Letters to You: Isopods for Peace

Far as I can tell, image of a giant isopod at Shedd Aquarium by nate_newton of the Captivereefs.com forum, Oct. 2011. I tarted it up in Photoshop a bit.

Isopods for Peace

This is the story of how I started an isopod peacenik cult. Kinda-sorta on purpose.

Deeeep.io (four ‘e’s) is a browser game created by Federico Mouse. It’s one of those EVO-type deals where you start as a very basic creature and evolve into more complex lifeforms as you level up. In this case, it’s a vast, procedurally-generated ocean. Oh, and it’s multiplayer.

That alone would have ruined it for me eventually had I not stumbled upon the way of the isopod. I tend to play online games alone, because, well, you’ve seen the internet. I’m so introverted it’s probably some kind of disease. I’ve been playing World of Warcraft for about twelve years, and mostly I play that by myself too — run old raids for transmog gear, play the auction house for my sub fee, pet battle, farm achievements. I’m one of those that is happy just making my own game in the corner out of whatever I’m given. So when someone says, “Hey, would you like to plunge into an unregulated ocean full of internet randos and fight it out for a few blips of plankton?” I go “yeah no honestly that sounds like a terrible idea.”

All kinds of frothy chaos

It’s fun, though. The graphics are rudimentary in a charming way. I’m a blobfish, and I need high pressure to survive — stay in the Deeeeps, it tells me! Okay then. A few bellyfuls of yellow algae from the bottom of the sea and I have become a crab. That’s not how I remember evolution working when I learned it in school, but hey, what do I know, I’m an English major. Crab eats algae too, excellent. And nobody’s scooping up all this yellow algae on the seafloor — there’s all kinds of frothy chaos happening above me, but none of the big fish can eat algae, so they leave me alone.

I start to realize that Deeeep has a surprising amount of, well… depth. The dev has gone to the trouble to gently enforce non-griefing play. The top tier of predatory fish can’t even harm Tier 1 fish. Bigger fish eat meat, so they mostly battle one another, leaving the abundant algae for newer players to level up on. Of course, it’s the internet, so my confident expectation is that the first other person I encounter will make it his life’s work to fuck me sideways, and there’s a lot of that. I die a ton at first, but it’s all right. The more evolved I was when I died, the higher up on the food chain I can start, so I’m corpse-running my way to the top.

The fish-bitches bring it

I become a seal, and then a bird, and then suddenly get too fat to fly and plunge back into the sea as a shark. Eat fish, become the shark! It says that right at the top of the screen! I’m the boss now; bring it, fish-bitches.

The fish-bitches bring it. Teaming up is a very solid strategy, and alliances shift rapidly under the sea — I get mobbed by a school of piranhas, a ray, and a couple octopodes that I could swallow whole if I could just get them to hold still. I turn into a sinking shower of meat. My body will feed generations of scavengers.

This happens a few times. I get to experience most of the top-tier creatures. Crocodiles lurk at the bottom of the waterfall on the right side of the map, waiting for fish to get swept by the current into their jaws. Manta rays can take smaller fish under their wings and fight as a unified group. I see a hippo once, far away, and head the opposite fucking direction, because I know about hippos. The hell with hippos.

Me, a hippo, ruining a perfectly good beaver.

There’s a leaderboard in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. The top contender has over a million points, the 10th a couple hundred thousand. And here I am munching on algae for 50 points a bite. Clearly murder is the only efficient way to climb… but I, as I’ve said before, carry the Imp of the Perverse on my back. I am incapable of doing anything in a straightforward way if a ridiculously convoluted alternative is available. And I get bored with the thrashing battles quickly. We’re all blocky little sprites with simple textures, and though each animal has unique talents and abilities, the bulk of any fight is bashing your face into another face until one face breaks. Climbing the leaderboard makes you a target, and bored fish form squads to hunt you down for your delicious meats. The voice of WOPR rings in my head: “The only winning move is not to play.”

