Twitch Plays Pokemon – The Social Experience

For the past week, a social experiment has been the cause of more than one hundred thousand concurrent live-stream viewers to collaborate and beat a single game: Pokemon Red/Blue. How does the experiment work? Easy; a chat bot translates commands given from viewers and inputs them as button presses which are then transmitted into an emulator. Seems simple enough, except that there are hundreds of thousands of commands registered every minute. This means that most of the week has been used up with the main trainer walking about sporadically, opening the menu and walking into walls. This chunk of insanity is called “TwitchPlaysPokemon.”

Such things would cause a person to go insane for a prolonged amount of time. I spent maybe an hour watching 80,000 people struggle to deposit a Flareon into the PC Box (more on this later). It became unbearable to watch, almost; but like a train wreck in super slow-motion, you just can’t look away. This experiment was either an incredible success, or an incredible failure. However, why does this article exist? To make fun of those who spend hours making a meter of progress? To give hate to the evil person who came up with this idea?

The Psychology:

See Roaringhislast’s comment.

No, in fact the entire idea is incredibly fascinating from many standpoints, including a psychological standpoint. It’s not just tens of thousands of people trying to beat a game, it’s tens of thousands of people trying to beat a game using their own methods. Everybody has a different approach to playing a game, and these approaches carry on to future versions of a game’s franchise. If you played through the entirety of Pokemon Red with a Fire-Type starter, you’re more likely to play Pokemon Gold with a Fire-Type starter. It’s because we feel more comfortable doing something that has worked in hopes that it works again, rather than experiment with a different approach in fear that it might fail.

How does this relate to TwitchPlaysPokemon? Well, as I’ve said before, each person plays Pokemon a different way. This is an issue when 80,000 people are trying to play a single game their own way. There is no hive mind. Participants want to do one thing, others want to do another. Basic actions turn to some people trying to control the situation; a king to an army, or a democracy, if you will.

People don’t want to be ordered around, so they rebel. They do the opposite of what is asked of them, and find ways to delay what everyone else wants to do. Requests and demands are quickly lost in the crashing waves of commands, and suggestions of a newcomer buried by requests of the hapless people trying to become a higher power, causing nothing to be planned and spontaneous actions become the definitive strategy. The only actions that affect every participant is the creator himself, who occasionally adds new input methods based on the situation, but doesn’t actually guide the participants.

Sound familiar? No? That’s a psychological theory called “Laissez-Faire leadership.” The basic understanding of this leadership theory is that leaders offer little guidance, gives members the tools and resources needed to complete their task, and the leader expects group members to solve the problems themselves. However, at this expense, members are given free reign to make their own decisions; whether those decisions cause members to become leaders themselves does not affect the overall theory, and in fact strengthens it.

So how does this affect what we’ve seen come out of this event? The “meta” of the entire adventure? We’ve seen people worship fossils, mourn the release of cherished team members, and vilify a “false prophet.” What exactly does this all mean, if it isn’t a part of the psychological side of this experiment? Well, my readers…this is where something strange happens.

The Religion:

Religion, where you least expect it. Religion is an odd thing, you see. Such menial objects as a fossil suddenly becomes cherished and worshiped. Not knowing what’s going on in the stream, I discovered many things that are eerily similar to how people respond to a religion just based on pictures such as the one above. For the members of the event, one great deity overrules all; the Helix Fossil.

In something that many people compare to the “Magic Conch” from SpongeBob SquarePants, members have begun to console the Helix Fossil for advice and answers. The Helix Fossil has suddenly become a god; the answer to everyone’s concerns. Many worship the fossil religiously, and those who wish to become the next great prophecy are considered “worshipers of the Dome Fossil,” and are despised among the gathering. Enter Flareon.

Flareon was the product of trying to evolve Eevee into a Vaporeon. The members bought multiple evolution stones and when the time arrived, they selected the wrong stone. Before this, they had released their Charmeleon (fan-named Abby K) and another Pokemon that fails my memory at the moment (nicknamed Jay Leno). Flareon got quite a bit of attention from members at first, then it slowly devolved into a “false prophet.” Flareon was supposed to replace the members they lost, but was reviled by the community. I was able to experience watching them put it into a PC Box, but left before they released Flareon into the wild, another attempted legacy ended by the community.

Plenty of fan art was drawn throughout the team’s journey.

People continued to worship the Helix Fossil, and after collecting their Master Ball, they continue their search for the next disciple. (I’m serious, people actually replace “god” with “Helix” in the community.) The adventure continues, and memories are forever remembered through fan art and stories. Through all this, the community carries on, creating new stories.

The Politics:

 “I wonder how many pictures I can look up before I find something that resembles communism.”

The big change has arisen. After being stuck in a single place for over a day, the creator of the experiment added a “democracy” feature. With this, the most commanded input after 10 seconds would be used. Once this was implemented, the community exploded into a rebellion, demanding “Anarchy” be reinstated. Their plan? “Start9.”

The way that Democracy worked in the script is that the command could have a number added to it, which meant the amount of times the command would be inputted. Anarchy just means that all commands registered are immediately inputted into the game. After clearing the infamous Team Rocket HQ maze with Democracy, Anarchy was reinstated. They used an Escape Rope and had to do the entire maze over again.

Did this change the community’s opinion on Democracy over Anarchy? Of course not; in fact, it only strengthened the desire for Anarchy. In fact, Helicism became the ruling for Anarchy (the original law), and Democracy (the law of order) became what the worshipers of Helix/Anarchy started calling “Domecracy.” Religion became the law, affecting the politics of the entire experiment. Now that should sound familiar, shouldn’t it?


So…what does this mean to this “social experiment?” Was it a success? A failure? The answer is, beyond reason, a huge success. Even though we’re not even close to finishing the experiment, and there will be plenty of new additions to the meta, we’ve seen enough to understand what exactly can come from thousands of strangers collaborating to beat a single game.

We’ve seen humanity. People fighting over order and freedom, gods and disciples, teamwork and sporadic action. This entire project became exactly what we are, but just more concentrated. We see people worship their religion more intensely than anyone else, others mourn the mistakes they made like it happened in reality, and the rest sit with popcorn in their laps, shouting commands to a computer screen in hopes that the capped crusader on the stream can stop walking into that wall.

When will this experiment end? Only time will tell; and by the looks of things, the community will need a lot of it.

Written by: Tyler Busler

I'm an adept gamer with 15+ years of experience in the best and worst of gaming history. I've always believed that gameplay is the most important part of a video game in most instances. My favorite games are Super Mario 3D World, Journey, Yoshi's Island, Paper Mario, and Dust: An Elysian Tail.