Twitch Plays ePortfolio?

Writing ePortfolio Corner

Cynthia Davidson


Today’s Writing ePortfolio Corner isn’t so much about eportfolios as about the possible future of interactive spaces for reflection (which eportfolios are).
I’m talking about the “Twitch Plays Pokemon” phenomenon that is taking the web by storm this week.  Full disclosure:  I know nothing about Pokemon.  I never played it.  This is a pleasure that passed my generation by–well, some of my generation will yell that’s untrue, but we had to go back and reclaim that pleasure, with our children probably.  I’ve reclaimed some gaming pleasure, but not this one.  But everyone knows that Pokemon is a major shaper of childhood experience.  (Or it was–our current students refer to it as “old school.”)
“Twitch Plays Pokemon” is a channel on Twitch.TV, which is a live streaming channel for video gamers. It is best known as a channel where people can watch other people playing games 24/7.  This is done for both education (people watch to learn how to play the games) and entertainment. TPP is very popular–the site has recorded over 300,000 unique visitors in the week since its launch– but few gaming streams have caught the imagination of academics so quickly.  Perhaps it was only a matter of time, in this year of discussions of MOOCing and the ascendancy of online education, that a crowdsourced embeddable gaming platform would be an object of intense fascination to the public and to academia.
The game channel describes it as “a stream that lets you play Pokemon with a lot of other people by typing commands into chat. It was created as an experiment to test the viability of this format, the way people interact with the input system and the way they interact socially with each other.” On the side frame of the channel itself, there is a scrolling chat log of participants’ comments.  The comments generally are of the nature of “ANARCHY!” or “bird Jesus lives,” both references to the gameplay (which is a sprawling narrative of a political and religious nature, so the comments aren’t just random silliness).   The creator of “Twitch Plays Pokemon” has been feverishly sought out by gaming newsblogs such as Joystic, but he (only gender confirmed)  is protective of identity, preferring to be referred to as “The Trainer.”
There have been quite a few blog posts reporting on (Kotaku” in particular has been buzzing), analyzing, or reflecting on this event and almost all of them actually embed the game itself, which can be shared like a YouTube video, in the blog post.  That means that anyone reading one of these blog posts has nearly instant access to jumping into the game and playing.  “The Trainer” has provided an FAQ on the channel page explaining how to do just that.
I’m fascinated by the idea of bringing actual shared interactive experiences into a personal website, like an ePortfolio or a blog.  It’s something that we can do more and more, and it changes the nature of writing in a direction that began with hyperlinking.  The nature of summary and analysis of texts, whether strictly verbal or multimodal, changes when readers can click on a link and check the text themselves.  This can be compared to the Protestant Reformation when, after printing made the Bible available and literacy expanded to a great portion of the population, members of a religious community could offer their own interpretations of the preacher’s text references without having to go through channels.  Access is easier and, if not instant, nearly so.
Some may question if this is the proper use of an ePortfolio, which should be the showcase of an individual.  However, many of our students are producing interactive media, if not in their Writing courses, in other courses (such as the Game Design course taught by Lori Scarlatos in Tech and Society at Stony Brook University).  I would love to see my students create an interactive live stream such as this and embed it into their ePortfolio along with analysis, research, and reflection–and if they don’t create it themselves, follow in the footsteps of bloggers like Xav de Matos on Joystic who embed the work of others and provide the metacommentary.  That metacommentary then becomes another potentially ground for interactivity, for conversation, in the blog comments.  Those commenters can then check out the game and play it.
The beauty of this is that there are so many way to approach metacommentary.  Some bloggers comment on the programming and the access, some on the mythology of the game, some on the sociology involved in choosing a democratic or anarchic style of play or the building of community.  All are rich conversations to have, and can lead to deeper consideration and research.
Experiments like this stretch our concept of audience as well.  Audience has a dual role, possibly:  one as participant in the original event embedded in the site and one more traditional role as audience of the metacommentary.  Prepare for this audience to be less under your spell as a writer, more easily distracted by his or her own experiences, more challenging of one’s comments.  The attraction of participation is also competition for one’s words.
There are additional logistical things to watch out for, of course, such as increased flow of traffic to the server.  Also, the platform has to allow for embedding of the live feed (in this case, a Flash object that would have required an account upgrade prevented a direct embedding. You can visit an example in my WordPress blog.  Digication currently does not support the embedding of Flash objects, but other kinds of live streams are supported, such as Ustream.) However, if a student’s ePortfolio is set to semi-public access, only those with a local account will be able to access that page.  There’s a good chance that the student’s ePortfolio may become very popular–especially if it’s set to Public access.

About Cynthia Davidson

I teach writing at Stony Brook University.
This entry was posted in Teaching Writing, Technology and Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Twitch Plays ePortfolio?

  1. jeffrey green says:

    Cynthia, thank you for this. I don’t have any experience with Pokemon, either, but I don’t have the excuse of age.

