Tag Archives: Video Games

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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Serious Games — Studying Religion in Video Games

23 Oct

Over at The Critical Religion Association’s blog, there is an interesting post by Jonathan Tuckett (University of Stirling) about credibility and the study of video games. Tuckett recently presented on the religious theme of The Elder Scrolls at the BASR/EASR. He expressed his worries as “the “ludicrosity” of the whole affair.” Here’s what happened:

Later I was among the contestants for a recording of the second RSP Christmas Special (you can hear me make a fool of myself at the first one here). During the game, which had a large audience definitely featuring some prominent academics, I was joking with my colleague David that unless he started asking questions on Skyrim (where the latest Elder Scrolls game is set) I wasn’t going to know very much. I had already flunked the question on the books of the Bible and was then stumped by a question on the Unification Church. It was during this aside that I happened to get a glimpse at some of the prominent academics who were listening to our brief exchange. It was then that the idea of ludicrosity returned to me. The looks I saw can only be summed up in one way: “Is this guy serious?” I don’t mean to criticise them for giving me those looks or thinking in that manner. I can completely sympathise with them because on one level if I had been in their position I would probably be thinking the exact same thing.

Later, Tuckett demurrs, arguing that he does “do not wish to criticise those who would think that the study of video games in Religious Studies isn’t a credible activity. I understand their scepticism. We’re breaching new territory, charting a region on the social scientific map that we may very easily fall off.” Then he points to the work of William Sims Bainbridge, whose more recent blogs are a bit unusual for a religious studies approach, as both a representative of the possibilities and dangers of this subject.

Here’s my take on things:

1. William Sims Bainbridge’s latest work, eGods, is exactly the kind of work Tuckett appears to be doing with The Elder Scrolls. They may use different theoretical paradigms, but both Tuckett and Bainbridge take seriously the myth-making at the heart of the fictional worlds created in video games. Tuckett didn’t spend a lot of time explaining his project, but I’ve read Bainbridge’s work and it inspired my next project on the supernatural in interactive entertainment (i.e., video games).

2. Tuckett says there were 8 competing panels, so attendance was low at his session. Panels are not attended for lots of reasons. It’s tempting to assume that low attendance is because of our presentations, but more often it is because of competing panels, inconvenient time slots, or a half-dozen other factors that are out of our control. That’s rough, but there it is. Of course, one way to redeem the panel may be to publish its papers online and share them freely. We can’t be everywhere, so even a summary blog post can go a long way toward increasing the conversation!

3. I take issue with anyone who would criticize the serious study of video games. Unlike Tuckett, I would criticize them, and I don’t see a lot of reason to defend their hypothetical myopia. Nor does it seem appropriate for them to be casting dirty looks about. I think we all know by now that there are really no topics that are off-limits so long as we can clearly demonstrate the academic merits of a project. Just 20 years ago the study of material religion was in its infancy. Material religious objects have been around for millennia. But we didn’t put the pieces together until recently in a way that fit the guild’s model of study. Video games, by contrast, emerged just 40 years ago. In that time they have become one of the pillars of popular culture. They inspire fashion, fiction, and film. More important, they inspire fans–that word rooted in fanatic, which means one “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion.” Part of what I hope to show in my own future work on games is how devotion in games is becoming a substitute for more traditional types of devotion. The mythical worlds of the games may be the very thing that is satisfying the spiritual needs of many of our religious nones. The rising overtness of religious elements in video games attests to this trend. There’s no academic reason they should be left outside our field of vision.

4. Moreover, the religious aspects of video games are not even remotely in doubt. Even if the industry wasn’t worth more than a billion dollars, we could easily argue its merits on participation alone, which is also in the billions. Asia’s youth are rampant gamers. And games are now pervasive in our screen-laden Western societies. Even the most banal games–those which contain only the barest element of narrative context–often rely on religious themes and mythology as their premise. The sophisticated narrative worlds top-tier (a-list) games create are more detailed and more thorough than all but a few fictional worlds (say, Tolkien’s). [See my earlier post of The Binding of Isaac and blasphemous gaming for a bit more on this point.] The tepid religious elements of most science fiction novels, for instance, do not compare at all with the detailed mythology of the world where the Elder Scrolls takes place. Just as religion intersects fiction and television, so too does it exist in games and the lives of gamers. I’m incredulous that folks would think to exclude it from professional study.

