After more than 16 days and 7 hours of continuous play, the collaborative gaming experiment known as TwitchPlaysPokemon came to an end early on the morning of March 1st, when an upstart Pokémon master defeated the Elite Four and his rival to become Kanto’s newest champion.
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By the time the game was completed, more than 35 million people had viewed the game in progress, and around 650,000 users had contributed to its triumph.
The online phenomenon began on February 12 when an anonymous Australian programmer posted a live video stream of the 1996 Nintendo Gameboy title Pokémon Red to the gaming-centric video web site Twitch. “It was created as an experiment to test the viability of this format, the way people interact with the input system and the way they interact socially with each other,” the programmer noted.
Twitch has become hugely successful by broadcasting video streams of people playing games at home and at tournaments, but TwitchPlaysPokemon offered viewers a new and exciting twist: Instead of watching some far-away person play the game, Twitch’s viewers could control the game themselves, using commands typed into the site’s chat interface. A program would then read those command (“up,” “down,” “B”, and so on) and issue them to the Gameboy emulator powering the stream.
The resulting game play was wildly chaotic, endlessly frustrating, and weirdly compelling. Mob rule meant the game’s protagonist would stumble wildly through his world, walking one way then the other, entering buildings and then leaving them, and generally acting like he was blind drunk or having a seizure. But order eventually managed to emerge from the chaos, and the character would slowly but surely find his way to each goal, defeat his enemies, and go on to win the game.
It was a difficult task, though, and that’s what made it so much fun to watch. Simply managing to travel from one city to another in the game required so much repeated effort that the otherwise ordinary task became a triumphant achievement. Online discussion groups across the web including the Reddit forum /r/twitchplayspokemon watched every minute of the game carefully, creating image memes to laugh at and celebrate great moments, and endlessly debate strategy.
Members of the audience developed strong attachments to player’s Pokémon companions, since they were so hard to capture, train, and keep, and lived vicariously through their triumphs and failures –like when two early favorites, the Charmeleon “ABBBBBBK” and Rattata “JLVWNNOOOO” (named via mob rule, of course, but nicknamed “Abby” and “Jay Leno” for out-of-game discussion purposes) were accidentally released and never seen again.
The fun is over now, but not for long. Shortly after Pokémon Red was conquered, the video stream of the game was replaced with a 24-hour countdown clock under the promise “A new adventure will begin.” When it reaches zero, players expect TwitchPlaysPokemon’s creator to launch them into the next game in the series.
Learn about the most influential game of our time in my new book, Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Google +.