Why Twitch Plays Pokémon is Important

Twitch Plays Pokémon
Twitch Plays Pokémon

Twitch Plays Pokémon is difficult to explain. Deemed a “social experiment” by its anonymous Australian developer, Twitch Plays Pokémon is a channel on the video game streaming website Twitch dedicated to playing Nintendo’s 1996 Pokémon Red. While most streams on Twitch feature a single player, Twitch Plays Pokémon allows anyone in the channel’s chat room to participate by parsing commands sent by users. For instance, someone in the chat room types “down” and the in-game character moves down. The premise alone is an interesting experiment and changes the way users interact with each other and play games online.

But Twitch Plays Pokémon grew unexpectedly popular after it was put online on February 12, 2014 due to media attention and through word of mouth across all the major internet hangouts. Currently in its fifteenth day, the stream seems to have a dedicated user base of over 50,000 viewers, and the stream is nearing 30 million views altogether. What these numbers indicate is that thousands of people are playing this game at once and that tens of thousands of people have consistently tuned in to see how far the game has come along.

The idea of a crowd sourced play-through of a video game with this immense scale of users is unheard of, and will likely be remembered in the history of Twitch and of games in general as a landmark event. This kind of “experiment” could only work with a role-playing game, as its turn-based combat and reliance on slow exploration instead of tricky platforming is ideal for clunky, ultimately uncontrollable movement.

If one does tune in or watch videos of the stream, it truly does have the fascination of a train wreck, yet it also holds the intricacy of brain surgery. Players spam directions, open menus, close menus, and send the in-game character, Red, around endless loops going nowhere. Some players play seriously, hoping to finish the game, while others try to impede progress, tossing items, or even releasing Pokémon so that Red cannot use them. Because of the scale of the user base, there is also a problem with the stream’s lag, which means commands often do not activate when player’s think they will. Simple tasks like opening a menu and using a Pokémon’s skill become an all-day struggle for control and progress, but these moments are what the fanbase enjoys the most. The most memorable parts of the experiment are often the most devastating or absurd. In some ways, this experiment is the video game Waiting for Godot, and in other ways, the video game Apocalypse Now.

But why do so many users come back to the channel when they wake up, get home from school or work? A few moments of the nausea-inducing, flickering mess that is the stream could easily frustrate viewers away.

In part, the emergent narrative that has grown since the stream’s inception has kept a maximum level of hype around the game. Internet memes, backstories, and even religions with roots in Pokémon items have been circulating around websites like Reddit and have added to the hysteria and mesmerizing fascination with the game.

More so than the memes and inside jokes, however, is the will of the players to complete the game. For the average viewer, just tuning in to see how far the stream has gotten in the game overnight is exhilarating, with forum posts exclaiming with surprise just what the stream has accomplished in whatever amount of time. There is something endearing about watching poor Red scramble about schizophrenically, but Red’s struggle is not merely his own, but the struggle of the entire internet user base, everyone on Reddit and 4chan, everyone who tweets, everyone who has ever played Pokémon.

Twitch Plays Pokémon is the culmination of the knowledge of the generation of children who grew up in the 1990s, who grew up in the internet age, and it is a stunning interactive visual representation of this knowledge. There has never been such an immense and direct use of applied knowledge, this knowledge of Pokémon, a kid’s game, but a defining aspect of a generation, and nonetheless, a game that requires careful strategizing. Pokémon Red, which was released in North America in 1998, captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of players, and it is appropriate that the stream is dedicated to the original Pokémon game, the one that ushered in a new generation of games and players in a time when the internet age was in its infantile stages.

Twitch Plays Pokémon - The addition of the Anarchy/Democracy system
Twitch Plays Pokémon – The addition of the Anarchy/Democracy system

It is equally astonishing and miraculous when the players in the chat devise a plan using game maps and MSPaint drawn coordinates, or put together a plan as decisive as “Catch Zapdos with the Masterball,” and then actually succeed. The stream is pushing the limits of working together over the internet, as well as “trolling” on the internet, as the “trolls” constantly attempt to set back the players who want to succeed. This is the ultimate tug and pull of internet etiquette, a chaotic, strangled allegory for both life on the web and off it. Every user speaks at once, and it is difficult to listen, but somehow the population continues toward a slow progress. One can’t help but recall the words of Sartre, “existence precedes essence” when examining the user’s struggle on such a grand scale.

With the addition of an “Anarchy/Democracy” system programmed into the stream, users can vote for either “Anarchy,” which creates a more chaotic and random game, or “Democracy,” which requires a supermajority in the chat, which allows users to better control the game.

There is something extremely poignant about witnessing the chat when users are trying to switch the political affiliation of the stream, with everyone shouting one or the other, and cursing each other out, while others try to explain nicely and in detail the correct path. Some users take offense to the very notion of the other party, mixing in their Pokémon-religious beliefs, while others just yell with hyperbole, and yet, the game moves forward regardless, however slow the progress may be.

