7 days, 18 hours and 12 minutes.
That’s how long people around the world have been playing Pokémon Red/Blue on Twitch, controlling protagonist Red by typing thousands of frantic input commands into Twitch chat. If you’re one of the thousands who’ve taken part in Twitch Plays Pokémon, get excited, because you’re part of what is probably the largest social experiment ever conducted on a Game Boy emulator.
The history of PokéTwitch is one of great love, greater loss, impressive victory, and mind-numbing frustration. But behind the hilarity and fun of the world’s grandest cooperative gaming experience lie some serious social insights. Twitch-goers watch a live game of Pokémon Red/Blue on Twitch, type game commands into chat, and then the emulator frantically inputs these thousands of lines of text. What a world of players did with this power created a moving story of loss, a widespread religion, a government system, and a game file that won’t be forgotten any time soon.
It Begins – A Tale of Two Pokémon
If you’ve just joined PokéTwitch, you may be wondering why our party has no starter Pokémon, and why every time you ask about it, people start uncontrollably sobbing into their keyboards.
Our dear Charmeleon, aptly nicknamed ABBBBBBK(, and our equally loved Rattata, JLVWNNOOOO, were unceremoniously released into the wild after some unfortunate fumbling about the PC box. It’s not easy to coordinate thousands of lines of commands, given Twitch’s inherent lag and the internet’s inherent chaos.
Freak accident or sinister plot, our poor Abby and Jay Leno (nicknames for their nicknames) will always be in our hearts and in our save files. If you like crying over Pokémon abandonment, you can watch the footage of their final moments here.
Religion – All Hail The Helix Fossil
Perhaps most fascinating of this all are the intricate legends of faith PokéTwitch has generated. Maybe it’s inevitable to construct figures of guidance and sin in this crazy mono-color world through which we’re struggling. Or maybe we’re just really good at making awe-inspiring memes. Either way, here’s the lowdown on Pokéology.
I dare say the greatest legacy of PokéTwitch will be the religion of the almighty Helix. Once upon a time, our inventory held a seemingly insignificant Helix Fossil, a relic that when brought to Cinnabar scientists would revive the ancient Pokémon Omanyte.
Thanks to the conflicting dictations of Twitch chat, a confused Red often ended up opening his items bag and selecting his Helix Fossil. It only took 10,000 instances of Fossil clicking before it become clear to us that Red was consulting the mighty Helix for aid in his times of trouble, which are basically all the time.
The almighty Helix is always there for us, and if you’re ever feeling lost, or like life’s throwing you 5,000 commands a second, come and beseech Helix’s infinite wisdom.
For every hero there exists a darker counterpart, and so there was a time when “the false prophet” led our hero away from the path of Helix.
After Red received the fateful Eevee, we sought to utilize a water stone and bring forth Vaporeon, so that we may surf the oceans of Kanto as elegantly as we walk on the land. Sadly, after a laborious crawl to the Poké Mart, the hopeless Red bought a fire stone instead of a water stone.
Because the ensuing attempts to evolve Eevee led to the release of Abby and Jay Leno, Eevee now represents the evil that has caused all of our past and future PokéTwitch misfortunes. It is rumored the firestone caused a demonic eeveelution, spawning Flareon, an evil spirit bent on stopping the revival of the great Omanyte.
They call him Pidgesus, the somehow level 46 Pidgeot whose mighty Gust has been blowing Team Rocket’s level 19 Rattatas into faint oblivion. Pidgesus protects us through our travels, and perhaps one day, after 7 hours of HM fumbling, he might fly us to a random city selected by our poor control coordination. We can dream.
Government – Anarchy and Democracy
The story of PokéTwitch has always raised the question of progress. Would players relentlessly spam Twitch chat with their individual requests, or would they quiet down and allow a select few to control the overwhelmed Red? Spam or cooperation?
Spam. Definitely spam. And lots of participants constantly trying to bring up the start menu. Some people just want to watch the world burn, probably at the hands of your rejected Charmeleon (too soon…).
Some strategists went to great lengths drawing up battle plans, in an effort to bring newcomers up to speed and offer players a streamlined plan of action. After 4 hours of throwing your SS Ticket at a tree, you realize it may take a game-plan to get anything done.
Others demanded a more refined method of command input, fed up with aimless meandering and newly homeless Rattatas (still too soon…).
It wasn’t long before PokéTwitch’s creator implemented Democracy vs Anarchy, where players may type either “democracy” or “anarchy” into chat. An 80% majority input will switch anarchy to democracy, and a 50% vote will bring democracy back into anarchy.