    Your comparison of embedding interactive spaces within Web pages (e.g., ePortfolios) caused me to think about the validity of an analogy with the rabbinical tradition of midrash halakha. (fyi: a midrash halakha is commentary on a word or idea in the Hebrew Bible.) Those who have seen midrash texts will be familiar with the beautiful, if awkward, layering and juxtaposing and just plain cramming-in of in-text commentaries on the page itself. (An example:; sorry, I don’t know how to embed a link in WordPress) Midrash upon midrash upon midrash — all set off in the midst of the Hebrew text where the etymological or hermeneutical problem occurs. This “midrashing,” if I may, is, by its nature, by the technology used to capture it (paper), and by those authorized to insert commentary and critique of commentary, is/was static and selectively accessible, i.e., you had to be a much respected and well connected rabbi to get into the midrash game.

    So, here’s the question: Do you think it may be stretching the analogy by suggesting that a page of midrash text and all those midrash annotators could be re-imagined in terms of what the rabbis might do today using an interactive space within a Web page (i.e., the Hebrew text) in which commentary and meta-commentary on disputed interpretive questions could be experienced and created interactively and a touch more accessibly? I don’t mean simply hyperlinks — one midrash linked to 20 or 2,000 others. But, rather, a synchronous, interactive “midrashing” of target/disputed texts situated within a Web space that is otherwise static.

    Those familiar with midrash literature will immediately see some big problems with the analogy, but we’re talking about large-grained phenomena in the history of ways people engage with and critique texts, such as the Reformation example Cynthia offers. The question is whether the analogy may help illuminate the significance of embedded, interactive spaces.

    • Cynthia Davidson says:

      “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.”—Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

      The Internet changes the game in so many ways, but embedding live streams or interactive objects in a new work really complicates things. The “charisma” or maybe to use Benjamin’s word “aura” of the live stream is no doubt related to older ideas of unique existence at the place that Benjamin mentions here. There will always be someone to say that playing Dungeons and Dragons prior to the Internet was more real than playing a RPG online today (there also seems to be a sense people have that prior technologies are more real than the new ones, which is worth researching). However, I wonder if embedding live streams is a way of reclaiming mystery, if not genius and eternal value. It seems relevant to me that the themes of this Pokemon are religious and mythological.

  2. Cynthia Davidson says:

    Jeffrey, that’s exactly the kind of response I was hoping for (although I didn’t know of midrashing before this–but then, as I said, I don’t really know Pokemon either). There’s something intensely charismatic about an embedded, interactive space. I think it poses a challenge to the idea of authorship existing in isolation (although that idea has been challenged for a very long time) when the influences are not only alluded to, but actually present in the new text.

    As an experience, one is bound to find TPP either engrossing or unbearable for more than a few minutes…but imagine how an artist could use an embedded, interactive space to engage viewers in participatory work, games or interactive fictions, musical experiences in which the audience can actually co-compose, perhaps?

    • Cynthia and Jeffrey,

      Interesting discussion!

      The Talmud — the oral law of Judaism that was written down in the early centuries of the common era during the dispersal of the Israelites from Palestine — is one of the best known early examples of a hypertext (see It consists of a text/legal opinion (Mishnah) in the center of the page with a range of comments, glosses and annotations surrounding that also link to other pages in the Talmud.

      An image:

      When we respond to a student essay in Google Docs by entering side comments, especially ones that send a student to another website for, say, instructions in grammar, we are creating a version of the Talmud’s hypertext page.


  3. MaryAnn Duffy says:

    On PBS this week, they have been running a series of stories on the World Wide Web for its 25th anniversary. The editor of Wired magazine said that they never anticipated how the individual would play such a huge role in creating content. . . .i.e., blogs, youtube, etc. Where the web will go from here, he said, will be equally as unimaginable. But Cynthia’s observations give an indication. So fascinating.

    • Cynthia Davidson says:

      Twitch Plays Pokemon seems to be the story/game that never ends. I just saw another piece on it:
      “Lord Helix Makes a Most Unexpected Turn in ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon'”

      I’m truly delighted with the connection Jeff and Carolyn made to the Talmud, because scholars have been making connections between Kaballah and the Internet for a long time, with the idea of the living word that creates physical change in the world, even the creation of the golem through language ritual. You can look at the Internet as a living book. I had to read the Sefer Yetzirah for my Ph.D. rhetoric exam. Maybe it’s time to dig out the old texts!

      My rhetoric mentor, William Covino, wrote a book that I recommend for anyone who wants to make connections between magical spiritual practices and writing, Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination It’s pretty fun, interesting, and inspiring. It is published by SUNY Press. It seems to be in print again, fortunately, after a period of not being widely available, and parts of it are being distributed through the Internet as .pdfs. I first heard about connections between the Internet, hypertext, and Kaballah in his rhetoric course.

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