In the end, the goodness of the stream’s users will persevere and prevail. The deep tragedy felt when the trolls (or possibly random inputs) release a beloved Pokémon such as Abby the Charmeleon or Dux the Farfetch’d across the entire Pokémon community is a thing of massive beauty and passion, energizing the internet, calling them to arms. It may be a kid’s game being played across the internet, not a real war, but it has stricken a deep chord with the internet population, part due to nostalgia, part due to the chaotic wonder, and part due to the hope that the stream will complete the game, in all its clunky glory.

Twitch Plays Pokémon - The Helix Fossil is often selected in battle
Twitch Plays Pokémon – The Helix Fossil is often selected in battle

The flickering chat room has become a Dadaist poem of innumerable proportions, a vast collection of every meme and internet insult ever slung, every piece of Pokémon-related information, and every single input it took to, eventually, beat the game. The emergent narrative and internet memes associated with the event are indicative of contemporary youth culture’s defiance: kids on the internet are moving away from the need for corporate entertainment, instead making their own jokes and media, even their own post-modern, slightly sarcastic religions in the place of ones of old. A quick scan of Twitter accounts associated with the event reveals a number of popular accounts created for the Pokémon themselves, and these accounts, run by users of the streams, are often more popular than celebrity accounts.

Twitch Plays Pokémon puts the internet’s tenacity to the test. The experiment could have easily fizzled out, or have been completely hijacked by trolls, but it hasn’t, and with every input, it nears the finish line. However cynical one may get over contemporary life, the internet age, the loss of beauty and morals, the loss of personal interactivity, this experiment is truly a thing of morality, beauty, and goodness. As the North American players go to sleep, the Europeans take over, then the players in Asia and Australia before passing it back off to the Americans. It is an international event, the Pokémon language a language spoken by all races.

Just as the stream has organized to get through the Team Rocket Hideout, climb the Pokémon Tower, and even catch the legendary Zapdos, they will continue to work together, and when the game’s credits roll, there will be a slight rumble across all of the internet, and Pokémon fans, fans of play, will cheer.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I would have liked to know your position on the change of the pure ‘anarchy’ system to a system that shifts between anarchy vs democracy. And maybe some mention that there is a Pokemon Blue running but differs due to lack of popularity of Red. But I totally agree that this is an important and amazing experiment.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      Both really good points…

      As far as Pokemon Blue goes, it makes sense that it’s better organized because it has less people, but everything I’ve heard and seen about the stream seem a little too devoted to “beating the game” rather than “playing the game.” Pokemon Red is so monumental because it is so huge in scope.

      As for the shift to democracy/anarchy, which is very controversial (hurhurhur), I think it’s fine. The developer of the stream, it’s his/her project, and can throw whatever he/she wants to at the players. I think it’s part of the experiment, and while it might have been interesting to have a “control group,” it seems okay. It’s funny that a lot of people in the stream HATE democracy, and that the two groups can never get along. If anything, this adds to the poignancy.

      • Yeah, I see your point. Like, with Red, you still watch…you still toss some commands just to see how far it will go. And then there is the case of lagging…and how that affects the inputs and such.

        Although sometimes I think some people’s conclusions of actions being somewhat controlled is somewhat over the top. I mean, I understand there is always gonna be someone trying to make chaos and make it more difficult to other people but at the same time, I think there are cases where someone was trying to send out an input to Red a few inputs ago.

        I like both the original system and the anarchy/democracy element…but like a friend of mine said, I would have preferred sticking to the system even if Red didn’t make it…just maintain the experiment the same till the end.

  2. Oddly enough, Pokemon is what taught me to not care too much about trends. Pokemon was very much a fad when it came out. But, eventually, the fad died out, and I was still playing Pokemon. And seeing that Pokemon is still going strong, I think it would have been crazy to not stick with something I enjoy just because it wasn’t “in.”

    • Jason Cole

      My memories of playing pokémon remain some of my best, and I still indulge in the occasional playthrough. To me, it was less a fad than a widespread appreciation of something that was genuinely fun; as far as I can tell, that appreciation never died. It might not be quite as visible as it had been, but like you said, it’s still going strong.

  3. A creative idea that must look like heaven for trolls! 😀

  4. Kendrick

    My roommate has been watching this. If nothing else, I commend all those people for the patience needed to put up with it.

  5. Phil Carr

    I hope this gets taken down or that Twitch will realize what this is doing to smaller streams. Chat has been messed up for days, messages get deleted at random. All because tens of thousands of people are inputting lines of chat at an incredible rate.
    I read through Twitch’s Terms of Service and unfortunately they aren’t in violation, but this is not a person streaming a game which is what the site is intended for!
    As a small streamer, it’s infuriating that I can’t interact well with my viewers because of this nonsense.