The religious elements are overt, plentiful, and extremely well integrated into the experience of gamers around the world. These often include websites, real life roleplaying, and fan fiction (both professional and amateur). It is a global playing field that freely combines religious elements from major religions around the world. Buddhism can be found almost as easily as Christianity, and video games have even managed to depict a number of ancient religions in interesting ways that build on the work of archaeologists and ancient historians (see the Total War series). It’s a vibrant gaming world, and shutting our eyes to it won’t do us any good as we try to account for the way that religion and religious themes appear in our time.

5. In sum, I’m thrilled to hear that Tuckett is fighting the good fight for video games. I’m also frustrated to hear him give room for its critics. They do not have a place to stand. When and if they appear, they will need to be criticized. The best way to do that–unlike this hasty response–is to produce elegant and persuasive scholarship on the topic. That is the only response that is worth our sustained effort. It’s not worth fighting a territorial or canonical battle. Those of us that want to expand the canon will win out if we can demonstrate the merits of our contributions. It’s not about “reaching a sense of credibility.” That implies we are bringing something to the table that is not credible to begin with. For the social scientific world, this may simply be a question of method and paradigm, but in the religious studies world this problem is a phantom. We find “religion” wherever and whenever it may be and do our best to understand it with the appropriate methodological tools. The methods are not our masters–our religious subjects are. If video games help in the task of illuminating them, then let the parade of scholarship begin. Don’t aim to reach a sense of credibility; Produce work that matters.

Finally, this November’s AAR has several papers on games and an entire panel devoted to their study. I’ll be there. I hope to see you there, too. No cosplay required.

Tuan in the 21st Century

1 Feb

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a lecture in the UCSB’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center’s series on Geographies of Place. Jon Jablonski, who leads UCSB’s Davidson Library’s Map & Imagery Laboratory, presented an intriguing talk on the “21st Century Tuan: Revisiting Space and Place in the i-Age.” In the broadest sense, Jablonski said that he wished to argue for the continuing relevance of Yi Fu Tuan’s 1977 text Space and Place, and he wanted to recommend this work for both geographers and humanists. After contextualizing the text within the discussions among geographers in the 1970s over descriptive cultural landscapes and quantitative methods, the talk swiftly moved on to highlight one of examples that remains so powerful from Tuan’s work: scale jumping. Here’s a classic video by Charles and Ray Eames called “Powers of 10” that captures the essence of scale jumping:

Scale jumping is our ability to perform rapid multi-scalar spatial tasks. Just walking around outside we perform hundreds of mental calculations about our world that involve radically different scales. Let’s say we’re out for a walk. We must assess the danger of the car approaching at 30mph, avoid the pedestrians passing us, and step around the puddle that would muddy our shoes. These are all operationally different scales that our spatial minds handle with ease. It’s why we can read maps, cross streets, drive cars, and so on. But Tuan understood that spatial ability did not necessarily mean that we were intimately negotiating with space. In fact, his division of space and place hinges on the way in which people relate to places in ways that go beyond crude mental abstractions (such as those related to scale). While the scale of space starts with the physical limitations of the body, the scale of place starts when we become intimate with spaces by having intense experiences in them over a significant duration of time. Religious spaces, the school bus, and the home can all become places by virtue of our sustained emotional engagement with them. It’s why we have such attachment to our childhood homes, to the places we went to school, or where we spent time with our loved ones.