The only winning move is not to play

Maybe it’s the perfect combination of sativa and Adderall jangling through my system this morning. Maybe it’s the constant fluctuations of the leaderboard. Maybe it’s the way that the mechanics reinforce behaving like the fish you’ve chosen. I find that when I am an anglerfish, and I act like an anglerfish, I succeed. I love this. It makes me happy to roleplay as a fish, to avoid larger fish, to eat plankton and hide in deeeep-sea volcanos.

No, you know what it is? It’s the isopod’s adorable little face.

Look at that face. LOOK AT IT

She’s so serious and determined! I love her curled feet. I love her tiny industrious frown. The isopod is a Tier 3 creature. She needs to be in deeeep water to survive, and she can eat anything — algae, red bubbles of volcano-gas, any meat that drops out of the melee. Oh, and she can curl up into a ball, making her invulnerable. She can’t DO anything while curled up, and she’s got so little health and damage that she’s not a viable combatant against anything, but she charms me. I start to spend a lot of time playing as the isopod.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you — there is a chat function in this game. Another nail in its goddamn coffin as far as I’m concerned, but whatever, today I’m high enough to ignore the dick jokes that float by on the current. It’s everything you’d expect — friendships made and shattered, battlefield betrayals, factions that coalesce and then begin infighting for dominance. And the more you talk, the more you betray your position, so a mouthy fish with a high score quickly gets gangbanged into chum. Again my Imp whispers, “The only winning move is not to play.”

So I play the isopod. I eat the algae at the bottom of the sea. The isopod gets a little speed boost when she’s near a seabed, so whenever I’m menaced, I skim along and lose most pursuit by ducking deeper into the caves. I can hide in sea volcanoes, and when I’m balled up and hidden, I’m completely untouchable. Something about this slow grind soothes me. What can I say — they gave me a number to increment and points to collect. It’s in my gamer blood, I have to make the number go up.

For hours I play the isopod, and I think. It’s meditative. I have time to contemplate the words on my screen, the changing social structures that appear when people have these low-key ways to interact. All the usual characteristics of internet communication are there. People swear, people spam. Spammers are eaten. Funny, charming people attract friends and climb the leaderboard, but people have lives, so eventually everyone dies, or goes offline and disappears. Through it all, I stay an isopod. I lurk at the bottom of the sea. I eat the algae. I play my little role and am content.

Assholes are not known for their patience

Sometimes someone hassles me. A lamprey bobs up and bumps into my shell, then lingers, repeatedly bashing his head into me. It hurts, kind of. But if I ask him to leave me alone, it’ll just make him bother me more. If you speak, you make yourself a target. If you make a request, they will do the opposite. I know how to deal with trolls; I can wait him out. Assholes are not known for their patience. So I ball up and sit there while he chews on me ineffectually.

“cmon” he says. Oh, yeah, that’s a winning strategy. I wasn’t sold on being devoured by a toothy phallus before, but now that you’ve whined at me I’m a complete convert, take me now! Saying that won’t make him leave, though.

The only winning move is not to play, says the Imp in my head. But then the isopod speaks up. She says:

“Isopods for peace.”

Then she sits, a little stone at the bottom of the sea, and the nonplussed lamprey gives up and goes looking for easier prey.

Huh. That worked? All right then. I go on eating algae. And the next time someone comes for my succulent morsels, I say it again: “Isopods for peace.”

“Cool man” says the squid, and scoots off.

It keeps working. It’s a fairly unassailable message, I suppose — short enough to have no inroads for mockery, universal in appeal, and offered as a proclamation rather than a protest or a plea. And with so much more interesting, darting prey about, no one bothers me for long. I fall into a kind of trance. Eat the algae. Roam the cave. Bump against a larger fish. Murmur “Isopods for peace.” Turmoil and brawl goes on above, and gradually, over the course of many hours, I climb the leaderboard. Other fish climb by chunks, thousands of meat-points per chomp, but inevitably they die. They leave. I go on. I eat the algae. I roam the seabed. Isopods for peace.