    It is a cool concept, and I support it, but I support it under different circumstances. It’s a cool social experiment, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of other streams.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      I’ve been hearing this complaint from a number of people, which is too bad. I’m surprised Twitch hasn’t done anything to subvert some of the issues. They haven’t even really said anything…but voice your opinions to them, I’m sure they care.

  6. This was a fantastic idea to go viral and it still fascinates me how it works haha.

  7. Laverne

    A well-written and insightful article where the writer does some worthy research and critical thinking. I hope to see much more of this on this site.

  8. Rex Mccormick

    This twitch plays pokemon is the best thing we as a race has ever done with the internet!

  9. Angel Olson

    Was an interesting experiment, until I realized an entire day had been spent trying to get through the Team Rocket base (the spinny floor maze). I see the pause menu in my nightmares.

  10. I see a bit of a problem with the oversaturation we’re already seeing with TPP. People are sick of it, and the streamer is just going straight through to Gen II. I wish he had had a longer break in between gens, so that it didn’t get stale as quickly.

  11. I love watching TPP. I constantly have the stream up in the background or just check the progress document. As a game design student, it is a very popular topic in my everyday life. My fellow students and even my professors constantly reference and joke about it, and we always start classes by updating each other on what happens. The fact that they beat red was amazing, and I’m looking forward to seeing them struggle through the ice puzzles in Crystal.

  12. Cierra

    This was very important experiment for society. It’s amazing how popular a simple gameplay feed had become. I even went to a convention where they were selling helix fossil plushies. This game showed us a lot about the dedication and power of the gaming community and the nerd community.

  13. Eartha Boynton

    For a couple of days ago, I check in on it ever couple of hours. It’s really amazing how little progression they made. If I remember correctly they were stuck in those pitch black caves for 8-10 hours straight. Sorry can’t remember the area it’s been many years since I’ve played the original Pokemon.

    Anyway, can’t believe they finished it!!

  14. I went to check this out. If you ever wanted to know what thousands of people playing a single game of Pokemon at once looks like, I recommend it.

  15. I like the idea of it being a community feel, and I’ve been checking in regularly to see how far the game’s gone. Probably would prefer to play it by myself on my old gameboy, but that’s so I can nerd out over it in peace.

  16. You really hit it on the nail with why people watch it, at least why I watch it on occasion. I don’t know why, but when I watched it for the first time I felt committed to finishing it. I had that want to continue on even if we jumped over that cliff or used the wrong move etc.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      It was such a media sensation when it first started (well, like, two days after it started) and this definitely fed into how great it felt, how big it felt.

  17. I love the cooperation that we saw with the big plans that the players came up with. I was really fascinated with the culture that spun out of the game; I started saving images, memes, and visual guides to their plans to document the way everything evolved. The religious and political aspects were so interesting to me because something as playful as the original Pokemon game created an entire web of debates and arguments that were so relevant to real life issues. Even so, they were able to band together and succeed, and I think the community is still really connected by the culture that the game created.

  18. David Mancini

    I am still shocked that the whole experiment was even possible, and is doing well.

  19. I think this article captured my fascination with watching TPP (“train wreck” describes it well). One area I’ve seen discussed about this is the legal implications. Most lawyers have just poo-pooed the subject as an uninteresting infringment case. I think there’s a very interesting discussion to be had regarding direvative works and transformation, as well as Twitch’s potential indirect liability. I think the boring attorneys are right: under current, clearly dated, US copyright law, this looks a lot like infringment. But I think that digging deeper shows that it’s unclear whether it’s a dirivative work or a public performance. And if you don’t have a definite cause of action, you don’t have a case. I think this case is interesting because it’s so “clearly” a violation of copyright, but it’s so debatable just what that violation is. I consdier it a fantastic case study to illustrate the need to update IP law in the face of connective digital technology.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      Great comment, Pataphys Roi ; )

      I’d be curious what Nintendo has to say about the spectacle. They never commented on it, though I bet they kind of like it. Pokemon hasn’t had more publicity in years.

  20. Jemarc Axinto

    I never played “Twitch Plays Pokemon” personally, but I did watch it a few times. Most of all though I have kept up with the memes and back stories. Siting and watching often became stressful for me and I wondered why people were so very into it. Thank you for the insightful post, it’s given me a bit to think on.

  21. I found this experiment to be fascinating. To me, it represented the attempts of a nascent hive-mind, made possible through the inter-connectivity of the internet, to coalesce into a functioning, singular unit. The future holds much promise.

  22. Christopher Joyce

    At TPP’s greatest point (Red vs. AJ’s final battle on the mountain), a remarkably coherent and dramatic final showdown happened. The last two standing were the two main protagonists and they exchanged blows in a way that might as well have been scripted by Hollywood. Typically, narrative in TPP is assembled from chaos, but here was a brief moment of serendipity.

  23. I do see the allure here, particularly with the nostalgia.

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