewis’ complex analysis merits its own post, and I think I may have agreed on Twitter to do that for him, but I took away a key meta-point. Provocative arguments are worth making. They help us rise to the challenges of using theory effectively. They focus our use of sources. They compel response. And they make excellent conference papers. A. David Lewis has created a Storify for many of these items. It’s well worth your time.

The value of provocation continued in the Science Fiction panel’s outstanding papers on comics.  The first, by Southern Methodist University’s Christopher Dowdy, used Captain America, both in print and film, to explain the many ways in which Captain America’s body became a place of inscription for racial and religious elements. The way Captain America (in a subversive retelling of Captain America’s origins as a eugenic collaboration between American and Germany) rejects and embraces bodies suggests the character can be located at the center of discussions of scarred black bodies. This is a messianic suggestion and Dowdy played freely with liberationist theological implications. His slides are online for you to get some sense of the material he highlighted. The final comic oriented paper in the session was Peter Herman’s “Rotting Corpses in Pulp Horror,” a Buddhist reading of the Walking Dead and its implication for the way one deals with decaying bodies in the world post zombie apocalypse. As I did for all the papers I heard, I tweeted extensively throughout.  Rather than risk mangling these authors’ arguments, you might look at the notes I took and contact them directly for the real deal. (Storify forthcoming to compile the comic tweets.)

So what else must be said to convince you (or your skeptical colleagues) that comics and graphic novel analysis has a true purpose and place in religious studies? We’re not only influencing the creation of animated items (Beck); we’re not simply skillful readers of race and embodiment (Dowdy); we’re not just using comics to demonstrate the power of classic Buddhist texts and their philosophical theses (Herman); we’re all of these things because every moment we spend with these items is a step closer to understanding how, why, and in what ways religion is drawn into, developed inside, and lived through popular materials. This is not mere finger pointing. We’re not simply saying “there it is.” We’re capable of saying what it means that religion is there. Often times that meaning is not only useful for our understanding of racism or a religious tradition, but the very construction of religion itself.

So if you haven’t picked up a comic lately, head down to the local comic book store and ask them for a recommendation. You won’t regret it.

I Know What I Won’t Be Doing Today: Phineas & Ferb & Nonreligion

3 Dec
Phineas and Ferb in a spaceship they built. Ph...

Phineas (left) and Ferb in a spaceship they built. Phineas primarily speaks for the pair, while Ferb remains almost entirely silent. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Phineas and Ferb, an animated children’s show where two step-brothers spend an eternal summer thinking of creative things to do, is one of the most secular children’s shows I know. For many adults that might not be too many, but I have a special love of animated television, no doubt spawned during my formative years in the 1980s watching G.I. Joe, Transformers, He-Man, and Thundercats.

The boys are constantly building amazing inventions with their friends such as roller coasters, haunted houses, monster truck rallies, time machines, and space ships. After enjoying these objects–often musically in cheeky takes on pop songs–the show inevitably ends with their older sister Candace trying to get the boys in trouble with their mother and failing as the inventions disappear just in the nick of time. (There’s also a sub-plot about their pet platypus Perry who is also a secret agent fighting an inept evil scientist named Dr. Doofenshmirtz.) One thing that is consistently missing, however, is any sense that the boys have a spiritual or religious element in their lives. With nearly 100 episodes in 3 seasons on the Disney channel, the show’s creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff Marsh, are clearly doing many things right to entertain their audience, but I continually wonder about the absence of religion in the show.

In contrast to, let’s say, The Simpsons, which frequently shows the family attending church or addressing religious issues, Phineas and Ferb live in a world brimming with scientific rationalism that demonstrates that little is impossible (in a single summer afternoon) with the application of effort and imagination. It’s an endearingly positive message, but it also explicitly avoids religious substance (architecturally, textually, ritually, etc.) Instead, serious and often substantial topics–including the existence of life beyond earth, the ethics of robotics, and technology’s magical realism–are dealt with healthy doses of reason, logic and, ultimately, scientific skepticism.

If that sounds quite a bit like the reveals in Scooby Doo where ghosts and supernatural entities are always revealed to be conniving humans, then you’re on the right track. Seemingly miraculous things happen all the time in Danville, the town where Phineas and Ferb live, but the explanations are always scientific. A human has inevitably invented a machine that circumvents physics. It’s a continuous trope that reveals a pervasive attitude to ignore religion in favor of other elements. I don’t dismiss the choice–I do feel myself agreeing with Richard Dawkins (see the introduction to The God Delusion) that there are (or shouldn’t be) any religious children. What we mean by religious children is inevitably that they are children of religious parents. The show would seem to bear that out. I’m tempted to blame the children’s British (scientist) father, but viewers know too little about both parents to make sound judgments.

A "Corn Colossus" from Phineas and Ferb S3, ep 25

A “Corn Colossus” from Phineas and Ferb S3, ep 25

Unlike some other items I’ve written about previously–Hereafter (2010) or Sherlock Holmessupernaturalism and even the unexplained are undesireable. The exceptions, as in season 3’s “Phineas and Ferb and the Temple of Jutchadoon,” are often dreams  or obvious movie satires. They are part of why I continue to enjoy the show, even though it earns me no little ribbing from my wife. The writers are keen cultural consumers, linking every episode in thousands of ways to popular film, fiction, and music. Reference hunting makes the show endlessly fascinating to me. I have become a serious proponent of Kirby Ferguson’s work, Everything is a Remix. While I’ll probably continue to wonder how Phineas and Ferb will deal with the bugaboo of religion, I’m sure not going to stop watching. In the meanwhile, perhaps you should get on board with our remix culture (as I’ve also argued before once or twice).

Everything is a Remix Part 1 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.