c.e. taillefer

February 21, 2014

It was the blurst of times?: Twitch Plays Pokemon & Infinite Monkey Theorem

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Unless you’ve been surfing the internet the past week from a cave on Mars, with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears, you’ve got at least a passing familiarity with Twitch Plays Pokemon. If not, a brief summary: someone decided to stream Pokemon Red/Blue via Twitch tv, and program it so that chat commands (up, down, left, right, a, b, select) correspond to the player character’s movements in game.  Basically:

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What’s exciting about this is, aside from the hours of entertainment watching Red navigate Giovanni’s tower maze, is that the program essentially allows us to watch and participate in a simplified version of the infinite monkey theorem.  Not only that, since someone set up a competing stream called RNG Plays Pokemon, we can compare how the keyboard smashing gestalt of 80K humans hammering away compares to a computer controlling it all.  (Sort of: Twitch is playing Red/Blue, while RNG is playing Silver).  All the same, gestalt beats singularity by 1 badge currently.

Obviously, with only 6 key presses to complete a game compared to the infinite monkey theorem of 26 key presses to complete a play, we’re looking at probability many magnitudes larger in favour of Twitch.  Plus, to be fair to the monkeys, they’re probably not as familiar with Hamlet as most of the under-40 set is with Pokemon.  Even so, completing simple tasks in Pokemon has been taking anywhere from hours to days. The length of time required to watch until something significant happens is so prohibitive, it’s baffling in its popularity.

At some point, the creator added in a new form of play in addition to the chaos of the PC responding to every keypress, called democracy.

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Players vote by either typing in “anarchy” or “democracy” into chat to move the bar in one direction or another. Democracy mode only moves the character after a key has received a certain number of votes within a 20 sec period – for example, if ten people type “down”, and five type “up”, the character will move down.  It’s slower, but progress is surer.  A lot of viewers (myself included) feel that anarchy mode is the purer method of play.  Think of it as a Nuzlocke challenge for thousands of people at the same time. Released your Charmander? Tough nuts, only Pidgeot can save you now.

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Art by vgstorytime.tumblr.com

Here’s the really fascinating thing about TPP, though.  Not only is the game progressing, but people are weaving in narratives and stories relating to the canonical journey of the player character.  The aforementioned release of Charmander (nicknamed “Abby”), really did happen.  An attempt was made to evolve an Eevee into a Vaporeon to enable Red to use surf, but due to a series of unfortunate spending events, he was unable to acquire a water stone, and they ended up with Flareon instead. When trying to deposit Flareon to withdraw another pokemon capable of using surf, Abby was released, and the myth passed into legend:

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Image by walrusmanipulator.tumblr.com

The Helix Fossil, due to its inability to be used or thrown away, gained a great deal of favour, as did the Moon stone.

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The deep-seated philosophical urge to narrate the progression of Red in the game echoes the concept of existential angst, as Sartre saw it, where human recognition of the utter indifference of situations and objects.  There’s no sense of consciousness in them, which can cause great distress to the soul.  We might not think of it so much when looking at a stapler, but it’s certainly present when gazing out at the infinitely expanding universe – a panicky fluttering of uselessness.

Some of this is alleviated by the nature of the game – there is a defining end, a sense of accomplishment in beating the game. (Whether that’s beating the elite four, or catching every pokemon varies from player to player.) despite the fact that most of the situations in the game result in no proper “progression”, so to speak, there is still a heady sense of freedom in being that dick who types “down” instead of “up” to consult the Helix Fossil. Again.

But all of those individual situations of themselves are not linked in any meaningful way.  They’re the immediate expressions of actions taken by others, and expressed through an object (in this case, a computer program.) In between watching Red circle loops through Team Rocket HQ, there’s still a powerful need to extract meaning through connecting these actions via narrative.  Hence, False Prophet, Bird Jesus, and so on.

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It’s also hell on a date (courtesy of xkcd.com)

Twitch plays pokemon is fascinating because it’s an 8-bit representation of all that German philosophical bullshit about the nature of being that you strained to wrap your head around in undergrad. How do we tell our stories? What is the meaning of our lives in a cold, uncaring universe? When we’re on our deathbeds, we can look back at the journey, all the ledges we fell of off, the hours spent in a dark elevator alone, and say to ourselves, “At least we beat Blue.”

In Pidgeot’s name, amen.

May 24, 2013

I Graduated from the Faculty of Celebrity Studies

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Last night I had a dream that I lived in a world where gossip was a felony crime, and being caught with gossip rags or thinking about celebrities was a dangerous act of rebellion. My first thought was, “Wow, what a shitty world to live in.” My second thought, close on its heels was, “Oops, I never did write that post about going to Elaine’s lecture.”

