[This article was originally published on March 25, 2014 at Hidden Baltimore. It is co-written by Mary Metelski.]
Chris Betts, 21, and his roommates walked around Towson’s CVS Pharmacy late on a Sunday night, not seeking out a pack of cigarettes, but a pack of children’s sidewalk chalk.
They headed to Towson University’s Freedom Square, hoping to create a work of art capable of viral Internet distribution.
After hearing about “Twitch Plays Pokemon Red,” an Internet-based live stream that allowed a massive number of players to simultaneously control one character, Betts was enthralled by the potential inherent in the platform.
“It was more than just this novelty of a bunch of people fervently mashing commands into a game from my childhood,” Betts said. “There was this whole culture behind it. It was exciting, hilarious and altogether just this fascinating thing to me from that point onward.”
Fan art dedicated to the game was blowing up their Tumblr feeds, so the roommates decided to try and turn their inspiration into a mural.
The three friends erased a discussion on Stand Your Ground laws and drew the chalk mural in it place (seen above). Betts determined the overall layout, while roommates Dominic Geppi and Alister Miller drew the actual game characters.
By the next evening, their mural had made an appearance on both Tumblr and Reddit, the number of “reshares” and “upvotes” slowly mounting into the thousands. The roommates took their ownership in the buried comments of Tumblr notes.
“We wanted to be part of the Twitch Plays Pokemon community, to be one of the creators in the community,” Geppi said. “We may not have created a masterpiece, but it was still great to contribute to the community and to the social experiment, even without directly playing it.”
“Twitch Plays Pokemon,” or TPP, is a channel intended as a social experiment on the live video game streaming website Twitch.tv. By enabling any viewer to have full access to the control of the main character, what was once a single player game effectively became playable by upwards of thousands of players at once.
“The experience of watching ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ is amazing because it’s so fast that you can’t comprehend what’s happening and yet it’s so slow because of that problematic input,” said Ryan Murray, a professor of digital culture studies at Towson University.
“The most amazing thing about it is that it doesn’t work. This platform works because it doesn’t work and that is the joy that people have found in it,” Murray said.
TPP was officially launched in February 2014 and consists of two windows: a chat box and a live display of the action. When a viewer types a command into the chat box, such as “up,” “start” or “a,” the in-game character shown in the live feed will do that action after a certain lag period.
With so many players typing different commands simultaneously, the game is harder to play and takes a longer time to complete. The character is often stuck performing erratic movements, such as walking in circles and repeatedly bumping into walls.
This crowdsourcing proves even more daunting when tasked with completing tedious mazes or navigating cliffs. One instance in which the in-game character had to take 12 steps to the right, past a precarious ledge, took users hours to complete.
One of the game’s mazes in the Team Rocket Headquarters had players stuck for two days. As a result, the designer of the platform introduced two different modes in determining the directional input of the game, which users came to describe as “anarchy” and “democracy” modes.
Anarchy mode is the original inputting mode that allows all players to type a command, have it queued into a list and then applied in-sequence after a 30-second lag period. Democracy mode opens up a 30-second voting period in which the most popular input is selected and applied.
The game was designed and continues to be refined by an Australian-based programmer who asked to remain anonymous in a Skype interview. Although he wouldn’t give an age, he said that he was male and that he is old enough to remember having played “Pokemon Red” as a child.
“With the vast majority of streams on Twitch the focus is on someone playing a game. I thought it would be better if this stream didn’t have a ‘someone,’ ” the programmer said.
Murray said that the Internet began with an “ethos of anonymity” that still exists today, combating the larger trend of social media networks such as Facebook. By having the creator align an identity with the project, it could lose a sense of “purity or community,” and result in a chilling effect on the participation of its audience.
“It was only a simple test to see if the concept and implementation had any appeal at all,” the programmer said. “When starting the stream I assumed I would have shut it down within a couple of weeks due to disinterest.”
The programmer said that Twitch.tv’s intended purpose is for streamers to play a live game for their viewers. For TPP, he wanted the focus to be on the game, its contents and the community.
“Pokemon Red” and “Pokemon Blue” were introduced in America in 1996 by the Japanese-based video game company Nintendo. The turn-based role playing game focuses on capturing, battling and trading Pokemon, various “pocket monsters” that roam the environment of the game.
Players win the game after facing a series of consecutively more difficult Gym Leaders, culminating in a battle against the Elite Four to become the Pokemon Champion.
Pokemon continues to be a hit among children and the original fans that have grown up with the series. Books, playing cards and an animated TV show are only a few of the media involved in making the Pokemon video games the second most popular video game franchises ever, behind Nintendo’s Mario series.