The Isopod Nation

I start to hear echoes. Other players pick up the line, at first as a joke. An isopod faction forms. A few related names climb the boards: “Isopodking” is up there for a bit, and “ISOPODS 4 LYFE”. They assemble into a pile of curled blocks at the bottom of the sea and proclaim the isopod way. Naturally, they attract attention. A few die — an isopod can be killed, but it takes the right enemy fish, and a clever isopod knows how to avoid risky situations. Whenever I encounter a predator, I greet it with, “Isopods for peace,” and from far away I hear the Isopod Nation cheer.

The Isopod Nation often forms in this natural cave at the far left end of the map. Isopods roll downhill, you see. Here I visit the Isopod Nation and find them guarded by a small squid and an oarfish.

They want me to join them, but I know I must not. I must go on. I must eat the algae. I must spread the word of peace. Then, too, I know what will happen to the isopod faction. It’s starting to happen even now. Enemies gather round their chitin pyramid, so they enlist larger fish to protect isopods on their way to the group. And then the violence begins again, a war by proxy with the isopods helpless to do anything but watch. They disagree inside their pyramid, and the nation splinters from within. They join the fray, and then they die. Far away, I murmur, “Isopods for peace.”

Sometimes I die. I slip up now and then. I learn which fish can hurt me fastest, which can poison me through my protective shell, which can swallow me and carry me somewhere I don’t want to go. I start over again, sometimes on the same server, sometimes on another. Blobfish, crab, isopod. Hide the evolution prompt. Isopod is the endgame. Each time I climb the leaderboard, it happens again —word spreads, predators come. I wait, I whisper: “Isopods for peace.” And gradually, I don’t have to anymore. A squid bumps into me, then backs up. “sry bro.” He twirls in the water and swims away. A gulper eel approaches and I tense up — gulper eels can swallow me even in curled form, and it hurts. The only way to really escape them is to hide in a volcano. But this one doesn’t attack — he spins in the water, which is how fish greet each other, since any speech echoes across the whole ocean.

“Hi,” says the gulper eel.

I hide in a volcano while trying to sway a gulper eel to the side of peace.

I think about it. He wants to make friends. I could have protection. I could spread the word of peace farther, faster. I could scavenge from anything he killed — and that’s where the isopod breaks in with her quiet voice. She answers the gulper eel:

“Isopods for peace.”

The isopod goes on. She eats the algae. The gulper eel follows for awhile, circles me in the water, amuses himself chasing the little fish that are too large for me to eat. Eventually he takes off. The isopod is alone again. But that’s all right. She’s seen what happens when factions form. That way lies violence. She knows that if she speaks, her message will be diluted. If she befriends another fish, she makes herself vulnerable. The path of peace is lonely.

But the message carries. I roam servers to make sure I encounter new people. It always works. I don’t argue, I don’t beg. I don’t ask anyone to leave me alone or call for backup. I don’t spam — I only call out my catchphrase when someone tries to eat me. I try to defend other isopods too, when I see them — I curl up next to them and whisper, “Isopods for peace.” We lean against one another and contemplate the ocean for a moment. Then we go on, and eat the algae. Predators learn that they can reliably find food by following my voice to the asshole who screwed with an isopod. It becomes known: the isopods are for peace.

Have I tamed the internet?

I’m trying to understand what’s happening even as I’m doing it. Have I tamed the internet? How is this possible? Nine-year-old Fortnite babies don’t give a fuck about peace. And yet they stand down when they see me. They twirl in the current and dance.

“whoa srry man, didnt see it was you”

“Heyyyy”

“gogo isopod”

“WTF is that ispod wth a million points”

I think there are a couple of things going on here, and there’s some kind of lesson in this for the real world, but I’m not sure what it is. So let’s pick it apart. Why is this strategy working? Why am I not a target? Why, instead, is the word of peace spreading, isopods everywhere left to graze on the seabed, separate from the food chain?

Several days in, I am no longer afraid to swim away from the seabed. No one will harm me. Isopods are for peace.

