Latest Passion

TwitchPlaysPokemon – A Look Into the Viral Social Experiment Phenomenon

In the last few years, video game playthroughs and “Let’s Play’s” have garnered quite an audience. Gamers upload videos of themselves playing video games, often while providing commentary while playing. These videos sometimes are used by people who are looking for guidance on how to beat a game, but many watch the videos simply for their entertainment value and to engage in the story line and gameplay of games they’ve never played. Currently, the most popular place to watch these videos is on YouTube, and the most subscribed to channel is let’s player PewDiePie. However, the site Twitch.tv is slowly gaining popularity for people to host their playthroughs. The difference with Twitch.tv is that it is a live streaming service, allowing for gamers to interact with their audience live via a chat section.

On February 12th, 2014, a channel called “TwitchPlaysPokemon” was launched. The channel started a sixteen day social experiment, creating a crowdsourced attempt at beating a video game.  A computer emulated version of  the 1990s video game Pokémon Red/Blue was modified so that if the original Gameboy commands (“up”, “down”, “left”, “right”, “a”, “b” or “start”) were typed into the live chat, they would control the main character, Red. However, these inputs were not instant. Twitch implements lag between chat and video, so while the chat was instantaneous, the video had a 20-40 second delay. This large lag time meant that, for example, if one typed “a” in the hopes of progressing the game, it may have been a useless command by the time it was executed because the situation in the game may have changed. This caused issues in coordination of movements within the game.

Of course, lag was not the only barrier to progress in the adventure. The number of people participating in the chat was well into the thousands for the entirety of the stream, and coordinating that many people to complete one task is extremely difficult. In addition to that, not everyone was interested in helping reach the ultimate goal of beating Red/Blue. Many people would flood the chat with “start” commands to slow down progress, and “down” commands at difficult parts, such as crossing the infamous ledges, where one misstep will force the player to start all over. These issues left the audience stuck at certain difficult areas for days on end. By the fifth day into the game, due to lack of progress in Team Rocket’s hideout, some politics were introduced into the game. In Democracy mode, players type commands into the chat as usual, but the commands are tallied and only the most popular command is executed. It takes much longer for the game to progress in this mode, but can be necessary to execute the specific chain of commands necessary at difficult points in the game. In this mode, players were able to chain commands together as well in order to speed up the process (e.g., a command of down3 would cause the character to move down three steps).  Anarchy mode was introduced as well, and invoking it would return the game to its original state, where every command was executed. To switch between modes, players would have to type “democracy” or “anarchy” into the chat. A seventy-five percent majority for the mode not currently invoked is needed to switch to that mode (i.e., to switch from anarchy to democracy, 75% of the votes for modes would have to be for democracy). Democracy was not well-received by the fans, and was often undermined. People would fill the chats with commands such as “start9” in order to slow progress of the game down, and anarchy would be reinstated quite quickly. However, in a few of the most difficult parts of the game, democracy was begrudgingly trusted and used to progress. It was seen as a necessary evil by many.

Due to the majority of the game being played in anarchy, the naming of captured Pokémon was dictated by the random input of commands in the chat. This lead to names such as “ABBBBBBK (“ the Charmeleon and “JLVWNNOOOO” the Ratata, which the fans affectionately nicknamed “Abby” and “Jay Leno”
Similar scenarios occurred with the other captured Pokémon. Fans managed to make sense of the arbitrary letters that took place of the nicknames and created emotional attachments to the characters.

The emotional investment created from random chaos did not end there, however. Amidst the politics of TwitchPlaysPokemon was religion as well. Often in the game, when someone sent a “start” command, the players were greeted with the item menu or the Pokédex. Players joked that Red was “consulting” some of these various items, most often the Helix Fossil, a key item in the game from which the Pokémon Omanyte could be resurrected. The frequency of these consultations in and out of battle made the Helix Fossil out to be some sort of all-knowing being within the game, and thus the “Church of Helix” was born. Soon, phrases such as “All hail the Almighty Helix” were seen after triumphs within the game. The church draws direct parallels from Christianity, where the Helix Fossil (and, once it was resurrected, Omanyte) as the God. A Pidgeotto named “aaabaaajss”, which at the time was the most powerful and useful Pokémon in Red’s party, was dubbed “Bird Jesus”. This Pokémon was believed to be the son of the Helix and to carry out its bidding. The influence of this religion heavily impacted the audience’s views towards events occurring in the game. The most notable instance was the acquisition of Eevee and later Flareon. At one point in the game, players were given a choice between an Eevee and a Lapras. Collectively the players wanted a Lapras since it would be more useful with less hassle down the line. However, the Eevee was chosen instead. Evolving Eevee into a Vaporeon would solve the issue, but instead it was evolved into a Flareon, which would not help them. Before this occurred, the players had the idea to deposit the Pokémon in order to make room for new Pokémon to catch, and when they tried, tragedy struck. Abby and Jay Leno were accidentally released, but Eevee remained. Due to the slew of misfortune since its acquisition, Eevee was deemed a false prophet and even an Antichrist for causing the players to lose two of their most beloved and powerful Pokémon. It is important to note that the Pidgeotto remained, further solidifying its status as Bird Jesus.

