How Twitch Plays Pokemon has become the Internet’s Newest Artistic Masterpiece.
For me, the story of Twitch Plays Pokemon, a self proclaimed social experiment that allows thousands of people to play Pokemon Red Version simultaneously, starts in the shower.
A few friends had posted about this little chapter in internet history on facebook, but I had paid it little attention. Finally, someone posted a link to the feed. That is, finally, I could watch 50,000 people try to play the game at the same time.
In my room, I clicked the link and waited for my computer to get it going. As it often does, my computer took some time to load, so I decided to leave it and take a shower. For a moment, the only sound was running water, but a familiar tune crept its way in from the other room. I found myself whistling along with the background music of my childhood; a brisk little ditty that framed hours of gameplay trying to train my team of Pokemon to be the very best. The best that ever was. To catch them wasn’t really my real test, to train them to like, level 88 was my cause.
The feed had come on just in time for me to miss it. I swore under my breath and rolled my eyes. Typical computer! Oh well, I said to myself, I catch it when I get out and then I’ll see what it’s all about. Ten minutes later, I was still humming the same song and didn’t even realize. That seemed strange to me, as getting places in Pokemon never really took that long, and each time a new area is reached, the music changes. What the hell are they doing, I said aloud. No one takes ten minutes to go down that bike hill.
Oh how little I knew.
Go ahead and tune in to Twitch Plays Pokemon for a few minutes. If you do, you’ll notice something: watching 50,000 people try to play the game is like giving a Gameboy to a dog. The character walks in circles, opens the start button every few seconds, saves the game for no reason, talks to the same person three or four times, and generally fails to execute even the simplest of tasks. So when I wondered aloud why it was taking so long to essentially just push the down button and bike down a hill, I was unaware of exactly how this all works.
In simple terms, using a chat window, anyone can give the character of the game, Red, a command. Instead of holding a gameboy and pushing the control pad in the up direction, people type ‘up’ in the chat window and the character moves in that direction. Where it gets complicated is that while one person types ‘up’ another can type ‘left’ and another ‘down’ and another ‘b’ and well, here we go. Chaos. It accepts these commands in the order they come and with everyone typing them in at the same time, they come in and are processed in a random order. Now, the creator of the stream has introduced two ways in which the emulator responds to commands; anarchy and democracy. Anarchy attempts to process all commands and offers a more random experience. Democracy processes the most frequently requested command within a 20 second period and instructs Red in this method. People can also vote on anarchy or democracy. A bar on the top of the stream informs the viewer/player as to what mode the feed is currently using.
Still confused? Imagine you are tasked with walking from your living room to your kitchen. The catch is, your movements are determined by a group of people giving you commands. You take these commands from a stack of paper. The first piece of paper tells you to walk forward one step, the next left one step, the next to examine the dog, the next to take a step forward, and after thirty sheets of paper you’re in the bathroom examining the toilet. So something easy, like taking four steps and taking a right, becomes difficult. Person # 10 anticipated you needing to take a left through the doorway but didn’t anticipate #8 and #7 telling you to go backwards. Now that left took you into a wall.
So there it is, an interesting social experiment, right? Right. But wrong. It is oh so much more now. Anyone from anywhere can play. Americans, Europeans and Australians make up the most. South Americans are coming up fast. Now, Twitch Plays Pokemon has become the greatest example of current internet culture the same way art of any kind in the real world captures culture. TPP is like the art of Andy Warhol, the music of Bob Dylan, political cartoons of the early twentieth century, even the pamphlets that circulated before the Revolutionary War. It is not the only voice of a generation, but has become a strong voice. In fact, I argue that it has become art.
What determines if something is art or not is a blurry, subjective line, but I feel that the rule goes like this: Art imitates life. Twitch plays Pokemon is certainly imitating life. Things have gone far beyond just a group of people playing a game. The game itself has become a brilliant and creative chatroom and reddit fueled narrative. Take a look at this link- http://www.reddit.com/r/twitchplayspokemon/wiki/historyoftpp. That is the full story of Twitch Plays Pokemon. Characters have been created based on the often silly and random names given to Red’s Pokemon. It has spawned a faux religion, adding to the story. In a basic sense, when you get 100,000 people together to play a game, they give it stakes. They’ve given characters to sprites and they’ve not only given themselves something to lose, but these characters something to lose as well.
