Deities, Democracy, and Disaster: Twitch Plays Pokemon

Imagine handing your friend a Gameboy and telling them not to play. Instead, they can only input each and every command you tell them. Now, imagine that another person joins you, and your friend must give equal weight to both the newcomer’s and your commands. Now imagine that 100,000 people are in that room with you, all telling your friend what to do at the exact same time: that is TwitchPlaysPokemon. TwitchPlaysPokemon started out as a simple social experiment. As described by the channel’s description page: “TwitchPlaysPokemon is a stream that lets you play Pokemon with a lot of other people by typing commands into chat.” A week into the stream, and it might as well be called “Religion and Politics Simulator 2014.”

TwitchPlaysPokemon as seen by players on Twitch.TV

TwitchPlaysPokemon as seen by players on Twitch.TV

For anyone unfamiliar with the online livestreaming of video games, Twitch.tv is the number one resource for both streamers and spectators: a holy land of sorts. Anyone with a little time can set up a stream and broadcast anything they want (within Twitch’s rules) directly from their computer. Twitch’s chat system allows for constant contact between streamers and spectators. Not only can players interact with their viewers, but the viewers constantly interact with one another. In streams that have tens of thousands of viewers, Twitch chat can get quite intense. The chat has become notorious for its quirkiness and fanaticism, but TwitchPlaysPokemon is the first project to harness this fervor and channel into something resembling productivity. Viewers become players through the simple act of typing a command into the chat window. The command can only be one of seven options: up, down, right, left, A, B, or Start. The streamer’s program reads the input and applies it to the game. Multiply these commands a few thousand times and the result is a game character that looks like spasming rat on an oblong wheel alternating between a dead sprint and a dervish like spin.

In the beginning, there were only a few thousand participants. The smaller hivemind had some semblance of control over the game. In the first two days, the small group had defeated two of the game’s eight bosses and navigated a pitch black maze where they obtained the legendary Helix Fossil. Trouble began to brew as the number of viewers continued to grow. Commands became increasingly more erratic. As the hivemind slowly seemed to lose control, a religion was born. The absolute anarchy of tens of thousands of people entering commands simultaneously has created controlled chaos labeled as divine inspiration. Progress slowed to a crawl. The character would run into walls for minutes at a time. The stream got stuck on a simple portion of the game for six hours which wouldn’t be too surprising if it weren’t for the fact that it would take the average eight-year-old roughly five minutes to complete the same section. It was this first true trial of the stream’s patience that forged the Cult of the Helix Fossil. Throughout the six hour endeavor to navigate a small path, the game’s menu would incessantly open due to random viewers inputting the ‘start’ command. This menu allows players to access their list of obtained items among other things. The Helix Fossil, located at the top of the list, quickly became an icon for the viewers. It seemed that every few seconds, the start menu would open and the Helix Fossil would present itself once again to the assembly of over 50,000 viewers.

Consulting the Helix Fossil

Consulting the Helix Fossil

Viewers began to jokingly suggest that the stream should “consult the Helix” for guidance. They started to attribute divining powers to the Helix Fossil. It quickly became more than a mascot for the social experiment: it became a god. The subreddit which had originally formed to track the progress of the stream has since become inundated with memes revolving around the completely fabricated and nonsensical Cult of the Helix Fossil. The memes typically consist of religious imagery with the icon for the Helix Fossil subbed in for any number of religious artifacts. A few hours later, though the stream needed more help than their new deity could provide.

Bird Jesus Helixwitness

On the sixth day, disaster struck. After being stuck on one of the game’s harder puzzles for an entire night, the stream’s owner implemented a new control scheme to the stream. Instead of each and every command going through in the order it was received, the stream switched to a democratic system. The program would tally up commands for a few seconds, and whichever command received the most votes would take place in the game. This new system also accepted the input of multiple commands which allowed viewers to queue up a string of commands such as “go left three times and then up twice” simply by typing ‘left3up2’. It seemed that anarchy had been eliminated from the experiment. The new control system helped the stream to quickly finish the puzzle that they had been stuck on for almost a full day. Still though, to some, this newfound method of progress diminished the social experiment.

Unhappy with the implementation of the democratic system, a significant number of viewers staged a protest. These viewers claimed that democracy ruined the intent of the original project. They set out to subvert the stream through the use of the new rules. As mentioned earlier, viewers could queue up multiple commands by adding a number after whichever command they wrote. The combination ‘start9’ forces the program to open and close the start menu nine times, essentially freezing the game where it is. The protesters were able to successfully take control of the voting and completely shut down progress. ‘Start9’ became the protesters’ new battle cry. The completely useless command won vote after vote and the stream was halted. The owner of the stream was forced to remove the democratic system so that the experiment could continue. Rather than remove the system completely though, the owner decided to allow users to vote for which system they preferred. Thus the factions of TwitchPlaysPokemon were formed.

Since the implementation of the new voting system, a rift has spread across the viewers. Democracy became the antithesis for the Cult of the Helix Fossil. The Cult of the Helix Fossil appropriated the new control scheme as their enemy, going so far as to claim that the democrats worshiped the Dome Fossil, the Helix Fossil’s counterpart in Pokemon Red version. The new Dome worshipers were written into canon. The factions were instantly at odds with one another. Fans of anarchy claimed that the democrats were ruining the social experiment. Fans of democracy claimed that the anarchists hated progress. It wasn’t long before propaganda images started appearing in the subreddit. The image at the start of this article is only one example of the massive amount of media produced by the new rivalry. The vote became the primary focus of the stream. The steady line of commands was replaced by the words ‘anarchy’ and ‘democracy’ as initiates voted for their preferred party. It seemed that the same amount of effort went into winning the control scheme vote as actually progressing the game. Seven days into the stream, it seems that the two factions have reconciled. Democracy is now seen as a necessary evil to be used in any situation that’s too difficult for anarchy to navigate.

The Prophets of TwitchPlaysPokemon

The Prophets of TwitchPlaysPokemon

While the entire project is fascinating, the true brilliance comes through in the viewers’ collective imagination as well as their creation of canon. Actually sitting and watching the stream for more than even a few minutes is a chore; progress is slow and the character spends most of its time spinning in circles. Given this frustrating amount of inactivity, it is amazing how animated and invested the community has become. Working with almost no inspiration from the events in the game, comics, flowcharts, timelines, and stories have all sprung up to explain the intricate details behind the Cult of the Helix Fossil.

It is doubtful that the Cult of the Helix Fossil will become a significant social movement, but the sheer amount of energy invested into both this stream and the factions within it are a testament to the importance of TwitchPlaysPokemon. As the project continues to make progress, it will be fascinating to see what the community produces. At the time of this writing, the stream has 56,000 viewers. The stream has been running for eight full days and many more remain between the participants and victory. I look forward to following the progress of this social experiment.

Jesse Sell grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he spent most of his time playing volleyball and video games. He received a B.S. in Cultural Anthropology and Classical Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Jesse spent his college summers working aboard cruise ships in the Caribbean and the Pacific Northwest. Both his education and employment allowed him to meet and work with people from around the world. Through these connections, Jesse began to notice the universal and connecting nature of gaming. At CMS, Jesse is a member of the Education Arcade. His research interests include the power of play as a tool, livestreaming, and the future of professional gaming.

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