The Church of Helix was not the only church to be established over the course of the game. The second most popular religion to come out of the game was the Church of the Dome Fossil. In the game, players are given a choice between two fossils: the Helix Fossil and the Dome Fossil. In this playthrough, the Helix Fossil was chosen. Followers of the Church of Dome believe that the Dome Fossil is the true god, and that the Helix Fossil was wrongly chosen and was a false prophet. They claim Flareon as their own, and believe that it was sent to punish the followers of the Helix Fossil. The greatest religious debates relating to TwitchPlaysPokemon revolved around these two major religions. A series of other smaller sects also started popping up, such as ones naming the Pokédex as the true god, some look to other items such as gold nuggets, the S.S. Anne Ticket, and the Lift Key as their god, and much more. However, it is more common to see these items associated with the two major churches.

TwitchPlaysPokemon had a major impact on the internet. This novel experiment drew a large audience. At its peak, the stream had over one hundred thousand unique viewers all watching at once. Of all these viewers, thousands of them participated in the chat to control Red. With so many people, the fan-generated content was phenomenal. Subreddits were created dedicated to both plans to beat the game, and others were created to post artwork focusing on the major characters. Wikis and other informational sites were made to document Red’s journey, and in other places on the internet stories were written about his struggles. Many made Red out to be a schizophrenic young boy who could not stop the constant barrage of commands in his head and was forced to follow them. Flareon was turned into the misunderstood character not knowing why it was hated so terribly. Bird Jesus and the Helix were glorified. Many online news sites covered unprecedented gameplay. This playthrough of an old children’s game became a significant part of current pop culture.

In the end, the thousands of participants were able to win the game. This experiment proved that thousands of people, as a collective, are able to accomplish things together when each person takes only one step at a time. While at times a little democracy was necessary, for the majority of the time, this can be done even when there isn’t a consensus on what needs to be done. Having thousands of people work to beat one game in this manner is highly unconventional, and certainly not the way that any game was meant to be played.

The social interactions created by this game were like a microcosm for our world today. There were countless different views on what should be done, which were frustrated by the fact that the lag in a game made it very difficult to predict the long term cause of their actions, and due to the actions of others caused short term goals to shift constantly. There was a divide between political views of anarchy and democracy, and which one was for the greater good. There was religion, where from one major religion branched many others, and other religions which had nothing to do with the most popular ones. These religions further divided the players. Despite everyone seeing the exact same events unfold, the interpretations of these events were coloured by the belief in these religions. The opinions on what caused something to happen did not change the fact that ultimately, it was people who caused things to happen. Even in this little sixteen day experiment, it was seen how quickly this fact was forgotten in the heat of the moment.

This experiment also showed one of the most interesting things about human nature: the ability to take meaning from utterly meaningless and random events, and to make emotional attachments with inanimate creatures that were simply lucky or unlucky due to circumstance.The fans generated a massive amount of content centred on these characters, gave them nicknames so they could be relatable, and mourned their losses. Of course, this happens all the time, in movies, books, television and other fictional media. The major difference, however, is that the goal of those stories are for the consumer to feel something. That was never the intent for these arbitrarily named Pokémon this time around. The goal was simply to beat the game as a collective.

This unprecedented experiment launched many other “TwitchPlays”, crowdsourced playthroughs of other popular children’s games with similar game mechanics, such as the Legend of Zelda, and other Pokémon games. Currently, the original channel has started playing Pokémon Crystal, with minor changes to the original format to optimize gameplay. The experiment ended up becoming so much more than anyone had ever expected.

And who said video games weren’t educational?

Photo credits: techinews.co.uk, reddit.com

Christina Beharry is a Mental Health Studies student at the University of Toronto. She has a passion for writing, gaming, and music, and enjoys sharing her ideas with others.

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