Twitch launched in June 2011, hosting a variety of games, tournaments and game-related shows. With more than 45 million unique visitors per month, Twitch was recently named by the Wall Street Journal as being the fourth largest source of streaming traffic in the U.S., ahead of both Hulu and Facebook.
During the first run through of TPP, the channel saw over 120,000 active, simultaneous users and 36 million unique views. The channel itself now currently has over 61 million views.
With so many active users, the chaotic nature of the system and the inability to effectively strategize in the chat box demanded change, Murray said. Users truly dedicated to finishing the game found incentive to talk elsewhere, pushing strategy discussions to Reddit and other websites.
It was on these websites that the collective conscious of TPP began to craft the “narrative” of the game.
Mark Roebbelen, 24, captured the TPP community’s attention after releasing “Praise the Helix,” a song dedicated to the user created mythology.
Roebbelen began watching TPP in mid-February, when the chaos was restrained to around 7,000 people. He found himself glued to the Reddit and Tumblr coverage every time he sat to eat a meal in his Toronto home.
At one point in the game, the player has to choose between a Dome or a Helix Fossil that blocks his path. One of these items can later be used to revive an “ancient” Pokemon, but until then, it simply remains in the player’s inventory as a selectable item.
“By complete random and chaotic chance” users grabbed the Helix Fossil, Roebbelen said. Throughout the play through, users constantly selected the Helix Fossil in their inventory and were told “It’s not the time to use that,” by the in-game menu screen.
“It happened so often and I think people were just getting frustrated by all the chaos and slow progress that it kept things more exciting to make light of the situation,” Roebbelen said.
Users quickly took this arbitrary selection as a “consultation” of a holy relic. Other characters had already been put on a religious pedestal, such as “Bird Jesus,” a nickname for the community’s main bird Pokemon.
“I was about three or four days into watching the stream and the “Praise the Helix!” phrases and memes were starting to get thrown around,” Roebbelen said.
“I was just singing some lines aloud about the Helix Fossil and ‘Bird Jesus’ in this epic choral style to entertain my girlfriend. I jokingly said, ‘What if I were to actually put a song out there?’ My girlfriend encouraged me to do it, saying I had nothing to lose,” Roebbelen said.
Roebbelen saw that all of the memes focused on “glorifying and mythologizing” the arbitrary decisions the “hive mind” would make.
“I thought to myself, why not take that concept, and put it to music that really takes itself seriously?” he said. Roebbelen commits anywhere between 60 to 100 hours a week writing and performing music.
While his original intent was in parody, he said working on the choir arrangement of “Praise the Helix” began to “tug at my heartstrings.”
One particular moment in which a series of horn blasts ring out in memoriam of fallen Pokemon was intended to evoke a “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”-esque vibe, Roebbelen said.
“I think at this ‘epic’ moment, the listener actually feels something beyond parody, and the song takes itself pretty seriously,” he said. “That’s the moment where people either go ‘I shed a tear’ or they’re confused and go ‘This is where fandom crosses the line for me.’ ”
Roebbelen released “Praise the Helix” under the name The Church of the Helix Choir on February 26, 2014, where it reached 160,000 views in 12 hours. The song not only popped up on the usual slew of TPP community-driven pages, but also saw some attention from The Guardian.
“The song was a word of mouth success and I credit it to the creative and enthusiastic fans of ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ on Reddit, Facebook and Tumblr,” Roebbelen said. “The people in these communities just celebrate and lift up creativity of the fans and it’s absolutely wonderful.”
“This is being in the midst of watching the Internet build culture.” – Ryan Murray, Professor of Digital Culture Studies at Towson University
It came as a surprise to Murray that “Twitch Plays Pokemon” developed its own religious mythos.
Internet communities, such as those found on Reddit and other image board websites, such as 4chan, are quick to make memes, icons and mascots out of any process.
But between the Church of the Helix Choir and the emergence of a mock-Bible detailing the events of the story, TPP heavy religious overtones have sparked discussion among its observers.
“I would be guilty of stereotyping the Internet crowd, but I’m inclined to say that it’s because people love these high fantasy quest stories,” Murray said. “People know what these things really are or what they are for or that they are innocuous, you know? So the idea that they now take on some new meaning gives them extra appeal.”
Roebbelen said that he feels religions can be seen as fandoms and that trying to finding meaning or community in life is “simply human.”
“Like a religion, ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ gave people the room and time to build a community and culture from the ground up that they were a part of,” Roebbelen said.
Murray said that when it comes to producing a collaborative story on the Internet, it’s never enough to talk about the medium itself or to poke fun at it.