A few years ago, a good friend of mine introduced me to Lainey Gossip. “It’s different,” she said. “Just read.” Indeed, without Belen’s timely intervention and shameless wielding of “I’m coming from really far away just to see you!” we might have not even gotten an invitation to the Faculty of Celebrity Studies.

Since we’re both camera shy dorks, have a representative graphic of the evening:

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Belen’s the one in the teal dress with the curly brown hair. i’m the one in the lighter teal dress with the shorter brown hair.

FCS was held in London (ON, not UK), at my alma mater UWO. Compared to the other stops on the tour (Vancouver, Edmonton, Halifax), London was a small and strange detour – save the fact it was also Lainey’s old college. So, under the stern and paternalistic eyes of the presidents, Lainey presented her lecture & discussion on elements of what it means to gossip, images of celebrity motherhood, gender biases in advertising and expectations of privacy in a social media world. Don’t be fooled – this wasn’t a two-and-a-half hour session on who’s dating who, where and the literal ins-and-outs – Lainey is canny and pointed, and doesn’t hesitate to use her years of experience in the celebrity studies world to call people’s assumptions into question.

On privacy: What right do we have to expect it, especially when we’re constantly updating our Facebooks or our Twitter accounts? When we use those mediums to further other agendas? (For example, the tweet I’ll make about this post when I’m done.) Most of all, why do we do it? For one student, it was simple. She has a lifestyle blog. Using Facebook and Twitter, she devises ways to connect with her audience in a seemingly personal manner, so they’ll be intrigued and look at her blog, thus earning her money. Lainey: “So, you believe your lifestyle is aspirational, which is why you share it with the world?” “No, but I think people are interested in the places I eat, or the wines I drink.” It’s conceit, but none of us want to call it that. For me, personally, privacy is a weird duck. I expect it; as a person, I’m entitled to it. But neither am I surprised when my illusion of privacy is broken. I mean, before the internet, I had a little unicorn diary with a rinky-dink gold key and lock, and I don’t even think then I expected my thoughts to remain especially private.  The internet only serves to disseminate that violated privacy far and wide.  It’s not my fault either, for not buying a bigger lock for my diary, or stronger privacy settings on my Facebook account. It’s the fault of the snooper, the boyfriend who shares illicitly gotten sex pictures, the corporations mining social media for consumer data.  Anita Sarkeesian didn’t stop putting herself out there after she was targeted for daring to criticize video games from a feminist standpoint; she just disabled the comments. (Angering tons of men who wanted to call her awful names, which indicates she’s doing the right thing in both cases.)  We don’t need to hound the targeted – we need to make targeting far less valuable than it is.

Celebrity motherhood was another hot topic, leading eventually to what I had to call “the incident” (but I’ll get to that). We went through slideshows of celebrity moms and sometimes dad out and about, just living their lives despite the beleaguering mobs of paparazzi. “Paparazzi aren’t that lucky,” Lainey said, “They’re not just going out for Starbucks and lucking into getting a few shots of Thor holding a baby burrito. They know ahead of time, either because the agents, or the celebs themselves call them.” Jessica Alba hasn’t made a movie in years, yet she remains consistently photographed. Her films aren’t her brand anymore; motherhood is. (Literally.)

Hear that stony grinding sound? That’s me, and Belen, wearing our teeth down to nubs as audience member after audience member praises the mothering lifestyle. On the other hand, they were careful to note that ‘real’ mothers don’t have housekeepers, or nannies, or nurses, like Jessica or Gwyneth.  Thus hoisted by their own petard of choice feminism, the conversation wandered in unusual and ugly circles for about half an hour with regards to motherhood and choice and careers, despite Lainey’s best efforts to herd it back. (“Why do you think they’re so often white?” she desperately asked a group of 40-50 middle class white women.)  Finally, I end up cutting into a woman’s rambling story about how her 4-year-old son loves their law-school babysitter so much, he wants to “take care of her when they’re married.”

“It’s not a choice, not really. How can it be, when we’re raised from birth to supposedly want to mother children and keep house? How can we say, ‘I chose this’, when the media is carefully self-selecting women who are moving away from acting careers, not into scriptwriting or directing but motherhood?” That was the gist of it, I think, drowning as I was in bellinis and confusion. In a way, it was good because when the shouting died down (one woman asked me from across the room, “Do you have children?”), we got to take a five minute break.  A few women spoke to me during the break, and I got a cool celeb head-rush when Duana told me to keep on trucking. But I felt painfully aware of the consequences of a difference kind of privacy – feminist yelling on the internet in the privacy of your home is so much different than doing it in a physical space. To me, the room felt stifling and awkward. Then felt awkward. Belen patted my hand and told me she was proud of me.

