What 'Twitch Plays Pokemon' Teaches Us About Video Game Communities

Erik Kersting

It is in the difficulty of Twitch Plays Pokemon that we find its value. If it wasn't for the fact that Red is almost impossible to control, the successes of the group would mean nothing.

Twitch Plays Pokemon is an anomaly. The game, in which twitch users input commands for Pokemon Red via the chat functions of Twitch (i.e. typing the word “left” will move the character left) has somehow become an internet phenomenon. It has been seen by over 20 million people and at peak hours has gone above 120,000 concurrent users, all inputting commands for the poor character of “Red” as he stumbles throughout the game in a schizophrenic daze. Its users have created lore, pseudo-religions, memes, and political commentary in the process. Its success will probably never be replicated and it will be long before anything similar comes close to its popularity, yet, it exists and continues to grow more popular as Red moves slowly throughout the eighteen year old game.

As you can probably guess, while the game is massively popular, it can also be incredibly frustrating, as more commands are given to Red than he can possibly complete. As a result of this frustration, the creator of the game added a “democracy” and “anarchy” vote to the game. Anarchy represents choosing to play the way the game was originally played, while a vote for democracy represents favoring a mode in which users can vote every 20 seconds and the most voted command will then occur in game. The struggle between these two binaries has created even more subcultures, memes, and lore aurrounding the game. While the community generally dislikes “democracy,” in rare moments it has allowed players to get past incredibly difficult puzzles like the Team Rocket hideout's maze, where one false step sends you back to the beginning, and the Safari Zone, in which the player only has a certain amount of steps to reach their goal.

The success of Twitch Plays Pokemon is due to a few factors. The idea was almost completely new and took people by surprise with its simple but entertaining premise. The creator could not have chosen a more perfect game to emulate in this way as well. Pokemon Red and Blue were instant classics on their release, and the series itself is incredibly iconic as the flag bearer for Nintendo's mobile gaming systems. These are games that have been enjoyed by millions of people around the world. Even better, the game requires practically zero fine motor skills to play. It can be played at the user's pace, no matter how slow or fast. Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda would be impossible to play with 100,000 people wrestling over the controller because the enemies don't wait for you; they just attack. ButPokemon Red is turn based and therefore no matter how many people are trying to input commands (which generally have a 40 second delay on them) the game is still playable, and not only is it playable, but as of the time of this writing, itsusers are well over halfway through the game.

Twitch Plays Pokemon can teach us a lot about online gaming communities, how they grow, and how they can become successful. First, like many other recent games, this experiment again shows that word of mouth is key to the success of a non-AAA game. Twitch Plays Pokemon is not advertised in any way. People just shared links to it on Facebook, Reddit, and other social media sites until it gained its massive following. Like Pokemon Red, Day Z, Flappy Bird, and Cave Story, it has had incredible success because it is easy to understand, but is still inherently intriguing. Communities spawn around these games because the people playing them want other people to be playing with them. There is no substitute for a game that sells itself. Also, the communities for games that are spread via word of mouth are inherently stronger than ones in which players learn of them through advertising because new users are already connected to a group of players when they join, whether in real life or on the web.

The game also teaches us that the best way to create a strong sense of community and camaraderie is through shared experience. Everyone playing Twitch Plays Pokemon is sharing the experience of watching and controlling Red at the same time, trying to get him to do something even half useful. Because of this, the players feel like they are in the same boat as Red, and when big things happen, the players react emotionally. For instance, one of the most heartbreaking moments on the stream was after players had spent almost 48 hours in the Team Rocket Hideout(the maze and elevator were near impossible before democracy was introduced), and the over 100,000 users had finally reached the “final boss” Giovanni. The fight was incredibly close and came down to Pidgeot(nicknamed “Bird Jesus,” the strongest pokemon in the team) against Giovanni's final pokemon Kangaskhan. Sadly, because of the random nature of the game, Pidgeot kept using an attack that had no effect on Kangaskhan, and with one hit point remaining, “Bird Jesus” used the wrong move and was finished. The reaction to this turn of events though was stellar. It was heartbreaking, but made the victory that came six hours later all the more sweet. It is these types of shared experiences, whether successes or failures, that facilitate the close-knit community of Twitch Plays Pokemon.

It is in the difficulty of Twitch Plays Pokemon that we find its value. If it wasn't for the fact that Red is almost impossible to control, the successes of the group, like cutting down a tree (which is terribly easy when playing by yourself), would mean nothing. Thus, it is through the challenge of the game that gamers enjoy Twitch Plays Pokemon together. Community is strengthened through hardship, and Twitch Plays Pokemon shows this.

Finally, like Minecraft, the immense success of Twitch Plays Pokemon is facilitated by its creator, but it is also an outgrowth of its users' own creativity. Thousands of users using photoshop have created memes, and through planning on social media, have enhanced the game's experience in ways that the creator could have never predicted. The creator didn't think users would create a religion based on the fossil that the group chose. The creator didn't know that a “false prophet” would appear out of the addition of the pokemon “Eevee.” The creator didn't know that things like “the ledge” or “the maze” would become so frustrating that tens of thousands of people would spend hours trying to overcome them. It is because users were allowed their own freedom that Twitch Plays Pokemon became popular, for it is through the wild interpretation of the mild events of the game that the most memorable moments come about.

While it may be an anomaly that, like Haley's Comet, only comes around every once in a long while, Twitch Plays Pokemon is valuable and its experiences are something that will be remembered fondly by its users for years to come.

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