Users need to generate a mythology and with the added decision for the programmer to remain anonymous and turn the control over to the viewers, the audience itself becomes the producers.
Murray said that an exciting part of engagement for users who grew up playing these games is the ability, “to have a piece of cultural production that they can participate in, not just be fans of, not just buy the t-shirts for, but actually make happen.”
“That was my childhood and I get to put this weird spin on it,” Murray said. “I think that’s a big part of what makes it work.”
“Know Your Meme,” a user-created database of memetic materials, or materials which have spread virally to other users, has covered TPP extensively. The ever-growing article not only features the memes that have arisen from the live stream, but it also explains the back stories that helped craft those memes.
For example, a subsection on the events of “Blood Sunday” details a moment in which 12 Pokemon were accidentally released into the wild— a moment that many users came to consider equivalent to a mass murder. This in-game event was subsequently covered by the Church of the Helix Choir.
“I’ve gotten so many emails from people telling they were absolutely touched by the Church of the Helix Choir songs and that tells me that the songs have transcended short-term fandom or mere hilarity, but have actually become memoirs,” Roebbelen said. “They mean something. I’m still trying to figure out what that means, but I think it’s beautiful.
Those viewing TPP analytically have begun to describe it as a “microcosm of the Internet.” The platform reveals facets of Internet fan communities such as media creation, debate and collaboration.
Individuals in these communities are typically labeled as anti-social nerds, but although he himself is guilty of this preconceived judgment at times, Murray said that the expanse of the Internet no longer allows for “nerds” to be the only demographic taking part here.
“This idea that Internet is nerd culture is dead in the water as far as I’m concerned. Internet is just culture,” Murray said. “It’s not that we are looking at a picture of the Internet, we are just looking at a process. This is being in the midst of watching the Internet build culture.”
“If that’s who you are, it’s just what you have to do,” Roebbelen said about the community producing original work. TPP finished its second generation with “Twitch Plays Pokemon Crystal,” and Roebbelen wrote pieces to commemorate the ending of both games.
Murray said that from an outsiders perspective, TPP may feel like it’s a “microcosm of the Internet,” but to those who play, it has more to say about the nature of human endeavor in general. With a project “designed to fail” such as this, the absurdities of the system make user’s question their reality.
“That leads to a lot of commentary on politics or democracy or capitalism or anything you want to throw a punch at,” Murray said. “We’re all going to try and yell as loud as possible at the same time and whoever yells the loudest at the exact right moment, their will will be done and that’ll move human history forward.”
Murray said that TPP’s system calls attention to the idea that maybe the absurdity and “existential problem” inherent to life can be conquered when users embrace it.
“You wake up, you go to work, you come home, your family or significant other is sort of like ragging on you or it’s boring and you wished you had a better job,” Murray said. “Everyone has dumb stuff in their lives and sometimes things like ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ are more important than the things that are supposedly important.”
“It might sound depressing, but ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ is probably more fun and interesting, community-driven and offering more fulfillment to a lot of people than their daily lives are,” Murray said.
The mural was erased within a day, but it had accomplished its goal. Betts wanted to see if he could find a picture of it online without having to post it himself.
“We kind of wanted to give something back to the community and hope it would show up for the community to see,” Betts said. “That’s the thing about ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon.’ It doesn’t matter who made it, it’s all about the community and what we have done to expand this for each other.”
Satisfied with his work, Betts pulled out his copy of “Pokemon Y,” the latest game in the series, on a gold Nintendo 3DS XL.
“I have my DS on me pretty much anytime I think I’ll have a chance to sit down and play it – even if I don’t end up doing so,” Betts said.
TPP gave a generation who grew up obsessed with a media franchise a different way to play and think about a beloved game, while also sparking a paradigm shift in Internet cultural discussion.
“If I sat down to play Pokemon Red, it wouldn’t be anything like ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon,’ because it’s just me,” Geppi said. “But when you have thousands, hundreds of thousands of people participating, it creates this kind of unique thing that can’t really be reproduced in any way, at least not by an individual at any rate.”
By forcing players to work in a group to try to accomplish something, Geppi found relief in how TPP had created a community of members that could move beyond name-calling and debate.
“Regardless of what you think or feel, someone on the Internet is willing to debate you within an inch of your life and make crude comments about your mother while he’s at it,” Geppi said.
“It proved to me that my generation has the capacity to actually be constructive and work together. It demonstrates that there might just be hope for the Internet to be the cosmopolitan forum it claims to be.”
[On May 19, 2014, a panel of professional journalists voted this article second place among 58 other Towson University senior entries.]