Along with that, a great debate has sparked over what mode is best, democracy or anarchy? People often post their philosophy regarding how to play the game. All of a sudden, TPP has made us all into Socrates. People share plans for making things better, they argue for the merits of democracy or the woes of anarchy. They call for their peers to band together for the greater good all while praising their prophets and their god. Yes, it is all tongue-in-cheek and most of it is in good fun, but it certainly imitates life. The parody of it all doesn’t take away from it being art; in fact, it strengthens it. Some of the best art is parody; Saturday Night Live, Weird Al Yankovic, Space Balls!
And while a group of people playing a video game may seem like trite subject matter for art, all I have to say is this: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/95/Warhol-Campbell_Soup-1-screenprint-1968.jpg.
So now that Twitch Plays Pokemon has evolved into art, we can take it as something that speaks for our generation. Much the way The Great Gatsby was indicative of the way people were in the nineteen-twenties, TPP has become something that years from now, people can look back on and understand how our generation looked at art, how we spent our time. I’m not saying they’ll look back and say ‘oh, they all played one video game at the same time’ but rather that we took control of our own entertainment and used the tools at our disposal to create. The narrative that has spawned, the amount of people playing, the worldwide connection and dialogue, the artwork and memes that have sprouted up overnight are all ways in which the internet age, the age of this generation has shaped the world.
Let’s start with something very telling. On February 21, about a week after this all began, Reddit user Matoking used Google Forms to survey TPP users. And while he received a very small sample size, only over one thousand responses, the survey is still very interesting and very informative. The most important graph is the first, which shows that most people participating were born between the years 1988 and 1996, the most being born in 1993. A large part of TPP and internet culture as exemplified by social media in various forms is nostalgia. Pokemon Red Version was released in America in 1998, making the majority of Americans who play TPP between the ages of 10 and 2 when it came out and, according to the survey, the majority of people playing were only 5 when it was released. That seems like a large gap to reminisce fondly of this particular game, but Pokemon was wildly popular and has been for a long time. Pokemon Gold, Silver and Crystal were released in 2000, and if we factor in time it takes for things to really catch on plus the popularity of the television show and movies, it is safe to assume that a large group of kids, myself included, played Pokemon Red version at some point in time during their childhood. TPP is proof that they remember it fondly.
To add to this nostalgia factor, and updated version of Pokemon Red, complete with new graphics, was released as Pokemon FireRed in 2004 for the Gameboy Advance. I was 15 when that came out and old enough to remember the fun I had only six years prior to that. The same story, the same gameplay, it all was still fresh in our memories six years later.
A quick hop on facebook will give you all you need in the way of Nostalgia. I see people ‘liking’ groups on the site with names like ‘90’s or 80’s babies only’ or ‘Rugrats, Rocko’s Modern Life, Ren & Stimpy Were The Best’ or ‘Like Our Page if You Watched Captain Planet’. George Takei posts various memes or visual jokes that are invested in Nostalgia that are shared frequently and seen by a large percent of Facebook. Pokemon Red was picked for this experiment specifically to drawn this generation; a generation that represents and controls internet culture more than any other.
But how does this become our Renaissance movement? How is has this become a shining example of current culture?
TPP has given us the best of internet culture at the moment. Using the ‘front page of the internet’, Reddit, a group of dedicated followers have enhanced and added to the growing narrative. The fact that a narrative exists is part of TPP’s cultural significance; it shows how creative and willing to have fun with something our generation is, as well as how quickly things move. We took a social experiment and ran with it. We ran far. The narrative is still growing on reddit and other social media sites. Twitch Plays Pokemon has grown into a fascinating and wonderful story that has spawned a faux religion, all created by those viewing, playing, and keeping up when they can.
Within this complicated story, TPP users have found a ‘god’ in the Helix Fossil, an in game item, a fossil that can produce the Pokemon Omanyte. After Red obtained the item in the game, he frequently opened the command menu and attempted to use the Fossil. This was, as all things are, fueled by so many people imputing various commands and it is amazing and creative that something as random as that was given a back story. The idea is that Red is consulting the fossil for guidance in his darkest times and this idea has made the Helix Fossil not only Red’s god but everyone’s god. From there, people ran with the story. One Pokemon is referred to as ‘Bird Jesus’ due to its penchant for winning battles and saving the team’s ass. There is also ‘The Keeper’ and ‘The Seed of Hope.’ A Pokemon named AAAAAAAAA has been nicknamed ‘The Fonz’ and now that he is the Pokemon Nidoking, ‘King Fonz’. A villain was even introduced, the Dome Fossil, the opposite choice of the Helix Fossil in the game that produces the Pokemon Kabuto. Religious factions were created and it is not uncommon to browse comments on the dedicated Reddit and the chat of the stream and find people proclaiming ‘Praise Lord Helix!’
