Opinion: Twitch Plays Pokemon, The Social Experiment

The Concept

On September 30th 1998, over fifteen years ago, Pokemon Red was released in the United States. Since then, the game has become a cultural icon, the effects of which can still be felt to the present day. Nowhere is this more evident in the modern day than in Twitch Plays Pokemon.

For the uninitiated, Twitch Plays Pokemon (TPP) is the 1998 Gameboy classic Pokemon Red emulated on a computer and streamed on Twitch, a video game streaming website. Those who tune into the stream can enter the game commands - up, down, left, right, A, B, start - into the chatbox and have those commands entered as in-game results to control the protagonist, Red.

While this may seem simple enough, having nearly 70,000 people type out often contradictory commands can certainly complicate the matter. However, the hijinks that have ensued are a testament to the human capacity for determination, creativity and pure stubbornness.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The History

As every player does at the start of a Pokemon game, the “Hivemind”, as the masses who play the game have taken to calling themselves, started the game with a pokemon gifted from Professor Oak. The Hivemind elected for a Charmander and which was, thanks to the multitude of input from the chatbox, bestowed with the nickname, “ABBBBBBK(." Naturally, in a world where giving a pokemon a nickname results in an incomprehensible arrangement of random letters, it was considered nothing short of a miracle when the group managed to navigate the item menu and capture a Pidgey.

And Pidgey did not just manage to survive in this world, he thrived in it. Eventually, Pidgey evolved to Pidgeotto and then again to Pidgeot. And while other pokemon were merely low level helpers at best, Pidgey and his evolved forms defeated various wild pokemon, trainers and gym leaders. Eventually the masses began calling him “Bird Jesus” because of his unmatched leadership and strength in the face of adversity. That and the fact that he was the only pokemon capable of doing anything useful.

But Bird Jesus is not the only religious figure to be born from TPP. The Helix Fossil, an item obtained by Red early in the game, has come to be revered even more than Bird Jesus. The fossil, which can not be thrown away also features a “use” command in the game’s menu.

Since pressing the Start button was an easy way to disrupt the game, trolls would often spam the command, causing the rest of the chat's input to become menu navigation. This led to many instances of TPP trying to "use" the fossil. Eventually, this phenomenon took on a life of its own as players began referring to the fossil as a sort of Magic 8 Ball that Red would consult when he felt lost and needed guidance. But the question remained, “How did the Helix Fossil know all of the answers?” To the Hivemind, the answer was clear and simple. The Helix Fossil is a god.

This led to the advent of organized religion within the world of Twitch Plays Pokemon where the Helix Fossil ruled as god and Bird Jesus acted as a messiah. But just as there can no light without darkness and no angel without a demon, the TPP crowd needed someone to play as their Satan. And since a player can only pick one of two fossils in the game, it was natural for the Dome Fossil to assume this role and become the antithesis of everything the Helix Fossil stood for.

The distaste between the religious factions only grew when the creator of the stream implemented a political system that allowed for two different styles of play. In the traditional anarchy mode, commands were input as they came in real time. In the new democracy mode, commands were tallied in a twenty second period and the command that was entered most would then be executed. Many in the TPP world immediately dismissed the democratic system saying that it was a blasphemous development created by the evil Dome God and adopted anarchy as the policy of Lord Helix.

The Ramifications

Many among you may now be wondering how any of the endeavors of 70,000 gamers has to do with the world at large. The answer lies in how this group of gamers reflects upon simple truths about humanity.

First, human beings are communal. Everyone playing Twitch Plays Pokemon is sharing the experience of watching and controlling Red at the same time, trying to get him to do something even half useful. They have formed a camaraderie as they share in all of the successes and all of the failures of this one protagonist. A community has been built around the game and they want to grow this community through word of mouth evangelism. By creating and inspiring hundreds of thousands of memes revolving around the game’s history and characters, participants are sharing their history to make it more accessible for newcomers to join and play with them.

Second, human beings can empathize with anything. Perhaps Jeff Winger, portrayed in the television show Community by Joel McHale, said it best. “You know what makes humans different from other animals? We are the only species on Earth that observes "Shark Week". Sharks don't even observe "Shark Week" but we do. For the same reason I can pick this pencil, tell you its name is Steve and go like this *breaks pencil* and part of you dies just a little bit on the inside because people can connect with anything.”

But honestly, if not for human beings, where else could a religion be formed around the adventures of 8-bit character and his supernatural animal friends? A fossil acting as a god and a bird serving as his messiah? Bad jokes have had better punchlines, but that is part of what makes this game so wonderful. When people play as Red and one of his Pokemon faints, it is as if it is one of their own pets are dying and they make a commitment to ensure that their endeavors succeed.

Finally, the world is shrinking. One would expect that game participation would fall precipitously towards zero as players in the United States went to catch at least a few hours of sleep. But as Americans head off to their beds, Europeans and even Australians have taken massive roles in furthering the progress of the games. There has even been a friendly rivalry built between the Americans and the rest of the world as they extol themselves over their roles in the game. Various memes have surfaced over many of these adventures including how Americans would react when they woke to find that Australians had caught the legendary bird pokemon, Zapdos.

While Twitch Plays Pokemon may be anomaly in the sort of passion it has incited in its 70,000 players, it has insights that are useful for the broad population. And this maybe something that people are starting to catch up on as the stream has had a total of over 30 million total views. And perhaps quite a few of them will join in on the next generation of the Twitch Plays Pokemon experience.

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