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The evening wrapped up with an audience free for all: Is Vin Diesel a dick? (Yes. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth over that one. From like, two of us. Okay, from me and Belen.) Are a bunch of different people gay? (“What is everyone’s obsession with who’s gay?” – Lainey) Was meeting Gwyneth exciting? (Very, even though they couldn’t shake hands because Gwen just had her nails done.)  Is Mariah Carey a diva? (Second-hand story but yes, and brilliant about it.)  My one regret is that the event happened too early for the Star Trek: Into Darkness junkets to really get going because I am dying to pick someone’s brain about John Cho being just plain excellent.

It was probably one of the most interesting lectures I’ve ever attended on Western’s main campus (sorry but I’m an affiliate kid through and through) but I couldn’t help wondering how different the audiences and interactions were in other cities. London is a medium sized town, bursting with some pretty serious issues with racial ghettoization and class privilege.  I was disappointed, though not surprised, how heavily it affected the conversation.  Especially when Elaine states pretty baldly how her experiences shape the ways she interacts with gossip:

“When I’m writing, I quite often infuse celebrity reporting with my own experiences. I see celeb gossip through the prism of my life,” she says. (UWO alumni gazette)

That’s true for all of us; however we interact with the concept of celebrity, we do so through our own lenses. The reason why Elaine’s site is so compelling is that it’s a fresh lens, poignant and sharp and witty, skewering our expectations of gossip and often subtly lampshading or turning the tables on the reader to consider the broader social understandings that we draw from, and corporations and media infuse into, celebrity culture.

Are you a gossip girl? Trash talker? Smuthound? Give us the deets.

March 8, 2013

Tropes versus Women – Damsel in Distress 1

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Hey, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency released the very first episode of her long-awaited kickstarter Tropes versus Women project. Check it out if you have a chance, the history on certain video games (Super Mario Bros 2 was new to me and really interesting!) I’m looking forward to part 2 of damsels in distress, as well as the other topics she’s planning on covering.

February 22, 2013

Diablo 3 Console Edition – Follow-Up

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After a lengthy discussion with @stungravy last night on mumble, I’ve come around to the idea that it’s not as awful an idea as it sounds from the company’s point of view – which is, of course, why they do things.  He pointed out that while consoles can have a pricey entrance point of 300-500 dollars, they don’t always remain that high and that, unlike gaming PCs, the console is all the investment you need to play the next however many years of games that generation puts out.  With a PC, SG said, you are constantly upgrading pieces – or even your whole rig – to keep up with new graphics and game demands on your hardware.

It also reminded me that only yesterday I was reading a very similar argument in T.L Taylor’Raising The Stakes which examines the socio-cultural boundaries shaped within the e-sport genre. I was most especially interested in the chapters dealing with e-sports players aping athletic masculinities, and how that effects female e-sport players (and women who game in general), but also tackles race and gaming.  The findings she cites indicates that Hispanic-American and African American youth are more likely than Caucausian youth to play digital games, but also that their primary choice of gaming method was console over PC (Taylor 2012: 129) @stungravy’s observation that a gaming console is a much sounder investment over time plays into this, but also the talk I had with Gloria at Corgi Island over AIM – console games are more communal, especially now that LAN parties have more or less died out in favour of gaming over Vent or Mumble. All you need to do for a game of NHL 13 is some extra controllers.  While we can all remember a few console e-sports tournaments, it’s hard to deny the bulk of them focus on PC only titles like Starcraft, Warcraft Arenas, League of Legends, etc.

It would be interesting to collect data on other games that have both PC and console ports – Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed come to mind – and see the demographics on those, compared to games that traditionally are only available in one format or the other, and if Taylor’s observations from earlier studies hold true in those cases.

I can’t deny the fact that Diablo 3 on consoles will probably draw more players into what was, despite its dubious staying power – an enjoyable game. Whether or not this will draw old players back remains to be seen: the promised death match system has yet to be released, if ever; there hasn’t been any word to date on whether the auction house systems will remain within their respective spheres or if it will be possible to trade and sell items from console to PC and vice versa. But I will begrudgingly admit Blizzard got one of the biggest rises out of the fanbase during an otherwise lackluster performance by Sony, and retract my initial knee jerk reaction.

(Though not my plea to bring Leah back. Never that.)