Part of it is the message — like I said, it’s brief and unassailable. It’s not a question or a request, and it never changes no matter what response I receive. Assaulting a balled-up isopod is ineffective, but it’s also unrewarding. Since having a lot of points doesn’t make me worth any more points to the one who kills me, almost any other activity is a better use of time than waiting for me to uncurl. Which is the other part of this — invulnerability. Is this what true pacifism requires? Complete imperviousness to harm, a seamless carapace? I could mount an argument in that direction, certainly, with historical sources a fathom long, but somehow I can’t bring myself to believe it. Perhaps it’s sentiment. Perhaps it’s idealism. But I can’t believe — not quite — that the only possibility of peace lies in complete isolation.

It is at this point that I should confess I got a little obsessed with this project. It went on for days, plays of three, four, seven hours at a time. (Yes, I have a lot of time on my hands.) One morning I logged on to a new server, recognizing none of the names, and was greeted by “ey man its Isopods for Peace, whats up”. That wasn’t my name, as you can see in these screenshots, but that’s the power the meme has acquired by this point. I am identified entirely with what I say, even though it’s my name, Gentle, that stays in the corner of a person’s screen for hours on end. I am nothing. There is only the isopod, and the isopod is for peace.

So the cult remains even when I am not online, which allows me to begin iterating on the form. I change up the message from time to time, now. “Peace is the way. Follow the path of peace. There is enough food for all to live in peace.” I don’t strive to stay at the top of the leaderboard; being #1 means nothing to me. I usually bounce between ranks three to six as fish rise and fall around me. The function of my presence on the leaderboard is only to amplify what I say. Not mechanically —crabs’ voices are as loud as sharks’ and whales’ voices — but psychologically. An isopod, in and of herself, means nothing. An isopod that says “Isopods for peace” when you hit her and is surprisingly clever at not getting killed? You might remember that, for a minute or two. But without spamming the message, that’s all the longevity it has — the next isopod you see erases the memory of this one, and they all look like food, and none of the rest of ’em moralize at you while you’re chewing.

A serene, idealistic statement

When I’m on the leaderboard, all fish can see is my name, unless they find me somewhere in the sea. They have no idea which creature I currently am. When they come for me, they come in force, expecting a shark or a giant squid. They approach ready to fight and find a tiny creature that offers nothing in its defense but a serene, idealistic statement — and yet, this tiny creature is passing up bloody-toothed predators one after another. My success proves that my message is valid in terms that everyone recognizes. That moment, when their bloodlust is stymied by my inexplicable behavior — in that moment, their minds are open. They’re confused, and they’re ready to hear an explanation. The isopod tells them, “Isopods for peace.”

“How u get to 1mil with isopod?”

“Peace is the path to greatness,” the isopod says.

A new Isopod Nation has risen. They are young and fiery; they call for and receive a kill squad of Humboldt squid to protect them. I pause on my path through their cavern and greet them. They beg me to stay.  A whale named spicy memez approaches and turns his meaty flank invitingly toward me.

I cannot stay here. Soon there will be blood in the water.

“kill me man. I wanna start over and be an isopod”

This happens a lot as time goes on — high ranked fish offer me their meat as tribute. This is powerful, a religious rebirth they’re requesting. They present themselves to the Isopod Holy Woman as a sacrifice, hoping to be swallowed by her and emerge as her child, washed clean to roam the seabed. Other isopods take the offer — the Isopod Nation grows by means of this peculiar parthenogenesis. But I refuse. I go on. I eat the algae. Isopods do not kill. And when the Isopod Nation fractures and falls, my voice is still heard in the wilderness:

“Isopods for peace.”

Isopods are friends, not food.

What I Learned About Activism from the Isopod Holy Woman

Some of the reason this project has gotten so massively out of control is the Adderall, and some of it is my own particular neuroses and obsessions. But some of it is that abraded feeling I have on my soul these days, that feeling you get after reading the news for too long and then remembering that you still have bills to pay, that while the world shits itself bloody, your own private hell is still here to comfort you with its demands. I feel powerless too often. That’s what they want us to feel, I know, so I fight it, but… I have to be honest with you, I still feel it. I feel trapped in one of those sound-swallowing rooms, my voice dead as soon as it exits my lips. Every word I say can be twisted, misinterpreted, taken out of context, argued with, and the more words I say, the more opportunities I provide to anyone spoiling for a fight. I feel I must speak to defend people who can’t, use my own privilege to amplify their voices, but I also feel so small, and so tired, and so helpless. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.
Jonathan Larson

