After 390 hours of sometimes frustrating game play, over 100,000 people who were simultaneously playing the traditionally single player game Pokémon Red managed to defeat the final boss and win the game. “Twitch Plays Pokémon” caused a sensation on the Internet, quickly catching fire because it was a truly massive and shared undertaking that built upon ideas and concepts that were familiar to a large audience. Rather than merely watching, the thousands of players were influencing the course of the game itself. As the chat room celebrated the victory, several jubilant players declared, “We made history!” They were wrong only in the sense that victory over the final game boss was not the only history that was made. Throughout the entirety of the over two weeks of gameplay, tens of thousands constructed their own history, developing ways to understand and commemorate their actions, cooperating and competing to build something beyond the limitations of a nearly 20-year-old game.
Have you ever had someone tell you about a weird dream they had last night? Or perhaps you had to patiently endure a funny vacation story that turned out to be not too humorous? Maybe you just had to be there. Therein lies the fundamental draw of “Twitch Plays Pokémon.” Not only did tens of thousands of people play or watch at any one time, there was nothing blocking their access or ability to take part. Anyone could join at any time. In previous large-scale virtual events, either the window of opportunity to participate was short or various gates blocked universal access. In both cases, only a relatively small number of people could take part due to the barriers in place. As an example, the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft held a large-scale event called “The Gates of Ahn’Qiraj” in late 2005 and early 2006. While many ended up participating, the main part of the event could only be carried out by a small fraction of the player base. The trials, tribulations and triumphs of the entire event were experienced only by a few. For those looking in from outside, the massive event became a story, not an experience. Stories are someone else’s history. Experiences are personal and thus resonate on a far deeper level.
In “Twitch Plays Pokémon,” playing the game became a shared experience that quickly became a shared history, allowing for a sense of agency a person rarely receives online. With no one absolutely certain who may have made the critical decision that tilted the game in one direction or another and with everyone’s action carrying equal weight, every player could feel equally invested. With no one able to directly order actions, and without traditional power structures in place, it was also perhaps one of the most genuine cases of people’s history recorded. The experience was heightened by the existing popularity of Pokémon that gave the players a basic familiarity and framework to work with. Unlike most MMOs with new, unfamiliar and occasionally byzantine backstories, there was again no immediate barrier to immersion. A basic knowledge of Pokémon and the underlying story became a jumping off point from which players could extrapolate and create their own versions of events. Yet history is more than a shared memory of dates and facts and the varying interpretation of events during the game yielded incredible results.
The hothouse environment of “Twitch Plays Pokémon” was almost Darwinian in nature when it came to deciding which in-game moments would be momentous and how they would be remembered. Names were generated for both the individual Pokémon and for pivotal moments that players came across. Some ideas withered on the vine, while others gained traction. Ideas drew in followers and then faded in popularity. Rival factions appeared, each determined to follow their own agendas. Some attempted to sabotage the entire effort, actions not outside the parameters of the experience. Dozens of memes quickly followed, and artists drew illustrations based on the events of the day while bloggers and Reddit commenters reported on the action. The accidental (or possibly intentional) release of a dozen Pokémon became known as, “Bloody Sunday.” The frenetic button-mashing continually opened the inventory screen and examined an item called the Helix Fossil, which led some to declare the item an oracle that the main character was consulting. This shared history because both a unique language and a unifying force for the players, a trait that videogames with fleshed-out backstories strive for but rarely achieve.
“Twitch Plays Pokémon” made its own history through a cooperative effort that speaks to the untapped potential of the Internet to host truly massive transnational experiences, offering a digital space that can construct its own history. “Twitch Plays Pokémon” managed to spread across different mediums on the Internet, and they each played a part in constructing the memory and history of the event at an amazing speed. The incorporation of the Internet as a whole, from forums to YouTube, shows the interconnected nature of the Internet and the ability for an experience to transcend its original format. It was helped by the simplicity of Pokémon Red, which overcame the current limitations of systems and games engines. As advanced as games are today, truly massive online events on the scale of “Twitch Plays Pokémon” with up-to-date graphics are not yet feasible because today’s technology cannot yet handle the loads. Modern Eve Online refers to the delay caused by thousands of players online in the same area as, “soul-crushing lag.” The “Twitch Plays Pokémon” experience may have uncovered a recipe for effective massive events, the most effective being tapping into collective nostalgia.
Yet “Twitch Plays Pokémon” also may make history in a different way. The Internet is a fragmented and specialized place, a legacy of its ability to offer any group an online home and a banner to draw in others. These interest groups have found like-minded individuals on the Internet. Many have developed their own histories online through communities like 4chan, Something Awful, and Reddit. “Twitch Plays Pokémon’s” rapid creation of a mass experience based on shared memories and constructed history may kick-start the development of more focused digital nations. No matter what the final impact of the social experiment might be, “Twitch Plays Pokémon’s” victory was made more triumphant by the road taken to get there, the shared experience that was offered, and the way that this new community chose to remember and commemorate the event they helped to create.
“Twitch Plays Pokémon.” Twitch. Accessed March 8, 2014. http://www.twitch.tv/twitchplaysPokémon
“Twitch Plays Pokémon.” Reddit. Accessed March 8, 2014. http://www.reddit.com/r/twitchplaysPokémon/