This is not uncommon for our generation. This narrative, complete with wild back stories, fanciful nicknames and plenty of parody, is representative of a culture that not only uses the internet for entertainment, but controls entertainment. This is a generation that uses our collective creativity to entertain ourselves and others. The internet offers the opportunity for creative outlet previously unheard of. Anyone can put anything they’ve created, whether it be music, written work, graphic design, photographs, drawings, really anything can be put on the internet for all to see. Seeing the popularity of their music skyrocket on the internet, bands have been signed to record labels never having played a show. Using the internet to be creative is what we do. So it is no wonder that something like a game played by 50,000 people that produces such random gameplay has been transformed into a creative plaything for our generation. We are proactive about making our own entertainment and creating and sharing in various forms, all of which TPP has taken hold of.
Along with the amazing story that has been created using chat and reddit (staples of the internet in and of themselves, mind you), Twitch Plays Pokemon has spawned a plethora of one of the most popular parts of the internet: the meme. Nothing is safe with these parcels of parody, and TPP is no exception. A quick browse of the Reddit Site offers TPP themed memes based on Fairly Oddparents, Futurama, Spongebob Squarepants, Star Wars ,The Dark Night South Park, Lord of the Rings, The Simpsons and a plethora of reaction gifs, my favorite being this great Community gif. While these nuggets of pop culture aren’t created by those who use them, the manipulation of gifs and images to fit the Narrative is parody and nostalgia at its finest.
It has even popped up in real life. This popped up on a college campus. This person printed a Helix fossil with a 3D printer. It’s at Basketball games. This thing has gotten big, fast. And while a staple of the internet age is the passing of fads faster than they used to, Twitch Plays Pokemon has become a rare and beautiful piece of art. Even if it does pass and the memes stop and the basketball games are once again Helix free, we can still look back on this as a piece of art that evolved beyond a fad.
What started off as a social experiment has, true to internet form, turned into something much bigger. What’s amazing about Twitch Plays Pokemon is just how well it exemplifies the internet age. People from all over the world have united in an attempt to be part of something fun and exciting. TPP has illuminated the way this generation takes charge of our entertainment and subsequent art. Things move quickly in this age, and the sheer amount of people participating in various ways speaks to this illumination. Not only do things move more quickly now, they connect people from around the world. This project has evolved not because of one person in one country, because of many people in many countries. It’s all over reddit, twitter, facebook, hell, after this is complete and posted, WordPress. And the beautiful thing about this, like any piece of art, is that you don’t have to be involved in any way for it to speak for your generation. Twitch Plays Pokemon has offered hours of bingeable entertainment, a cult following, thousands of memes, people sharing music and stories they’ve written; all things that most people of our generation do on a day to day basis. TPP has simply assembled them into one strange, beautiful piece of art; a piece of art that represents the best of our generation taking the internet and using it at the fullest. The uniting of people from all over the world essentially creating something together is just what the internet should be for.
As Twitch Plays Pokemon nears the end of the game, the stream’s creator has given confirmation to the now millions of viewers that there will be a sequel, if you will, featuring Pokemon Gold/Silver. The uniting of thousands to play one game is going to be something that continues in the future until one day, I’m sure, thousands of people will band together to try beat Call of Duty or something much more complicated than Pokemon Red Version. But as more versions of the same project appear, each one loses a bit of its value as a piece of art. The first incarnation of Twitch Plays Pokemon, this one, has become a hilarious and quirky piece of art for many reasons, one being the value of its originality. The art has been established. The value of it as an illuminator for our generation is done. Now all that remains is to bask in the Nostalgic yet brand new glow of thousands of people trying to fight using 8bit sprites. Watch the struggle sometime, it is great fun. It’ll bring you back to the good old days when things were a bit easier in the world. The whole thing is a struggle for the viewer’s childhood- even the game modes. Do we play in the childlike wonder and randomness that is anarchy? Or do we take responsibility like adults and use democracy to set our goals and reach them together? All I know is this: The internet and its power to bring people together to create art from something so unexpected continues to amaze me every day.