February 20, 2014

Twitch Plays Pokémon has spawned an epic contemporary mythology in six days


What happens when you take a rather primitive single-player adventure game and open it up to an unlimited number of players, all competing to control the same character? That’s the question asked by an anonymous Australian programmer, who set up an MMORPG version of Nintendo’s Gameboy classic Pokémon Red on February 12th.

And the answer, as it turns out, is that you beget a complex mythology that not only mimics the mechanisms of classical mythologies, but evolves in real-time, giving each small in-game event tectonic significance in an ongoing, immersive story.

The stream has already made it to Wikipedia, which explains the mechanics and background in detail. In short though, there’s a kid called Red who trains captured monsters—Pokémon—to battle other trainers’ Pokémon. He needs to travel to different towns and win 8 badges from highly-skilled trainers called gym leaders in order to face an ultimate team of trainers called the Elite Four. It’s a relatively simple game, but not when the controls are handed over to a team of a hundred thousand people.

A vibrant community has formed around the challenge, whose usership has boomed from a modest 8,000 in its opening day to over 100,000 players by the end of day six. (By the time of writing the stream has amassed over twelve million pageviews).

The community’s progress and commandments lie in this Google Doc, though coordinating strategies are also managed through its subreddit and IRC. Even with such a massive feat of coordination however, the influx of thousands of unique commands has led to an almost-random pattern of character movement, and to idiosyncratic behaviors that make little sense to the casual observer.

Fan art by Yellowfur.

Users have responded by attaching huge significance to these events. The lore of Twitch Plays Pokémon has been explored in countless images, videos, and text-posts, often by repurposing characters and events from classical literature and theology. For example:

“And on the fourth day they were abandoned by the Helix Fossil and were cast out into the wild.” Source: user Foxblade on Reddit.

There are dozens more instances of these stylizations. But what’s interesting is how users are basically creating a modern mythology. Just as the Romans remixed the Greek myths, and Christianity remixes elements of Judaism and Paganism, the TPP mythology draws on all of these, plus literature and popular culture, and spreads its ideology via the preeminent modern communication device: the image macro.

What’s even more interesting is how the players respond to change. In the middle of day six—with almost 22 hours being spent unsuccessfully on the same maze—the stream’s creator introduced a new input system. Now, in addition to typing the game’s controls, users can vote on how the controls are processed by the system: either with “anarchy” or “democracy.” (A good explanation can be found here).

The stream reached near-immediate political deadlock, and, though the democratic system of tallying the inputs and then carrying out the most popular did allow players to successfully defeat the maze, for the first time there was a sense of divide and disillusionment within the community. Some are even arguing that, with the new system in place, there is no point in continuing the game.

I disagree. Just as the earlier theocratic stories have given way to political simulation, something else will come up tomorrow and inspire a completely new  take on things. The best part of the stream isn’t watching a character spin around aimlessly for twelve hours. It’s seeing how each tiny progression ramifies with the game’s historians, and having the opportunity to experience mythology unfolding in real-time.


Amy Conchie was formerly assistant to the publisher at Melville House.