The Internet plays Pokémon Red Version

Twitch Plays Pokemon, which crowd sources the playing of Pokemon Red Version through the internet, has grown to the point of including its own political and religious systems. (credit: Michelle  Wan /Art Editor) Twitch Plays Pokemon, which crowd sources the playing of Pokemon Red Version through the internet, has grown to the point of including its own political and religious systems. (credit: Michelle Wan /Art Editor)

The cultural phenomenon that is Twitch Plays Pokémon (TPP) began unassumingly last Wednesday when an anonymous Australian opened a new stream on the game streaming service Twitch. The idea was simple: using the chat window, users could type in basic Game Boy commands — “left”, “right”, “up”, “down”, “a”, “b” and “start” — and a bot would input them into the game. There was a simple timer above the command scroll, and the fundamental idea was to see how long it would take to crowd source through one of the original Pokémon games, Red Version.

Things started simply enough when a group of around 3,000 users beat the first gym before the first day mark. There were initial hiccups that were to be expected with any Internet-based crowd sourcing. Trolls spammed the “start” command, which completely bogged down progress. In response, the creator throttled “start” usage stating that he wanted to interfere as little as possible but would step in if necessary.

Things were moving well, with a small community popping up, until TPP players hit their first big obstacle, HM01 Cut. This move is required to go through the game, but must be taught to a Pokémon after being acquired. This process is relatively simple for a six-year-old child playing the game, but the seven-button sequence was the first real obstacle faced by TPP.

From that point on, TPP has just been a series of challenges such as using Cut, navigating a tricky ledge path, and getting through the Team Rocket Hideout. Up until this point, everything had been accomplished through controlled chaos with several strategies being determined to help navigate the swelling masses through difficult tasks all while combatting the ever-growing lag.

But unlike these previous challenges where maybe everything could be accomplished with a little bit of “hive-mind” strategy and patience, the Rocket Hideout was different. To navigate to the Lift Key necessary to operate the elevator, players must navigate through a complex arrow puzzle. One false move out of 30 or so restarts the puzzle. After the better part of the day of struggle and frustration, the creator stepped in. A new form of control was implemented: democracy. In this method, all of the commands were tallied over a 10-second period and then acted out over the next 10-second voting period. Users could string together commands such as “left2up3” which would have the player move left twice and up three times during the 10-second period. This change infuriated much of the following because of the dullness.

People were watching and playing not to see efficiency, but to see the story that this randomness had created. By this point, there was an entire canon surrounding the game. The random nicknames created by random, or anarchy, control had led a personification to the Pokémon, such as the Rattata nicknamed JLVWNNOOO, or Jay Leno, and a Charmander nicknamed ABBBBBBK, or Abby. There was also a religion spawned by the frequent attempted use of the Helix Fossil in battle or while walking around, which led to religious overtones being pushed through the metagame, such as the over-leveled Pidgeot being dubbed Bird Jesus.

One of the most controversial moments had come just before entering the Rocket Hideout when a group of players decided to get a free Eevee. At this point, there was an open spot in the Pokémon team being saved for Lapras because of the need of a Pokémon who could learn HM02 Surf to progress in the game and the fear that accessing the PC to exchange Pokémon would end in heartbreak, as the risk of releasing Pokémon was very high given the random actions of the group.

Eevee was not hopeless, however, as it could be evolved into the Surf-learning Vaporeon with a purchased Water Stone. But the stream was not nearly this precise and instead bought a Fire Stone, creating the rather worthless Flareon, who was quickly deemed the False Prophet. A civil war erupted on the stream and led to Abby and Jay Leno both being released in an attempt to deposit the False Prophet, who was also released.

Because of this growing narrative, which wouldn’t have happened under democracy control, the creator made a concession. Players could now vote for the control scheme — anarchy or democracy — with a 75 percent majority needed to swap from one to the other. Many recent players like the ease of democracy, but the anarchists staged a passive protest by spamming the command “start9”, which caused the character to enter the menu nine consecutive times. After about a day of struggle, democracy became a last-hope. Players utilized democracy only to navigate the most complicated puzzles such as the step-limited Safari Zone.

TPP has become an Internet phenomenon. At its peak, there have been over 120,000 logged-in active users capable of inputting commands and, as of Sunday night, nearly 26 million unique visitors to the stream. As with all Internet things, it spawned its own subreddit, which has further intensified the culture and was ranked the 36th most active subreddit. The subreddit drew in over 66,000 users in under a week. It came with its own live update stream that reached over 20,000 viewers.

Pokémon is still a popular game — the new X and Y versions came out last year — but it has become a purely strategy game for most people. But TPP isn’t about Pokémon. As the creator put in the first line of the description, TPP is a social experiment. We have seen an entire subculture, complete with religion, politics, and mythos arise in under a week.

4chan summed it up best: “[over 45,000] people just staged a micro-protest by repeatedly voting for a passive action on a[n] online cooperatively controlled Japanese RPG from [1996] in order to change the method of control. Living in the future is weird.”