Anarchy is the simple way of yore, a free for all where the emulator takes in as many Twitch commands as they come without discretion. Democracy, as you may have guessed, lets players vote for their desired move or combination of moves. The asymmetry of the system requires a stronger majority for democracy because the restrictive voting structure allows a 50% vote to overpower minority voices. Basically, if it only takes a 50% majority to control democracy, or abuse it, a 50% vote should be able to deactivate it.
Democracy seems to be the more coordinated system, so won’t it always be the chosen side? Plot twist: order doesn’t always win out.
Rule of the People – The Tale of the Silph Scope
I tuned in this last Tuesday evening and found Red in the middle of Celadon City, about to infiltrate Silph Co. and obtain the Silph Scope. Democracy was active at the time, so I figured I’d see some neat action.
Red did not move for 30 minutes. Instead of taking ONE step in ANY direction, he stood there opening and closing the start menu again and again. Despite the new organization, the democratic vote constantly swung in favor of the “Start” button over any actual useful movements. It seemed that pro-anarchists overwhelmed the rest of the population, constantly winning votes for the command “Start9” (pressing ‘Start’ 9 times). In fact, “Start9” soon became a symbol of the anarchist movement:
“ANARCHY ALL THE WAY, PLAY THE GAME THE FUN WAY! PLAY THE WAY THAT HAS CAUSED EVERY MEMORABLE MOMENT SO FAR! FOLLOW THE PATH OF HELIX! ANARCHY! START9! ANARCHY!WITH DEMOCRACY, NONE OF THE MEMORABLE FUN MOMENTS OF THIS WOULD HAVE HAPPENED” – Anonymous Twitcher
It seems all the trials and tribulations of the original system fostered a strange fondness for the unpredictable chaos of walking in circles for hours. You could make it to Cerulean, or you could spend 10 hours jumping up and down ledges, but at least the world found some hilarity in the pixelated floundering. In fact, without the old system, we would have no supreme Helix, no SS Ticket memories, and no moments of unbelievable frustration that have bound us, the players, together. On the other hand, democracy might have prevented the tragic loss of Abby and Jay Leno, and may have brought us closer to defeating the Elite Four.
Eventually, the Start9‘ers caused enough menu chaos during every period of democracy for anarchy to win favor. The chat responses looked something like this:
“ANARCHY REIGNS SUPREME”
“WE WERE GETTING LESS DONE IN DEMOCRACY”
“Remember, DON”T LET UP. keep saying anarchy”
“LOOK HOW FAR WE GOT WITH ANARCHY”
Cries of nostalgia and backwards idealism rang through the air like the Celedon theme song I listened to for 5 hours. Sure, democracy had more potential for efficiency, but it was also slow and uninteresting. Anarchy would definitely get better results, right?
Well, for the next 45 minutes of anarchy, Red walked aimlessly about Celedon faceplanting trees, stepping in and out of the Pokémon Center (utterly confusing Nurse Joy), and proving completely inept at finding the Silph Co. entrance. After an hour of square dancing around town square, Red finally reached the Silph Co. elevator! Then he walked right out. Then he walked in again, and then out again.
At this point, the elite precision necessary to enter the elevator and press the “B4” button led to a momentary shift to democracy. Once the Silph Scope was obtained, there was an immediate switch back to anarchy, which has remained the preferred system for quite some time now. Astoundingly, whether stumbling through alleys or facing death in a battle, people tend not to scramble towards the ordered option. We must all have a lot of faith in our team, each other, and Helix. Mostly the Helix.
The democracy supporters won’t give up that easily, though. They make a consistent effort, even if they fail to reach that 80% goal.
“Only getting less done in democracy because the anarchy people wouldn’t LET IT GO” – Anonymous anti-anarchist
Was democracy really as inefficient as it seemed, or did those devoted to the ways of anarchy just excel at handicapping the system? Is this video game filibustering, an example of how a prominent group of people can abuse the system, ruining progress for the sake of their old ways and entertainment? Will the ordered hand of democracy win out against the Start9‘ers, or will the start screen fanatics keep us in the good ol’ times of messy hilarity?
The big message is: there’s no right or wrong answer. Each side has its benefits, and there’s a constant power pendulum swinging back and forth between the two for good reasons. Anarchy led to extraordinary innovations, democracy completed difficult tasks. Twitch Plays Pokémon was never meant to prove one method of play was better than the other, it only wanted to observe people given the choice between the two, and hopefully watch them achieve camaraderie and victory in the end.
For now it seems we value spontaneous experiences over highly ordered productivity, despite the hardships. Still, we have the capacity to band together and commit to cooperation for mundane tasks whose quick completion would be the best option for us. Then right back to the hilarious fun of anarchy.
The final verdict: who cares. It’s about the memories, it’s about Abby and Jay Leno, and it’s about how the world got together and played Pokémon, forging this epic story. One day when we defeat the Elite Four, we’ll have done it together, because we want to be the very best.