Twitch Plays Pokemon: Chaos Religion and the Human Psyche

Pokemon Technology
It is said that if you take an infinite amount of monkeys and give them all typewriters, they will eventually recreate the works of Shakespeare. But how many humans does it take to complete one game of Pokemon? Twitch Plays Pokemon is attempting to answer that question, and in the process, show that order can come from chaos The game is giving an interesting look into the human psyche and possibly creating a religion in the process.

Twitch allows its users to stream themselves playing video games, reaching audiences across the world. There are numerous reasons to watch, ranging from simple entertainment to seeking advice on beating certain games to “speed runs”, attempts made to complete games in the shortest time possible. One particular game on the site has caught the attention of the vast masses of Internet communities, that of the emulated Pokemon Red Version.

By setting up a chat command system, the streamer has given control over the game to whoever signs up for the site. By entering “up” in the chat box, it commands the game to move the character “up.” Same with “down”, “b”, “a”, “start”, etc. Sounds simple enough and would likely not cause an issue if the number of users entering a command was low. But when the numbers reach over 100,000, as they have in Twitch Plays Pokemon, chaos ensues. The real beauty of the system, and the reason it has reached the kind of fame it has in the past week, are the unintended consequences.

When you have a multitude of users entering all different directions, intent goes out the window. A user may enter “a” with the intent of having the character read a nearby sign or obtaining an item found on the ground. But if that user enters the command as thousands of others are entering different ones, that “a” button command may use an item that should not be used or open up a menu command that should not be opened. Adding to the unpredictability is the random Pokemon battles that occur throughout the game, where the wrong move at the wrong time could lead to defeat and a big step backwards.

PokemonTwitch Plays Pokemon also gives an in-depth look into the human psyche. There are many, many users who are entering commands with the express purpose of attempting to complete the game. There are also those who are entering commands with the purpose of screwing the game up. The users were given an in-game task, where they needed to climb a multi-storied building, defeat a boss in a battle, and obtain an item in order to progress in the game. After hours of commands, multiple wrong directions and more than one mistake, the users were able to overcome the chaos and defeat the boss. All that remained was to move to the next room and acquire the item needed for progression.

Before they are given the opportunity to do so, however, a user opened up the Pokemon menu and selected one with the ability to “Dig.” Digging causes the player-controlled character to teleport out of any dungeon or building to the nearest healing center, a useful ability for a quick escape. But when it has taken the 100,000 users hours to reach the item, the last thing anyone wanted was a quick escape away from it. In an instant, one command from one user wasted the hours of work from the others.

Seeing the flaw in that design, the creator provided the opportunity for users to vote for “anarchy”, which would keep the system as it was, inputting and using every command issued in the chat box, or “democracy”, which would only input and use the most-selected command after a certain amount of time. Despite the easier option available, anarchy reigns supreme. Twitch Plays Pokemon users are reveling in the attempt to get order from chaos rather than taking the easy route of democratic voting, a brief glimpse into the human psyche.

Most interestingly is the cult-like religion that the users of the game have created. Through the week-long chaos, one Pokemon has become vastly overpowered relative to the player-controlled character’s location in the game. Thus, any battles are usually won by the efforts of that Pokemon. This has caused the users of the game to deem the Pokemon a “bird god”, creating memes and message boards threads worshipping its power. In a similar fashion, a “false prophet” Pokemon emerged. In an attempt to put the Pokemon in storage, the users accidentally released two others, losing them forever. Rather than blame the other hundreds of thousands of anonymous users out there, the blame was laid on the Pokemon that was to be stored. After all, if they never needed to put that creature into storage, the other two would not have been lost.

Just one of the many memes about the religion

Similarly, an in-game choice between two Pokemon fossils has split the user fan base. The Helix fossil was the choice eventually decided upon by the masses, leaving the Dome fossil to the side. The Helix fossil does nothing but sit in the character’s inventory, but due to the numerous commands being entered, often makes an appearance when the users erroneously attempt to use the fossil in situations that do not call for it. It has made so many appearances, it too is being treated as a god-like entity, that must be watching over the gamers as they attempt to play. The Helix fossil, the bird god, and anarchy are the trinity of good for this odd religion, while the Dome fossil, the false prophet, and democracy are the evil forces that must be defeated.

The game has just passed the 12 day mark, and the users have made it surprisingly far. There have been incidents where democracy was needed, often times to solve puzzles where a wrong move would cause a day’s work to be undone, but for the most part, anarchy has been the guiding force behind their success. Twitch Plays Pokemon is great entertainment to watch, even if you know nothing about the game, simply to follow the reactions of those who are invested in it. Because from the chaos of 100,000 users, there has come order, a religion and an interesting look into the human psyche.

By Jonathan Gardner

The Washington Post