Twitch Played Pokémon,Won, and Made Some Cool Art in the Meantime

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BY WILL HARRINGTON

When a video game leads to the birth of a religion.

Twitch is an online video game streaming service. For the past few weeks it’s been host to a channel called “TwitchPlaysPokemon,” or TPP. Using the chat box, normally reserved for commentary on the human player/owner of the channel, stream-watchers have been able to become the players, typing in commands for the avatar to follow. Pokémon Red, one of the original mid-1990s Pokémon games for the Gameboy, is controlled on a turn-based system by a simple set of button commands: “up,” “down,” “a,” “b,” and a few others. Despite the spam of commands, with enough voices shouting the same thing progress was made slowly with victory arriving after 16 days, 7 hours, 45 minutes, and 30 seconds. Other websites — most notably Reddit — were largely responsible for coordinating the mob. A veritable war was fought, organized into “operations” such as “Seed of Hope”, “Shoot for the Moon”, and “Big Air.” These operations were published in massive image files, maps with routes, and commentary explaining strategy and purpose.
Yet perhaps the most incredible feat of TPP is the community that has grown up around it. In just sixteen days, incredible amounts of fan art were made. While fan art is nothing new, the way the community went about it was nothing short of breathtaking. Out of the chaos of up to 120,000 people entering contradictory commands, a narrative was created. In the players inventory certain items in the menu emerged repeatedly; they were clicked incessantly. And some of the Pokémon had against-the-odds streaks of luck that earned them nicknames and reputation, most notably Bird Jesus, the invincible Pidgeot who carried the team on his back. Along with Bird Jesus, other names included King Leer, C3KO, Jay Leno, and ATV.
What made the fan art so impressive was the construction of a narrative that went far beyond the simple plot of the game. All of these named Pokémon and items were announced as a new religion by the fan community. And like all religions, it needed some stained glass. The fan art displayed intricate religious hierarchies, mimicking Christ poses and famous paintings. There was Bird Jesus the prophet, and beneath it the false prophet, a Flareon. The in-game experience became rationalized out-of-game.
But TPP transcended just Christian-inspired art. Other art depicting the religion drew from the Ancient Egyptian tableau style; pictographic narrative displayed in-game progress. Other works of fan art created reason out of another moment of madness: the commands themselves. With hundreds of contradictory commands being issued at any moment, more than 122 million in total by the end of the adventure, the circular wandering of the character become a point of reference. Red, the player character, was depicted often against a background of the commands, the voices inside his mind. The Madness of Trainer Red. The real-world, out-of-game experience became rationalized in-game. Red’s wanderings, indecisiveness, and propensity for throwing away important items and releasing valuable Pokémon was explained.
TPP and the fan community became something much greater than just a black and white (the second iteration, now in session, is in color) video game. TPP is a community and a culture with pathoses, dreams, and inspirations. It’s also a lot of fun.

Will Harrington ’16 ([email protected]) is a firm follower of the Dome Fossil and democracy.