When I said “Isopods for peace” the first time, I didn’t say it with any hope that it would help. I said it because it seemed like the kind of thing an isopod would say, and I was finding solace in her quiet confidence, finding strength in her weakness. When the spark caught and spread, I fed it because it gave me that rare kind of comfort, that feeling of strangers cooperating spontaneously. This world seems like a sluggish entropic farce to me sometimes, and those acts of real, collaborative creation push back against it, perhaps in the smallest way. So the idea was peace, simply that, and I’m as clueless as an isopod about how to achieve it. Peace isn’t super sexy, TBH — I wasn’t expecting it to catch on.

​Make your message simple, seamless, and search-engine optimized.

I hate that this is part of it. I really do. I hate that my day job wants me to learn SEO and social media manipulation, because I don’t want to do those things. I don’t use Twitter. I only talk to my grandmother on Facebook. I’m not being fucking dramatic when I say it causes me existential pain that in order to be useful a message also has to be easily palatable and bite-sized, and that in order to be heard I have to manipulate people into listening to me. But here we are. This is what we have to work with.

So make it short. Make it unassailable. Don’t use words that pin you down to a specific interpretation: “ALL isopods for peace” is the start of an argument, as it informs other isopods what they must be. But don’t supplicate either. “Don’t hurt isopods” is a request, and a certain kind of person will start hunting down isopods just to piss you off. Assume in your language that your point of view — in this case, “peace is good, let’s have some more of that plz” — is universal already, that your listener is already in agreement. People want to agree or disagree, to pick a side; it is in our social nature to align ourselves with a group if one is available that we can endorse. If you treat your audience as if they agree with you before you begin, disagreement requires a break from the polite social contract, a step against the current as it were. This is how salespeople make it hard for you to say no — they trap you in a situation where doing what they want is the path of least social resistance. We can use this fucking insufferable behavior to promote a worthwhile message.

Movements fracture as they grow. Human entanglements diminish the clarity and power of your voice.

I hate this too, in a way. Emotional involvement is kinda my thing. It’s what I do, it’s how I perceive and interpret the world. But obviously I’m fine with fighting a losing battle. I made a firm, conscious choice in my 20s that taking care of the people I loved was more important to me than taking steps to improve my own status and skills in other areas. I’m still paying for that choice in many ways, and I still don’t regret it.

That said… when you make connections, you make yourself vulnerable. When a movement grows large, disagreements boil out of control with more voices, more sides, more subtle gradations to consider. Schisms appear. Terminology becomes both vitally important and fatally insufficient. New words become necessary but are greeted with contempt and hostility. Founders find themselves obsolete in a movement they no longer recognize. This happens every damn time the number of adherents to anything goes from n to n+1, and I don’t think there’s a way to stop it. “A person is smart,” as Agent K once said. “People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”

The Isopod Holy Woman solves this problem by eliminating intimacy — this is V’s way in V for Vendetta, and Batman’s as well, to subsume their person entirely in their persona, be swallowed by their message. But if you’re not an isopod or Bruce Wayne, how to walk that line? Is it possible to live a human life while not undercutting your own beliefs? It’s easy to find articles about Gandhi’s sex life and Mother Teresa’s financials. We see the divide between the popular image of a person, the person-as-idea — “Mother Teresa is a saint bringing solace to the poor” — and the reality of that person in the world — “Mother Teresa focuses more on conversion and missionary work than the charitable activity she’s famous for”. But here’s where this issue breaks down, because there is worth in promoting and actively supporting a worthwhile idea even if you’re not always in flawless adherence with it yourself. People cannot avoid identifying you with what you say and vice versa, but you are not always the person you aspire to be. None of us are. And therefore…

You can’t be too fussy about being misinterpreted or pirated. If you can’t respond on-message, just don’t engage.​

