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Chaos, Democracy, and Religion in the Pokémon World

How the live-streaming, crowd-sourced gameplay of a 15-year-old game captivated millions and generated its own set of religions.
Pokemon Center Tokyo. (Photo: wongjp/Flickr)

Pokemon Center Tokyo. (Photo: wongjp/Flickr)

For the past two weeks, Twitch Plays Pokémon has captivated the attention of gamers and non-gamers, Pokémon masters and n00bs alike. Millions of people have tuned in as thousands of players attempted to be the very best that no one ever was—at the same time.

For the uninitiated, this is how it works: The site displays a live feed of Pokémon Red, a role-playing video game that was popular in the late '90s and early '00s. The chat box is rigged to input commands directly to the game. In other words, by typing "a," "b," "start," or any of the cardinal directions into the chat box, you are effectively pushing buttons on a virtual Nintendo Game Boy. In the case of Twitch Plays Pokémon, which at its peak hosted 120,000 players at the same time, it’s utter chaos.

From a business perspective, the experiment has been wildly successful, garnering millions of pageviews and widespread media coverage.

From a social perspective, the phenomenon is unprecedented, says video games researcher T.L. Taylor, an associate professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"The delight of it is understanding it’s a crazy live event in which the spontaneity, the indeterminacy, the contingency is what makes it so fun to watch and be engaged with."

“The scale of what I think of as ‘crowd play’ is pretty remarkable. I haven’t seen anything quite like it, in terms of the energetic nature and the live-ness,” Taylor says. “It was that people were actually spectating it that made it so notable. It became gaming as a live media event.”

The gaming concepts in Twitch Plays Pokémon are not new, Taylor says, but the scale and the speed of culture in the game dwarf its predecessors.

So, how does a game that was released more than 15 years ago keep so many people engaged?

Internal tension is a main factor. At any given time, there are a number of users who are trying to advance the game, and a number of trolls who are doing whatever they can to complicate gameplay. It’s surprisingly entertaining to watch the players futilely attempt to reach a goal while the trolls are bent on running into a wall repeatedly.

A separate tension exists between anarchy and democracy. No, this isn’t a poli-sci lesson. The programmer of Twitch Plays Pokémon added a neat little feature where users can vote for their preferred method of gameplay via the chat box. In anarchy mode, the computer accepts inputs in random fashion (as described above). In democracy, which was scant utilized during the first iteration of the game, the moves are determined by majority vote.

“I have to admit I was on the side of anarchy,” Taylor says. “The delight of it is understanding it’s a crazy live event in which the spontaneity, the indeterminacy, the contingency is what makes it so fun to watch and be engaged with.”

Not only do the chat messages move at a dizzying speed, the Internet community developed at an accelerated pace as well. The players quickly took to Reddit and other social media to concoct a complicated meta-story that complements and enhances the gameplay. There are related Twitter accounts, Google docs, fan art, swag, and even a complicated network of religions. The makers of Pokémon couldn’t have paid for a richer “brand experience” than this.

In fact, the pseudo-religions that popped up during gameplay have become a major part of the experience, and each has its own devout (albeit tongue-in-cheek) followers. Josh Kim, an Indiana college student who goes by aseanman27 on Reddit, created “The Evolution of Religion” infographic that was up-voted almost 1,600 times.

“This religious talk is a giant meme,” he writes in an email interview. “I became fascinated in it not because of the religion, but because I saw it as the accelerated life of an internet meme and of internet culture in general.”

For a game where there are so many spectators but technically only one player, it helps to have group affiliations. Taylor says that this is manifested in religious terms. “What was so fantastic about Twitch Plays Pokémon was extending that stuff in hilarious, creative, lively ways. It’s not religion, really, it’s a playful lively way of taking a side, having an investment,” she says.

The collective genius of Twitch Plays Pokémon beat the game after 16 days of non-stop play last weekend. But don’t worry, Pokéfans—the fun resumed Monday morning with a brand-new game of Pokémon Crystal, and 50,000 users soldier on. Long live Bird Jesus, praise be to Helix.