Jablonksi switched gears at this point in the talk to speak about the ways in which our creation of places has changed in the i-Age. We are rooted to places, not spaces, but our world is becoming more and more transient. There is more than a hint of nostalgia here, and in every discussion on this topic, but it is a fair critique of the effects of the digital age. We are losing our rootedness as we increasingly engage in virtual landscapes that frustrate our ability to transform discrete spaces (defined by the body) into places (defined relationally by our emotional engagement with them). Virtual spaces are often fleeting or fail to connect our emotions with our bodily engagement. Virtual community, it should be said, is not something that necessarily carries over when we’re talking about transforming spaces into places. An example:

Let’s say you’re a modern teenager who enjoys video games (Call of Duty, Halo, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and so on). You log on from your home computer or game console to connect with other gamers around the world (and probably quite a few you have met in real life). Your body remains in the space where you are, but the place that you are creating an emotional attachement to exists where? Is it an extension of your gaming area? Is it arbitrarily defined in the ether between gamers? Is it insider the computer or gaming console? Where and to what are you becoming attached? The shared imagination of the virtual gaming environment may create a gaming community, but we have lost the transformation of spaces into places. Or rather we have disconnected the meaning of particular spaces from the meaning of the places associated with them. Your desktop has become a pawn in some other fictional world and you’re connected to that world, not to your desktop. Your body is no longer the first scale that can transition you from space to place. So what is happening?

I felt at the time that Jablonksi was being fairly slippery with his movement between virtual environments and physical ones. The so-called “meatspace” has many more features than we give it credit for, and it isn’t clear whether the fault for this lack of clarity is the format of the lecture (short) or the analysis we can offer from Tuan (it pre-dates the Internet) or something else altogether. In the Q&A I asked whether, after a Christmas break filled with long sessions of Call of Duty: Black Ops, a teenage video-gamer would “miss” their virtual place? What are the features of a virtual gaming environment that are required for a persistent sense of emotional uprootedness when one is deprived of that environment?

A personal story: I’m a big fan of a much earlier version of Call of Duty. When I first moved to California I began playing with a particular group of gamers (called a clan) as a break from my studies. It was a pleasurable way to relax and the competition of the game was stimulating. When my wife and I decided to move to a new apartment I discovered that my new ISP was wholly inadequate to continue playing the game online. I vainly attempted to continue playing, growing steadily more angry with the effects of reduced latency and bandwidth (i.e., slow internet). Ultimately, I had to leave the community that I had spent more than a year with and stop playing the game. Recently I heard that the server that allowed us to play this vintage game had closed down. My response was very much one of the loss of a place where I had felt at home. I miss it just as much as I miss the people I played with there–regardless of how silly that feels to me to say now.

Jablonksi argued that our collective digital ennui was not endless or hopeless. Social networks, he argued, are filling in the rootlessness of digital life. We are re-forming our relationship with spaces by layering them with digital place interfaces. Facebook location, FourSquare, and other “I’m here” web applications are just the beginning of our attempts to restore our place-making abilities. In the i-Age we are finding that what was lost isn’t gone forever, and that we can continue to exert the basic emotional attachments that Tuan outlined over 30 years ago. We are finding ways for technology to replace the body as the first step in transforming spaces into places, and I’m not sure whether that is a scary proposition or one that turns us into proto-cyborgs. That’s a question for another day. Where we stand at the moment, however, is right on the cusp of a revolution in the way we relate space and space. It may be that we find a way back home or into the homely-feeling transformations of the past, but we could just as easily forge ahead into a new sense of what it means to be somewhere. Sure, some of us are deeply uneasy with that prospect, but just think for a second: how do you imagine the first urban folks felt when they began to live in the shadow of skyscrapers? How have we responded to the glut of cookie-cutter and suburban sprawl? We are boats at sea waiting for the storm to clear so that we can return to our ports. This too shall pass.

[1. This was partially transcribed by Dragon Dictate, but it was registering too many errors, so I turned off the microphone to finish it. 2. Tuan is visiting UCSB to give a lecture in the Geographies of Place series on March 9th. I’ll see if I can’t ask a question that gets at the home-making of modern digital life to supplement this piece. 3. Check out a short post I did about an earlier lecture in this series about spiritual solders.]