Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Twitch Plays A cappella

I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore gamer. I enjoy the occasional video game every now and then, and I follow the latest video game news when I need a break, but this is only on occasion.
One particular videogame phenomenon caught my eye recently, and I’ve been transfixed ever since. The popular internet site “Twitch,” which is basically a youtube-like site where gamers can post live videos of them playing video games, has now been the host of a rather interesting social experiment, similar to the anarchy that befalls any community without a system of order.
A twitch user set up an emulator (sort of like a computer program) where anyone can type in a command and control the main character, Red, in a game of Pokemon.
So basically, thousands of users type in commands, all trying to guide this one, poor, hapless, frustrated pokemon trainer to complete his mission.
As you would expect, soon thousands more logged onto the site with the singular purpose of disrupting any chance of success. And then thousands more logged in to try and stop the disrupters. So thousands more disrupters created an emulator program that allowed them to type in commands that would be executed multiple times. And then thousands more logged in to hopefully restore order.
This has been going on for a week now.
In fact, it got so bad that the creator established a system of governance. Users could forgo their turn to vote on how the system would respond to the thousands of commands it receives per minute. A vote for anarchy would leave the emulator the way it is now, with chaos reigning supreme. A vote for democracy would change the program so that the command with the most number of entries per every ten seconds would be the next command on the list.
It’s been several days now, and obviously, the game is nowhere near finished.
This got me thinking about a cappella (as everything often does). Let’s say that an arranger, looking to create a new a cappella arrangement, left every musical choice and decision up to the general public. People could input their ideas, one note at a time, and you could have the option of deleting a note, changing a note, adding a note, etc.
What would this arrangement look like? Would it be mixed? Would it be faithful to the original song? Would it have lots of long notes? Would it have complicated rhythms? How many parts would it have? What song would it be based on? Would there be a mash-up?
This all comes down to a matter of taste. One criticism I have with a cappella critiques is that they are opinion-based. The ICCA is a perfect example: To win, you have to please the judges, none of whom you know until the day of the competition. If your set is a complicated mixture of swingle singing and barbershop, but the judges only want to hear a group emulate Pentatonix, it doesn’t matter how well you perform. You have no chance of winning.
The same problem remains an integral part of a cappella groups. Usually, the group has one or two arrangers working on a song, which is then given to the entire group to perform. The arrangement is shaped and crafted during rehearsals, and the final product suits the majority.
But what if several of your members want to take the group in a different direction? What if someone wants to hear more jazz, and you want more pop? What if someone suggests a really good, but completely unknown song, and you want to sing the latest, popular radio hit? Who wins in the end?
The social experiment known as Twitch Plays Pokemon has, in my view, only one conclusion: The game will end, but the destination will not be as fulfilling as the journey. Through the chaos of creating something new, like an arrangement, the final product might not be accepted by all, unless everyone has a hand in it. For everyone to have a hand in it, we would need thousands, maybe millions of people, crafting the same arrangement to please everyone.
If thousands of people craft the same arrangement together, you get the chaos that is Twitch Plays Pokemon.
I guess the moral is this: You can’t please everyone. Critics will critique, judges will judge, naysayers will say nay, and optimists will be optimistic. I prefer to play Pokemon on my own time, to suit my needs. The same goes for a cappella.
Marc Silverberg
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