Creators are discovering this about the internet: the barriers between artist and audience are lower than ever, and the audience has no compunction about taking part. As an inveterate word-thief and Photoshop dork, I kind of love this secondary layer of art creation, the realm of fanfic, fanart, remixes, mashups, photomanips. Art as fuel for more art is the kind of perpetual motion machine I can get behind. That said… it always sucks when your art-baby runs off and makes an art-grandbaby for you with the guy who sleeps behind the bus station, so to speak. It sucks when you see your own words being used in a context that you don’t like, or misunderstood as supporting something you don’t support. (I read a great piece about this by Aevee Bee the other day which contributed to some of this pondering — check it out) That’s gonna happen, though, and your time is not well spent hunting down every propagator of heresy against your gospel and putting them to the sword. It makes you look like an insecure asshole, and nobody wants to listen to an insecure asshole. Also, they’re like ants — you can only nail one at a time and you’ll never get them all.

Twitter is basically that on a vast scale, cycling a million times a second, a machine manufacturing endless agitprop out of a slurry of ideas mulched down to bite size. It’s the chaos of whales and sharks above me, unfocused hostility and bonhomie bouncing off one another and becoming completely indistinguishable. The ephemeral nature of this makes it even more important that you don’t engage. When attacked, you stay on message, and your output remains internally consistent and clear. If they take your words to use against you, they will only spread your gospel on your behalf. Those who attack you will be many, but the more they are, the less organized they will be. Their output is muddy, hypocritical, without unified intent. It will be washed away by the sea, and you will eat their bones.

God damn it, you’ve gotta be kind.​
— Kurt Vonnegut

“hi Gentle” says the giant squid hovering above the seabed. He’s scooping up the volcano bubbles that float out of the vent near me, but he doesn’t attack.

“im only cool w/isopods,” he says. “anything else is x.x Isopods are friends”

This is not the kind of sentiment the Isopod Holy Woman can get behind. “Isopods for peace,” she answers. The words are the same, but now I mean something different by them: not only a plea for protection of one deep-sea species, but a rejection of the role of violence in this little world. It’s so small, this place, compared to the world outside my screen where my tiny chitinous whispers don’t echo to every ear in the ocean. Still… I can’t help but believe that a breakout of peace in any population, no matter how small, is meaningful. It’s a middle finger to entropy; it’s a wild, defiant cheer for freedom without force, self-regulated civilization. The Isopod Holy Woman proves, every second that she’s alive and on the leaderboard, that peace can win a race with warriors.

Kindness means something, goddamn it. It’s the only real power we have, because it’s the only one that hasn’t been dispensed like an antibiotic until all the assholes are immune. I worry that kindness is only possible from a position of invulnerability, but the Isopod Holy Woman reminds me that she could curl up in a ball and hide in a volcano for seven hours, and I would never die or fall off the leaderboard.

The AFK timer will kill you after 20 minutes without moving, but it’s not difficult to avoid.

But doing that wouldn’t spread the word of anything. I would be safe, but silent. The Isopod Holy Woman reminds me that for her message to triumph, she must be seen in the world, she must touch those around her, she must make herself vulnerable to their words and their whims. Sometimes this means that she’s swallowed, shut down for a while. That’s okay, so long as she always comes back. So long as the message lives, she can’t truly die.

I log on again in the morning. I don’t really have anything left to do here. I’ve proven my point. The message carries and grows without me. Whatever server I’m on, I see isopods at the bottom of the sea, scooping up algae and dancing their tiny pirouettes around one another. Some of them have the patience and discretion to climb the leaderboard. The sharks and squid pass them by without even stopping now. When an isopod drifts through a fight, the combatants close their jaws and greet her, become friends in an instant when she passes. Fish I don’t know greet me by name. “Isopods for peace” has become an odd little meme, a paper parasol against a hurricane of violence that somehow, for a moment, holds.

Maybe it’s meaningless. But I don’t think so. I think that the miracle of standing against a sea of troubles — not taking arms against it, Hamlet, just standing — is enough. I think a glimpse of living, thriving kindness in the world glows, and makes more possible. Maybe I’m just passing out parasols here, but I’ll keep it up, because people keep taking them. And maybe I’ll start scrawling it on walls next to the swastikas and the swear words:

“Isopods for peace.”

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