The Power of the Stream: An (over?)analysis of TwitchPlaysPokemon
“How did this go from crowd-sourced Pokémon to Religion and Politics Simulator 2014????”- Someone Online
The internet is weird and contains many unlikely things. One of these things is a thing where upwards of 60,000 people play the same game of Pokémon Red all together. A sensibly anonymous person in Australia set up an emulator of the game and allowed anyone to type commands in using the chat system. For example, typing “right” could move the character or cursor to the right, and typing “start” will open or close the menu. TwitchPlaysPokemon (TPP) is not the first Twitch game, but it’s got crazy-big fast. It was created as a “social experiment”, and boy has it brought up some results!
It would probably help if you had a little look at what I’m talking about – this was only in Day 2, just as it was starting to go viral. Watch the poor protagonist Red amble around a bit before finally getting somewhere by reaching a trainer battle after twelve minutes.
At the time of writing, the many thousands of contributors AKA “the Stream” or “the Hivemind” are over halfway through the game’s story [10 days in], and have beaten some of the biggest challenges the game has to offer. What I want to talk about here is why TwitchPlaysPokemon just works. How it sucked in so many people and become so much more than just a game.
1) Nostalgia is a powerful force
There’s something about Pokémon that inspires fierce lifelong loyalty. I was nine years old when Pokemon Red and Blue first came out on the Game Boy – pretty much the perfect age to get sucked in by the hype on the playground. And yet there was something different about Pokémon that made it more than just a temporary craze like Furbys or Yo-yos. Amidst the cuteness and accessibility to Pokémon, there was a complexity and depth I’d never come across before. I was hooked, as was so many of my generation.
Pokémon Red/Blue was played by people who had mostly never used the Internet, and getting past problems relied on the help of friends and the rumours in the playground (Pssst, Mew’s under that truck). I think for many this represents a time of innocence and naivety where discovery meant something more than looking it up on a wiki.
These people are now tech-savvy 20-30 year olds. Some of them find the TPP site, find an eerily mesmerising take on something they once cherished, and simply have to show their friends who loved Pokémon as much as they do. I honestly don’t think TwitchPlaysPokémon would have reached so many people or inspired so much art and stories (which we’ll get to) if it had used any other version than Red/Blue. Even though I acknowledge the superiority of some of the more recent games – for me and many others, it had to be our first.
2) We have an insatiable drive to make sense of chaos
Human beings are not equipped to deal with randomness. We are also lazy creatures and seek familiarity if at all possible.
Allow me to elaborate somewhat. Looking back at the video linked above, there are three Pokémon in the team. A Pidgey with no nickname, a Charmander called “ABBBBBBK (“ and a Ratatta called “JLVWNNOOOO”. These nicknames were assigned by the pseudo-random movements of the Stream (if any individual had any kind of real control, there would most certainly be rude words involved!). Apophenia is the human tendency to find patterns where there are none – we convince ourselves there is meaning in data such as strings of letters and we anglicise words so it takes minimal effort to reproduce. In this way “ABBBBBBK (“ naturally became “Abby” and “JLVWNNOOOO” became “Jay Leno”. That’s when the stories started…
3) Good vs Evil is the default storyline
In the stories we create, there is an innate compulsion to attribute pure good and evil to our characters. Some of the best stories resist this urge and create complexity by blurring these lines (I’m thinking Game of Thrones) but the default stance is Good vs Evil, God vs the Devil.
We just can’t help ourselves. Even though we know why our avatar Red is behaving the way he is, his movements and actions are so bizarre it’s so easy to consider him either a blithering idiot or a man possessed – a pawn in a higher game. The players of this game? We reach out to the only other “characters” in the story, the Pokémon themselves and even the inanimate objects. The details were impossible to predict but the attributions were damn near inevitable.
4) Via anarchy or democracy, the majority strive for progress
One of the most surprising things about TwitchPlaysPokemon is that the Stream is actually progressing through the game… at all! It definitely helps that Pokémon Red/Blue is a game many people have played multiple times and has a relatively linear progression, but there’s always a risk of things going horribly wrong. If Bird Jesus got released now, the Stream would cry itself to sleep. Why hasn’t this happened yet?
There will always be trolls. Always. But there will also always be people who want to help, who strive for progress. This is why in the real world we have complex cities, inventions and hope for humanity overall. It is easier for individuals to destroy than create, but the collective desire of the majority to make meaningful contributions allows the effects of the creators to absorb the effects of the destroyers, at least in the long term. Even if something goes horrendously wrong in TPP, the Stream will incorporate it into the stories somehow and people will rebuild. They’ll do what they must because they can.
About 6 days in, the creator introduced a new system where as well as entering commands, players can type “anarchy” or “democracy” into the chat system as a vote for how the character is controlled. If the majority vote anarchy, the original system remains. But if the balance shifts to democracy, a more slow and deliberate system is introduced whereby commands are collected over 10-20 seconds and the command received by the game is the one with the highest votes. Apart from a few parts of the game where careful footwork and planning is needed to progress, the democratic system of control has been rejected by the stream and was tied to the False Prophet. Yet the possibility always remains, so it’s a weird scenario where anarchy is consistently maintained using a democratic voting system.
5) Shared experiences and new memes produce emotional investment and the development of art.
Whether it’s telling tales around a campfire or posting pictures online, the creation and propagation of new memes binds people together and makes the events that comprise a story more than they originally were. Without Reddit and the many other image and discussion forums surrounding TPP, very little of this lore and backstory would exist and I believe it is responsible for turning a social experiment into a form of art. We all know this sub-culture is transient; the game will end, the in-jokes will become ever more tired and the stories will be forgotten. And yet I can’t help but think the ephemeral nature of it makes it all the more special. We know it’s not here to stay, so let’s make the best of it.
“How did this go from crowd-sourced Pokémon to Religion and Politics Simulator 2014?”. Well, Someone Online, you still make a very good point. Perhaps I’ve helped unpick it, perhaps this is merely my own apophenia, extracting meaning where there is probably none. So in conclusion – and despite all I’ve said, this is my only reasonable conclusion – the Internet is weird. So very weird.