Crowd-controlled Pokémon game spawns truly fascinating social experiment

“Gotta catch ‘em all?” Maybe not this time.

“Twitch Plays Pokémon,” a social experiment and channel on the video-streaming website Twitch, consisted of thousands of users simultaneously attempting to play one copy of Pokémon Red.

Pokémon Red follows a young boy, often referred to as Red, through a land of creatures called Pokémon. Players can capture, name and train them to fight.

The game has two goals. First, become the champion of the region by defeating eight Gym Leaders, then the Elite Four, the top four Pokémon trainers. Next, complete the Pokédex, an in-game encyclopedia, by obtaining all 152 Pokémon.

“Twitch Plays Pokémon,” however, showed the game in a new light.

Online, each player typed commands through the channel’s chat room.

After 16 days, 7 hours and 45 minutes of continuous play online by an estimated 650,000 Twitch users, Red’s long journey came to a successful end with 30 Pokémon caught and many stories to tell.

The game was an Internet sensation, consisting of fan art, backstories and even a religion and political parties.

With thousands playing all at once, the chat room was crowded with commands of what Red should do. Since no collaboration was involved, Red fumbled through the game, taking from hours to whole days to get from point A to point B. This system of gameplay was pure anarchy.

Soon though, the system added a second way to play, through democracy, in which the game counted the players’ various inputs and had Red perform the most popular command. Players could vote on whether to put the system on democracy or anarchy.

“When things get difficult, like in the Safari Zone, democracy always comes into effect,” said first-year Sam Knecht. “Beyond that, I think people go towards anarchy. It seems a lot more people like anarchy than democracy. They use democracy when they know they can’t get through without it.

“Democracy, while it’s more likely to get things done, is a lot slower. So entertainment-wise, it doesn’t really do it.”

While government came as a part of the game, the religions were created by the fans. One of the religions created was the cult of the Helix Fossil.  In the game, players are given the choice between Helix and Dome Fossils.

The Helix Fossil was chosen, and Red often unintentionally selected the Helix Fossil, as if trying to consult it for advice. Unable to be gotten rid of, the fossil earned an immortal status.

Because of this, the Helix Fossil was turned into a god of sorts by the fans. The fossil was eventually revived into an Omanyte, informally nicknamed Lord Helix. Naturally, with the Dome Fossil the exact opposite of the Helix Fossil, the Dome Fossil was treated as the devil.

Red’s team of Pokémon also consisted of a Pidgeot, nicknamed “Aaaabaaajss” in game and “Bird Jesus” out of game. The Pidgeot was considered a savior due to being one of the few Pokémon the players managed to keep from the beginning and was exceptionally strong in battle.

Fans even managed to capture the legendary Pokémon Zapdos with a Master Ball. It was nicknamed “AA-j” in game and “John the Zapist” out of game.

“Humans always need to create narrative and context, it’s in our nature,” said Educational Psychologist Claire De La Varre in an email to The Guilfordian. “People have a need to explain their behaviors and the behaviors of their characters/avatars, and like to build worlds.”

The game, as a social experiment, brings to question if an educational analysis is expected of what is usually seen as just silly fun.

The anonymous game creator said in an interview with badatvideogames.net, “Although I claim it is a social experiment, I think that gives the false impression that it was planned or for a particular purpose, it’s just a fancy way of saying ‘I want to see what happens.’”

On the second day of gameplay, the creator said in the same article, “I didn’t think it would be this popular, I thought it would get a small but dedicated following with many other people showing a short passing interest.”

From a psychologist’s point of view though, the popularity makes sense.

“Game players are always looking for novelty: the chance to be part of something with so many other people, the fun/frustration of actually playing,” said De La Varre. “It’s sort of a combination of all kinds of social activities like a flash mob, MMOG, cult or secret society complete with jargon and their own mythology.

“I think it must also be appealing to feel that you and thousands upon thousands of other people are all playing the same game.”

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