The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics may have very well been the target of international attention in the month of February, but the world was also uniting on another front so that humanity could accomplish one unified goal: beating the first installment(s) of the Pokémon game series. Twitch channel TwitchPlaysPokemon opened on February 12, 2014 with a simple enough challenge for its viewers: use chat comments to relay controller inputs and complete the otherwise simple game. Python script parses hundreds of thousands of “up”, “down”, “left”, “right”, “a”, “b”, “start” and “select” strings into in-game executions and links to the Game Boy Advance emulator and a locally-hosted website while Open Broadcaster Software merges the website and the emulator output into a video feed that is transferred to Twitch’s relaying platform.
Forget 30,000 or its record high 80,000, once the channel got more than 1,000 views, it was a shoe-in for a successful social experiment. The truly genius thing about the project is that its completion does not rely on neither a low concentration nor a high concentration of participants. If there are 10,000 people playing at a time, it is at an effective level of disorder, justifying its appeal. However, if that number goes down, even reaching as low as two players, the qualification of multiple players is still in-tact while making it actually easier complete the game, which will in turn attract more people. It’s a genius win-win situation.
The channel has maintained a stable status as the most currently viewed channel on Twitch and has single-handed(channeled)ly caused Poke’mon Red/Blue to dethrone League of Legend as the most currently viewed featured game, LoL itself being a game that has at least a hundred channels streaming at a time. View counts aside, TwitchPlaysPokemon is perhaps more importantly making a monumental cultural presence. Frankly speaking, it is an ingenious and wholly meme-prone social experiment.
People like playing games but no one likes watching people play games. You couldn’t be any more wrong there this time around though. You could take the most interesting person in the world, make him or her play the game, give people streaming access to this play-through, and it still wouldn’t be as entertaining as watching a legion-controlled Red walking around in circles (or squares, technically) for four hours. I myself haven’t contributed a peep to the chatbox, in fact, I don’t even have a Twitch.tv account. But in witnessing this channel tediously go on and on, I feel compelled to create one just to input one command and be apart of some nonsensical history in the making. It’s completely ridiculous but whatever it is that is compelling me is a force to be reckoned with. From its social interaction, the playthrough derives the key component of being a narrative in itself. One person controlling the character through the motions would be the same story we have all experienced as adolecents, the story that is written into the actual game. Doing things that no single player would do, like using Helix fossil every ten seconds, looking at how many badges you have every twenty seconds, checking the PokéDex to listen to the cries of Pokemon every thirty seconds, and saving every sixty seconds is a ironic breath of fresh air, in every sense of the word. It escapes the context of the virtual game and becomes meta-fictional. It’s redundant as hell but it’s pure genius. And when I say hell, I most certainly do mean hell, because I myself can’t stand any more than 15 minute dosages of this stream at a time. Yet for nonsensical reason, I find myself coming back to more, feeling a need to be updated with the lunacy of the experience.
And of course, the stress forever lies on the point of social interaction, to the point where the phenomena has spread from Twitch’s platform to every single other social media, whether it be the shares on Facebook, the threads on Reddit, the live-blogging on Twitter, the fan art on Tumblr, or the memes on any other if not all platforms. With tens of millions of views, one might think that this would be a riot on YouTube. Well, it has spread like wildfire to that sea of broadcast as well. The channels dedicated to be timelapses of the entire playthrough are the more direct representations, but the existence of the other tributes also exist. For example, CONSULT THE FOSSIL (from which the header to this post originates is a fan-made video referencing the virality that the Helix Fossil item has become. ABBBBBBK ( After Story is a crossover within the animanga industry that tailors an episode of Clannad with falsified subtitles and inserted media to fit the narrative of the TPP play-through. What have you done… recaps the events of approximately the first half of the play-through with all meta-fictional jargon in-tact. And the exhibits only increase by the day. Just to re-iterate, there are people making art dedicated to this happening on both a recreational and professional level. This is an outright phenomenon.
Let’s be like Red and backtrack to the beginning of this post and pose the question, can it really be justified to compare this event to the Olympics? Is it really bringing people together in a good-natured way that rivals the sportsmanship of international athletes? Well, hell no, that answer was obvious upon day one when the chat was flooded will trolls inputting “start” over and over again to prevent any legitimate progression. But it’s those same hindrances that contributed greatly to the monstrosity of the event – the discarding of Moon Stone and Nugget, the disowning of the Charmeleon/starter Pokemon ABBBBBBK ( “Abby” and the Ratatta JJLVWNNOOOO “Jay Leno”, the usage of Dig to make the player(s) restart at the beginning of a map, etc. Viewing the play-through as a story in itself, these events associate with being the most frustrating part, the most saddening part, and the most hilarious part all concurrently. What Twitch Plays Pokemon is is a paragon of not just social interaction, but internet interaction. It is so definitive of game culture and internet culture that it literally represents a viral existence. I don’t know if there’s a gold medal that any kind of such accomplishment, but hey, take that Olympics, and don’t let it contaminate you too damn much.
Update: On February 28th, 2014, just before the entry into a new month, the Twitch team has successfully beaten the game with a resounding 16 days, 7 hours and 50 minutes clocked. Appropriately, this fanfare-ful event has been met with nothing but increased virality. Fan artists have created tribute after tribute depicting the play-through’s dream team while more than thirty-thousand viewers still occupy the stream hours after the game’s completion to share victorious sentiments, even when the only representation of those sentiments is a chatbox that receives so many messages at a time that it’s barely possible to read anything at all. At a total of approximately 37 million views, the channel has indubitably prospered in not only publicity but also in revenue. As this is the internet, a conglomerate of mixed media craze, it’s simply amazing too see how even the profits of such a sensation proliferate to separate works of drawn art print to produced soundtracks to shirt designs and the like.