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Twitch Plays Pokemon: Creating an oral history in real-time

Mike Suszek
Mike Suszek|@mikesuszek|February 26, 2014 9:00 AM
When I began my phone call Sunday evening with T.L. Taylor, an associate professor of comparative media studies at MIT, I opted to check her loyalty to the one, true Helix god. "All sensible people are," she joked.

Even when observing Twitch Plays Pokemon from an academic standpoint, it's easy to get wrapped up in the emerging community-crafted narrative surrounding the live, always-on event. The crowd-created stories in Twitch Plays Pokemon are enough to fill four seasons of serialized TV drama, complete with the surprising death of characters and the rise of clearly-defined heroes, villains and idolized "gods" like the Helix Fossil, all caught in a religious war. Yet it moves at a pace that can make some accounts of the multiplayer game seem outdated within hours. In fact, by the time I came back to this very paragraph, the Helix Fossil was revived and turned into the Pokemon Omanyte (affectionately called "Lord Helix" by the players).

"[The channel] actually takes one of the kernels of what makes Twitch so interesting, which is turning what would otherwise be your private play into public entertainment for others," Taylor said. "What I think is great about this channel and is so fascinating is that the entertainer also becomes the crowd."
The crowd is also what makes Twitch Plays Pokemon so special as an ongoing piece of cross-media entertainment. The images and lore created outside of the Twitch channel by the community on places like the section of Reddit devoted to the event, such as the homage to the crowd's favorite creatures from Reddit user Larunex seen above, are what keep viewers interested in seeing what comes next in the evolving story.

What will come of Bird Jesus? Who did the players use the Master Ball on? Is Flareon truly a "false prophet?" Those elements of crowd-play are ultimately nothing new in game and Internet culture. Rather, "it's just that perfect collision of all of them are really making quite a phenomenon," as Taylor put it.

One such "perfect collision" is the dualistic appearance of the anarchy versus democracy schools of thought in Twitch Plays Pokemon, illustrated by Reddit user JohnMarkParker below. The politically-founded terms represent two different game styles for the crowd-playing event, the former being Twitch Plays Pokemon's original, chaotic frame and the latter featuring a timed voting system for each of the character's moves in the game.

"It's this really interesting tension between what makes that channel so engaging to watch, and then the fact that it's a game," Taylor said, referring to the anarchy/democracy dynamic. The democracy system in Twitch Plays Pokemon is often supported by those that, "still understand it in game terms, there's this thing we need to progress through and get towards." Even when the battle between the two opposing systems heated up, Taylor noted the playful tone of the game's participants.

"So the mediation between that chaotic gleefulness and game as progression is a little bit at work in those two things. And of course, it becomes a fun way for people to have some stakes and take some sides in it."

Taylor started doing Internet research in the 1990s, and turned to video games in 1999. Her studies resulted in books such as Play Between Worlds and Raising the Stakes, which explore virtual worlds, MMOs and e-sports. Those examinations bear relevance to Twitch Plays Pokemon, as the same elements of extended narratives and player curation could be found in the earlier days of EverQuest.

"It's crowd-play, but people are also creating artifacts to remember it, celebrate it, mourn it ... to me in some ways, Twitch Plays Pokemon is bringing together threads that we've had there for a long time, that's just crystallizing them really quickly in one space," she said.

"Really quickly" is putting it lightly. The channel racked up 30 million views in over 13 days of continuous action, with the associated subreddit sitting at over 85,000 subscribers, many of which keep the channel's fiction alive with memes and original content associated with the game's sub-plots. The behavior of the game's storytellers is marked with similarities to the hardcore, devoted communities for other media.

"And of course, one [thread] that we've always had in pop culture and game culture are things like fan-fiction and people taking media experiences and extending them well beyond the confines of their original kind of experience moments," Taylor said.

It's clear that Nintendo and Game Freak never intended for Pidgey, one of the first Pokemon captured in the game, to be deemed a savior and righteous leader by viewers, let alone that the simple choice between two fossilized creatures would come to represent spiritual guidance in a chaotic world. Not only are these stories delivered by Twitch Plays Pokemon's massive number of players, but they're eagerly supported and retold in countless forms by the crowd as well.

Another important facet of Twitch Plays Pokemon's excitement is its "liveness," similar to the genuine unpredictability found in a live sporting event. Liveness isn't stuck to the singular livestream though, as "Reddit, the narrative, all those things also become ways of facilitating, supporting all of that liveness," Taylor said. "You go to sleep, you wake up to new memes, new threads, new feedback, new stuff to keep us moving."

While the product of the live media event has a shelf life, the social experience stretches the life of Twitch Plays Pokemon beyond Pokemon Red's initial scope. Its liveness taps into "the people that like to catalog ... that like to make memes, it's tapping into the folks who produce those video clips," Taylor said.

"Again, I don't think it's anything entirely new, it's just we've hit some kind of crazy critical mass with it where almost to not know what Twitch Plays Pokemon is is it be a little bit outside network culture at this exact moment."

Still, just by observing the crowd-play event and the images that result from it is enough to participate in what Taylor referred to as "a broader cultural experience." Twitch Plays Pokemon won't get its own chapter in her upcoming book about livestreaming, which began as a paper on the topic before it turned out to be such a transformative platform. Every bit of fascination with this crowd-play event, which is ever creeping toward the final battles of Pokemon Red's primary campaign, is entirely warranted.

Whether crowd-play games in the same style as Twitch Plays Pokemon will remain relevant and exciting is unknown, though the game's creator told Joystiq his interest in continuing the event through "each generation of Pokemon." Other streamers have adopted the event's formula to create livestreams such as Twitch Plays Pokemon Gold and Twitch Plays Pokemon Plays Tetris.

"It's tapping into something I think is very compelling. So I don't think we're going to see [crowd-play] go away as a genre," Taylor added.
[Images: The Pokemon Company, Imgur via Reddit]
Twitch Plays Pokemon: Creating an oral history in real-time