How a Twitter bot turned the 2016 election into a giant Pokémon battle

'Donald Trump wants to battle!'

Feb 29, 2020, 2:51 pm*

Tech

Aaron Sankin 

Aaron Sankin

Politics is just a game, Nora Reed realized. And not just any game—Pokémon. U.S. politics is Pokémon incarnate. That’s when she had her latest big idea.

Reed spent the last month playing a lot of Pokémon X, the 2013 iteration of Nintendo’s long-running video game series. She was also watching a lot of news, observing how a fake Syrian passport found near the dead body of one of the terrorists responsible for the Paris attacks suddenly transformed the conversation around the United States accepting refugees fleeing Syria’s bloody civil war into one about exclusion and demonization.

“Reactionary video game nerds hate it when people like me use the metaphors they think they own.”

Pokémon takes the idea of gladiatorial combat, each player sending their champion into the ring to duke it out for bragging rights, and turns it into something akin to a deceptively simple card game.

Reading story after story, Reed noticed that the arguments made by opponents of Muslim refugees fell into familiar grooves. The repetition of the same arguments over and again felt rote and mechanized. Gradually, the headlines she read and the notifications popping up in Reed’s Nintendo 3DS screen started to blur. “Donald Trump uses ISLAMOPHOBIA!” she’d say to herself with a smirk. “It’s super effective!”

It was with that realization that the Twitter bot Pokéconservative was born.

Reed’s passion is making Twitter bots, relatively simple computer programs that use algorithms to send out randomized tweets based on predetermined formulas. She’s always loved generative art, and creating Twitter bots gives her an ability to add an edge of cutting satire. One of her previous creations was Luxury Products, which spits out tweets deftly walking the barely visible line between marking copy for high-end products and complete gibberish, with gems like, “assert your heterosexuality with with a European drone.”

Another effort was Thinkpiece Bot, which did such a capable job of randomly slapping together random buzzwords into thinkpiece headlines, like “Could CrossFit Cure Affluensa?” and “How Twerking Can Ruin YOUR Career,” that the Daily Dot allowed the program to temporarily takeover our newsroom.

When Reed came up with the idea of combining the political arguments of conservatives with game mechanics of Pokémon, making a Twitter bot was the obvious next step.

“I keep seeing tweets from 2014 and earlier recirculate as the same horrible things happen over and over again, and the same groups respond in the same ways: blaming Muslims, saying it’s too soon to talk about gun control, etc.,” she tells the Daily Dot. “I figured, if I put the right names and political strategies in there now and have it tweeting once per hour, by the time election season really kicks in, it’ll have generated pretty much all of the relevant hot takes and retweet them when relevant.”

“It’s pretty much the same when you look at the Big Name Conservatives—politicians/pundits/etc—they’re using the same relatively small move set over and over again, just on a much larger stage,” she says. “And it honestly looks like they all have controllers with buttons that say ‘racism,’ ‘misogyny,’ ‘yell about jihad,’ and ‘invoke god,’ and they’re just mashing them.”

The Pokéconservative bot works in much the same way as the rest of Reed’s bots. It relies on formulas like “[NAME] uses [MOVE]!,” pulling both the names and moves from a list she personally curated for maximum comedic effect. “It’s basically structured like automated MadLibs,” she says, adding that the bot currently employs 14 different formulas more or less taken directly from Pokémon games.

Pokémon doesn’t just serve as a facile metaphor for political debate because of its seemingly calcified repetition, Reed says. It also mirrors her own experience on social media. 

The overall structure of most Pokémon games involve traveling from one city to the next in a quest to beat each city’s “gym leader” in combat to prove you’re the best of the best. As your character hoofs it between towns, however, there’s a seemingly endless stream of random encounters with monsters and other Pokémon trainers, all of whom want to take you on.

“In the game, it’s fun, because then you get to a city and heal up, and there’s new stuff to look at. But being a progressive on Twitter is a bit like that, only it isn’t fun, and it basically never ends,” Reed says. “Like a Pokémon, each rando only knows about four ‘moves.’ Gotta BLOCK ‘em all!”

Believe it or not, Pokéconservative isn’t the first instance of Twitter users attempting to insert Pokemon into the 2016 election cycle. Earlier this year, when real estate heir and reality TV star turned Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump did a public social media Q&A session using the hashtag #AskTrump, unnumbered people submitted questions about Pokémon. 

Unfortunately for voters curious about Trump’s opinion on whether the introduction of mega evolution cheapened the competitive Pokemon meta-game, the candidate did not answer a single Pokémon-related query during the virtual event.

A stalwart progressive, Reed says she doesn’t have plans to create Pokéliberal any time soon. She did, however, make a point to include some self-proclaimed liberals who, Reed feels, represent a decidedly reactionary point of view—most notably, controversial movement atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

“Like a Pokémon, each rando only knows about four ‘moves.’ Gotta BLOCK ‘em all!”

Left-leaning politicians, however, remain notably absent. “Making bots that make fun of a political group that basically acts like mustache-twirling cartoon villains most of the time is easy and fun,” she says. “Attempting to remove all the nuance from the politicians I’ll actually have to vote for because of the inherent limitations of the two-party system would just make me depressed.”

If Pokéconservative does become popular, Reed thinks it’s inevitable that someone will create a version making fun of liberals. “Reactionary video game nerds,” she says, “hate it when people like me use the metaphors they think they own.”

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Dec 9, 2015, 11:47 am