In the last eleven days, the streaming website Twitch has seen a project whose raging popularity few could have anticipated. Sure, everyone loves Pokémon, but who would have thought that a bold experiment with this classic game would generate more viewers than, say, League of Legends, one of the most popular games of our times? And so, against all expectations, this astonishing project has managed to get over 24,000,000 views, with an average of 50,000+ participants—sometimes even as much as 100,000+— at any given moment. People are bent on chronicling the chaos that this game has been, while other have even created merchandise out of it and even a drinking game. This is despite the complete randomness that is the game per se, as most of it consists of aimlessly wandering around and consulting the Pokédex for no apparently good reason. So how come it has become so incredibly popular?
Of course, something this big can't happen without a reason, and the ones behind the incredible success of this streaming channel are more solid than one might think. First of all, there is the power of nostalgia. This is the first game in a very beloved franchise, a game most of us have played and loved in our childhood and teenage years even if we shunned the more recent installments. It was a really big phenomenon when it was released because of it's innovative party system, where you could catch the characters you would battle with, teach them moves, and make them evolve. You could even nickname them, and combine them in ways that made your tactics more successful. This level of customization was something that people were not used to seeing. And with a quite decent anime to increase sales of this game, as well as card games and other merchandise, it got the attention of almost the whole world. Everyone has played or knows of Pokémon, and so, seeing someone play tribute to a childhood favorite is bound to get our attention.
As I have mentioned in the paragraph above, Pokémon is a game that allows for high levels of customization. This means that every time we play the game, the way we go through it is more or less unique, even if the main events remain the same. Given the uniqueness of each gameplay, seeing what 50,000+ people working together can make out of it is nothing but entertaining. What pokémon will we catch? What nicknames will we give them? What moves will they learn? Who will be the most powerful ones? Will we get all the legendary pokémon, or will we skip them for the sake of finishing it? The sheer delight of seeing what this huge crowd can make out of this game is enough to keep us hooked.
The choices this collective makes, however random and even unwilling (who really wanted to release Charmeleon and Hitmonlee?), are being rationalized by the viewers and transformed into a narrative. No matter how chaotic a course of action was, the people involved will always find a reason why it happened. The completely arbitrary grinding of Pidgey, instead of any other pokémon, made him become the strongest one in the whole party. Why did this happen? Because he is Bird Jesus, of course, the messiah that was sent to save us from failure. When the people at TwitchPlaysPokemon failed in their plan to evolve Eevee into Vaporeon and instead released Charmeleon and Rattata, evolving Eevee into Flareon in the process, it was clear to the viewers that this was because Flareon was an evil pokémon, a false prophet who seeks to bring ruin to our endeavors. No matter how random any event on this stream is, it will get turned into a glorious epic. I yearn to see what stories people will write of this when it is finished. I have no doubt someone will write a book-length epic.
This narrative effort to explain the unexplainable sometimes leads to mystification. The most clear example is the Helix Fossil. Why are people worshipping this item as a God? Why are there so many depictions of it as the source of all that is good? Oscar Wilde might have the answer when he asserted that "Art is quite useless" (The Picture of Dorian Gray). This not only applies to art, but even religion: the very basis of some spiritual beliefs is that we do something not because of its immanent usefulness, but because it is a proof of faith, an end on itself. It has to be useless to be religious. For instance, why do we go to church? A gathering of people reading and commenting a book would not have any value unless you believe that book is sacred, in which case the ritual is then full of meaning. Why do we get on our knees and pray? Surely clasping your hands and whispering wouldn't be useful unless you believe God is listening to you, in which case there is a connection between you and the Almighty. Something similar, in a much smaller and mocking way has happened in TwitchPlaysPokemon. Any time Red is walking around the fields, or in the middle of the battle, the random input of the viewers will make him open the inventory and consult the Helix Fossil, even if this is quite useless in itself. The sheer frequency and uselessness of it has made people come to the narrative conclusion that there must be an ulterior motive why we're doing this, and so the Helix Fossil was mystified to the point where some people have created really detailed and wonderful depiction of this religious movement, full with its own mythology—one such example is the picture to the right. Similar status has been gained by the SS Ticket and the Lift Key, prompting many memes all around the internet, but none of them have reached the wild popularity of the Helix Fossil.
Of course, this whole epic made out of complete chaos wouldn't be interesting to viewers at all if they weren't taking part on it—that is, their main drive in this whole experiment is its capacity for interactivity. The most obvious way to do so is by inputting commands into the chat box and making the character move and perform actions, although this is the slightest way in which they contribute. Their efforts are more impressive when they develop plans—such as the plan to capture Zapdos—, promote them across social media, and then get the people so involved in them that they finally succeed in pulling them off. Despite the randomness of it all, there are actually plans going on, and that the people are able to even transmit these to each other in this fast-paced, never stopping surge of input is astounding in and of itself. And this is not the only way people are contributing to this project: there are tons of fan art—such as the pieces in showing in this article—, Facebook pages devoted to different aspects of the game—mostly in praise of the Helix Fossil—, and multiple Twitter channels devoted to the whole streaming or to particular pokémon that have appeared on it. People are not only playing a game, they are contributing to a massive social phenomenon that has expanded more than any of us could have thought. It was just the other day when a non-geeky thirty-odd years old guy at work who doesn't have Facebook started talking to me about it. It is that big.
And it is because players have such power and control over the game and over how the events of the game are portrayed that a lot moral and ethical questions have arisen. The fact that there are two ways of controlling Red, democracy and anarchy, exist, and that they can be voted, has led to questions that people debate fiercely in internet forums. Is anarchy the natural state of things which we should respect, despite how difficult it is to get anything done that way? Doesn't democracy feel like cheating, and isn't it too slow anyway? There is some consent on the fact that democracy is an evil, but a necessary evil at that, for there are times when anarchy, when left to its own devices, won't get anything done. Sometimes the viewers have to sacrifice the genuine, natural state of things just to be able to progress. This, of course, can be seen as a very poignant critique of the current state of affairs of our world. This debate is further complicated when some people try to misuse the system to sabotage it for their own purposes. This happened yesterday when the streamer group Destiny allegedly voted massively for democracy in order to release Pidgeot. This only goes to show how frail a political system is, and how easily it can be corrupted to fit the objectives of those who are willing to take the time and effort. This is serious business.
This, finally, has let the people show a great deal of creativity. Not only can they make plans and spread throughout social media so that things get done, or make pictures of the journey so far, or even tell a wonderful epic that makes all the randomness and chaos make sense, but there are some other ways to get creative. Most of these efforts are spent on trolling: people will look for ways to piss off the whole community by opening the menu start at random intervals, making Pidgeot learn mirror move or using dig when at the end of a dungeon. But then again, there are some other people who have created a Helix Fossil picture out of keyboard symbols on the chat, and then there's my success yesterday at introducing the Konami code into democracy mode that was quickly mirrored by lots of people. This stream has become a new medium of expression that people accept on its own terms, and that is what makes it so appealing, so big. It has become what in the movie world would be considered a cult hit, a universe that, despite its chaos, can make so much sense to the initiate, to the person who has taken the time and effort to understand what is going on. Getting into the universe of TwitchPlaysPokemon is a very rewarding experience in and of itself. After all, how many other streams have created such fierce and serious debate about religion and politics?
How long have you been following TwitchPlaysPokemon? What do you think makes it be so appealing to so many people all around the world? Please let us know what you think in the comments!