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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

‘Twitch Plays Pokémon,’ the world watches

Emily Hoffmann
Last Wednesday, an account on the video game streaming website Twitch.TV started an experiment in which viewers could play Pokémon Red. The popular Nintendo game was being streamed live on the site and users could contribute to playing by typing in button commands in the accompanying chat. Since gaining coverage on, Huffington Post and similar sites, the experiment has exploded, amassing over 11 million views in six days and upwards of 100,000 viewers simultaneously watching what is essentially a crowd-sourced play of the popular GameBoy game.

Watching the stream, named “Twitch Plays Pokémon,” is at the same time hilarious, frustrating, grating, boring and rewarding. Thousands of users provide input together at a dizzying pace, navigating about 30 seconds lag time from the chat to stream, forcing the game into somewhat of barely controlled chaos. The game’s coder implemented a system balancing “Democracy’ and “Anarchy,” weighing users’ input concurrently on separate and vote-based trials.

There have been heroics, heartbreaks and everything in between — including numerous in-jokes generated by the outlandish and unfortunate gameplay resulting from controlling the stream in this manner. The party’s Pidgeot became a legend after single-handedly powering through many battles with under 10 percent health and while paralyzed.  Conversely, players accidentally missed teaching then Pidgeotto the useful Wing Attack move by button-mashing past it and immediately mourned the mishap. Another moment of despair occurred when players agreed to riskily go to their PC, which resulted in releasing their starter Pokémon, an unfortunate mistake.

The mechanics of the stream made it so that the users must anticipate about 30 seconds into the future when giving their input. This caused the play to get stuck at various points, including when they could not get past a route for approximately 12 hours, due to the precision needed to navigate the unforgiving, narrow path. The game, therefore, can tend to wane in interest.

Until, however, players overcome the current obstacle. Then the intensity ramps back up by way of the progress and next decision needed to be made. Sure, it might be trite or trivial to cheer for a tiny character walking the correct direction just to make it through a doorway, but there is something grander at play in this experiment.

Seeing Red, the little sprite being controlled in the game, struggle to walk around, cut a tree or buy the right item from a mart is like seeing a visual representation of the inherent struggle of man in a society at odds with itself. At one point, when trying to cut a tree that would allow for access to the fourth gym, two different potential strategies developed in real time. The House Strat butted heads with Zonal Predicting; the former was more shortsighted and not as scientific while the latter was broader and more overarching.

Often in the rapidly scrolling feed accompanying the stream, you see flashes of people exclaiming how they now know what being in Congress must feel like, or how this is a representation of United States politics (which both adds to the comedy of the whole charade, but equally to the reality of it). Similarly, there has been a consistent debate between acquiring either Eevee or Lapras for the team’s future Surf needs. Divides like this can potentially halt progress indefinitely — all the same as a tricky bit of terrain — like an evenly strengthened game of tug of war with the indicator stuck directly in the middle.

It’s laughable to see it become so difficult for seemingly simple, menial tasks to be accomplished when so many people are contributing and forcing the same actions. On a deeper level though, it’s a real, notable social experiment. Of course there are unsolvable hiccups as a result of the inconsistencies between chat and stream, but conflict also arises when everyone involved cannot agree to work toward a single goal. It makes watching or participating that much more frustrating, feeling like each individual user’s efforts are for naught. Still, when everything does come together and that little sprite defeats a gym leader or travels down the right path without falling down a ledge, the results are that much more earned — and that much sweeter.

Many people have come to compare the play through to the old theorem that postulates if you give a million monkeys a million typewriters to hit random keys for an infinite amount of time, almost surely one will eventually type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. Whether this experiment is directly relatable or not, at times it certainly does feel as wild, unpredictable and coherent as a monkey slapping a keyboard. Yet, if this many people can work together to even eventually beat the game, I would consider it a sign of hope for society and the greater good of the world.