Twitch Plays Pokemon as the Internet Quests for Justice

It’s perhaps the most fundamentally Millenial social experiment ever conducted, and it’s still going strong. After nearly ten days, Twitch is still playing Pokemon.

For the uninitiated, Twitch is a bot that operates a game emulator – in this case Pokemon Red/Blue – by taking commands from users. Type ‘a’ into the chat box, and Twitch presses ‘a’ in the emulator, ‘up’ for the up arrow, ‘start’ for the start button and so on.

Get a few people typing commands into the bot at the same time and things start to get interesting. Get a few more people plugged in and chaos ensues. While many of the puzzles and quirks within the game are relatively difficult to navigate on one’s own, they become exponentially more difficult to get through when dozens of commands are coming in every second, many of which disagree with each other. While a typical game of Pokemon takes about 30 hours to complete, it’s taken Twitch nearly ten days to get a little more than halfway through.

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Red’s daily struggle – via eugor.com

The idiosyncrasies that inevitably arise from the flood of commands produced what CNET has called “a fight for the soul of the Internet,” complete with it’s own  r/twitchplayspokemon subreddit. Throw a childhood game into the depths of the online world, and you’ll inevitably get some decent memes and gifs. Tweak the game so that the user accidentally provides their own plot twists – we all died a little inside when Twitch released ABBBBBBK (nicknamed “Abby K”), the Charmeleon they started the game with – and what you get borders on religion.

For instance, the Helix Fossil, which Twitch often accidentally checks by chance, has become, as Bryan M. of Digg writes:

…a totem which Red ‘consults for advice’ and the representation of all that is good, while its counterpart, the Dome fossil, the source of evil. Accidents are attributed to the latter and victories to the former and both are referred to by the community as gods.

So, as the game progressed, the dialogue box in which users can input and see everything being inputted to the bot began to get filled with not only executable commands, but spiritual advice and exalting missives. For example:

And:

  • Johangir:  ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ LORD GOD HELIX IS BENEVOLENT AND JUST ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ THE WAY OF HELIX LEADS TO THE GOLDEN PARADISE ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ HELIX IS LOVE HELIX IS LIFE ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ HIS RESURRECTION WILL SIGNAL THE BEGINNING OF A NEW ERA OF PROSPERITY AND THE END OF DARKNESS AND SINFUL MISGIVINGS ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ PRAISE BE TO LORD GOD HELIX ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ

Particularly significant Pokemon become associated with either deity. Twitch’s level 58 Pidgeot, also known as “Bird Jesus,” is seen as the community’s savior, second only to the Helix Fossil itself. Flareon, the “False Prophet,” became “ecumenically linked to the Dome Fossil” after being associated with a particularly monumental setback. As I was writing this, Twitch miraculously defeated Channeler, a member of the gym in Saffron City specializing in ghost/psychic Pokemon, when Bird Jesus, the only Pokemon left available in Twitch’s lineup and down to its last 27 hit points, defeated Channeler’s Haunter using Mirror Move, prompting a flurry of praise and exaltation:

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Bird Jesus (with Helix Fossil) and His disciples, with the False Prophet plotting in the background.

The explosion in popularity and participation prompted an interesting aside into online governance. After the game became increasingly unwieldy, as tens of thousands of people logged on to play the same game of Pokemon, a new command was introduced: users can now determine whether or not to govern the bot by voting for ‘democracy’ or ‘anarchy’ on a running basis. While anarchy reigns, the game proceeds as originally created, with every command processed as it comes in. If, on the other hand, users choose democracy, the bot executes whichever command was most frequently inputted in the previous twenty seconds.

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Red consults the Helix Fossil, so sayeth the users on the right side of the screen

This new wrinkle has created an additional spiritual undercurrent within the Twitch community. Purists – those who have been through most if not all of the game’s trials and tribulations and are devout followers of the Helix Fossil – prefer the world in which anarchy prevails. Newer users who want to win in the traditional sense of the game, frustrated by frequent setbacks, tend to advocate for democracy.

Perhaps it’s important to note the irony of writing this as our senior political science majors are completing the theory section of their comprehensive finals. I can’t help but think that while the Hobbesian state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, Twitch’s state of Internet is, while certainly not what Hobbes had in mind as far as man’s natural state is concerned, nevertheless proving to be communal and sustainable in the face of relative anarchy. But, as Twitch sends Red on his own quest for justice, the question remains: will self-governance prevail, or will the Internet place its trust in the Helix Fossil and let the chips fall where they may?

And, if and when they do eventually defeat the Elite Four and become a collective Pokemon master, will they play again? If they do, will they keep the religion and governance they left off with, or will their values and mores reset with their gameplay?

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In a second iteration, will this be sacred or blasphemous?

While seemingly absurd and irrelevant, the outcome of this social experiment does come with a small set of implications. An open, anarchic online community in which all users have the same goal but may not have the same idea of how to achieve it is a particularly unique exercise in collective action. That the community has proven to be somewhat sustainable and has developed its own tongue-in-cheek religion and system of governance is telling.

Alexis de Tocqueville is laughing in his grave.

3 thoughts on “Twitch Plays Pokemon as the Internet Quests for Justice

  1. Good article but it doesn’t go far enough with the Hobbes comparison. Hobbes would have recognized that the driving forces of the game are anarchy and the fear of violent death (or blackout). The religious elements, such as the deified helix fossil and bird Jesus, are merely superstitions constructed by the community to alleviate their anxiety regarding the true nature of the game. Twitch plays pokemon, like human society, is simply (cyber) matter in motion and a system that, without an omnipotent, singular player/Leviathan, will be doomed to significant inefficiency.

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