Pokémon breaks dimensions with Twitch Plays Pokémon

Dan Bidikov, Editor-in-Chief

An anonymous Australian recently repurposed a children’s video game into an experiment in theories of mutualism.  It is an Internet phenomenon known as Twitch Plays Pokémon, and its results are clear-anarchy works, and it is hilarious.

A PC-compatible hack of the original version of Pokémon (released in 1998) was broadcast via online video streaming service Twitch.tv, with a small twist.  Instead of having the game rely on input from one player with an audience observing, all of the game’s input would come from messages within a chat room that corresponded to in-game commands (for instance, a registered Twitch.tv user would type the word “up” as a chat message and the character on screen would move up).

The amount of participating viewers—likewise, the amount of inputs to the game—at times reached the six digits.  The protagonist onscreen would then react in kind, walking in circles for hours on end and failing to complete basic gameplay tasks without entire days of deliberation.

Despite the fact that on paper the game was far from a spectacle, more resemblant of a monotonous slog, the viewership at no point dipped below 50,000.

Given the description, the project’s popularity seems pathetic and unwarranted.  Yet Twitch Plays Pokémon is such a hit because it is more than a recording of a video game being controlled by a herd of stampeding frogs landing without reason on the buttons of a handheld game system.  Rather, it is an engaging tale of self-organized human success.

Faced with a duplicitously simple challenge, the completely random viewer base managed to organize themselves on their own accord to complete the game, maneuvering their character through mazes and commandeering him through strategic battles.  The prolonged stretches of total nothingness were punctuated by moments of basic progress within the game that were given new weight, as they came as the product of entire days of struggle for what was previously an afterthought to even the most juvenile Pokémon players.  In each instance of successful completion (often times walking the character in a straight line between points), the distant and anonymous crowd would cry out in triumph.  “We did it!” the users would exclaim, quick to make clear the unity so critical for their success.  Where had been waves of random inputs now lay a coordinated effort, and between what had been a disparate mass of geographically separated and solitary Internet browsers from different walks of life now existed common ground.  A type of culture formed around the game, where viewers crafted stories and artwork surrounding the voiceless cast of mob-controlled characters.  While the quality of the content may have been questionable, it existed, which is evidence enough that the event was able to make its own significance to the viewer.

Scholars have been back and forth in recent years regarding the effectiveness of the Internet in exacting social change.  And here is unmistakable proof that technology unifies culture for action—100,000 people were able to communally abandon their responsibilities and virtually crowd around a Gameboy to press buttons at random.

Twitch Plays Pokémon is the kind of thing that is not passively enjoyed.  It demands of its viewers an unexpected and seemingly ridiculous emotional investment.  If you make this investment, you may be tempted to watch the “game” for a while.  If you watch it for long enough, your computer screen will fall asleep at the lack of input and go black.  You will see yourself in the reflection of the monitor and begin to question the fact that you just watched a poorly aged video game character walk into a wall over, and over, and over again.  Sorry.