The PC is evil, start9 is filibustering, Flareon is a False Prophet and all hail the Helix Fossil. These might sound like the gibberish ravings of a cult. Others would describe this as a large-scale social experiment. Some might call it human nature at its finest. You could argue that it’s the modern gladiatorial arena for a tech generation.
But ultimately, it’s just Pokémon.
Specifically, it’s TwitchPlaysPokemon (TPP).
Twitch.tv is a live-streaming site, specifically used for broadcasting video game progress to an audience in real-time. Naturally, the person running the video game is the one playing. However, the person behind TPP turned that assumption on its head by giving the controller back to the audience.
Every Twitch stream comes with a chat box. TPP has been configured so that every command entered into the chat is then fed back into a game of Pokémon Red. What this means is that every person who is watching the game, can also be playing the game — along with everyone else who happens to be watching.
And as the game’s popularity rose, so did the number of players.
At any given time, the number of people inputting commands at once can fluctuate between 40,000 and 110,000 people, not to mention the 20 million cumulative viewers. And of course, you can’t get over 100,000 people to agree on anything — especially not how you’re going to evolve your Eevee.
This isn’t only a game, it’s a complex online culture. Political systems have been put in place as viewers can toggle between “anarchy” where, in the original system, every command is executed in order or “democracy” where there is a 10-second delay to tally the votes. It’s not uncommon for anarchists to vote “start”, effectively pausing the game, in a bid to topple the democratic system.
It’s not just politics, either. A pseudo-religious meme has taken shape after the character repeatedly consulted a currently useless item called the Helix Fossil. Exclamations of “Helix guide us” can be found all across the internet, even in forums completely unrelated to TPP. Likewise, the Pokémon have been assigned religious titles, such as “Bird Jesus” the Pidgeot or Flareon “the False Prophet”, the latter of which was released for seemingly no other reason than the fact that the stream deemed it “unholy”.
It isn’t the first video game event to have wide-scale implications. In EVE Online, a massive multiplayer online game, a misclick caused further conflict between two warring factions. The cost for the destroyed in-game warships was estimated at $20,000 USD and it was later revealed that a member who brokered relations in the galaxy was an American diplomat stationed in the Middle East.
Likewise, in the infamous World of Warcraft, a glitch caused an in-game sickness called “Corrupted Blood” to spread outside of its intended area. An epidemic ensued across the servers, with low-level players being killed instantly and players of every faction abandoning populated areas to avoid infection. It was only solved after a quarantine and a complete reset of the game-world and the incident was later studied by the U.S. Centre for Disease Control in case of a real-life epidemic.
So what is TPP teaching us right now? It’s hard to say. As a participant, I am both impressed and infuriated at human nature. In one week, up to 20 million people have been able to co-operate long enough to get six out of the eight Pokémon badges but sometimes we cannot decide if we want to go left or right. Am I watching a feat of humanity, or a train-wreck in slow motion?
Helix guide us all.
If you’d like to witness this madness, or even participate in it, you can head over to twitch.tv/twitchplayspokemon.