Monday, February 24, 2014

Twitch Plays Pokemon, Self-loathing, and Never Being Able To Predict Anything.

None of us is as insane as all of us.
If you are in any way hooked into the bleeding edge of this weird thing we call Internet Culture, someone might recently have talked your ear off about Twitch Plays Pokemon.

I'm going to talk about it now. So, if you were bored about it by your [child/weird friend/acquaintance you always secretly suspected has Asperger's], you can now do what you wish you could do then: tell me to shut up by closing this browser window with extreme prejudice.


OK. You are still here. You want to learn what Twitch Plays Pokemon is, so that, for once, you can know about the hip internet thing before it ends and becomes as tired and old as those captioned cat photos your parents send to your aunts and uncles.

My explanation of what is happening will take the form of a Socratic dialogue between me and the voices of self-loathing in my head. Take it away, voices!


Hey, pace yourself there, sparky. We have a lot of ground to cover. Many miles to go before we sleep, and all that.

Sorry, nerd. "Twitch Plays Pokemon"? How is that even a phrase in English? Why should I ever care enough to continue?

Well, I don't know how "interesting" or "significant" it is. I'm sure some kids in some PhD mill somewhere will write a thesis on it or whatever.

But the main reason I think it's interesting is because it is so weird. I mean, thinkers like Isaac Asimov and William Gibson and Neal Stephenson always try to predict the future. Then, when the future actually shows up, we find their predictions to be just sort of weirdly sterile and unimaginative and just kind of off.

What actual humans do when given any sort of resources is always really weird and chaotic. (Except for porn. There's always porn. Now in HD.) Those above world class thinkers never imagined anything close to tens of millions of people trying to play a 20 year old videogame together as a maddened hivemind because why not.

That's because they were people who had it together and could get dates in high school.

I got dates!

They hated you more than I do.

Well played, brain. But you're stuck here with me, so let's describe Twitch Plays Pokemon.

Sometimes, I get into things just for the fan art.
Fine. What is Twitch Plays Pokemon?

Well, it's a channel on As of this writing (Monday, Feb. 24), over 63000 people are watching/participating and over 27 million have dropped by to watch.

And what on God's Green Earth is

It's a video game streaming web site. Basically, when you're playing a game, you can also enable other people to watch you play it.


Beats me, man. Look. The Internet is now as big as human experience. Which means that 95% of it will be stuff you can't comprehend the value of, forever and always. So you'll just have to take the value of on faith.

So people go there to watch cool games like League of Legends and Call of Duty.

Sure. It's a dream come true. Though, lately, the most popular channel by a margin has been to watch people play Pokemon Red, a Gameboy game from 1996.

The confused fellow to the lower left is you. 
What is Pokemon?

Oh, give me a break. You're reading a game blog. You must have heard of Pokemon. At the very least, it's 10% of the cultural DNA of anyone in their 20s. Basically, you catch monsters and they're your pets and you use them to duel other monsters.

Part of the cultural DNA of boys, you mean.

My daughters would vigorously disagree.

But back to the channel. In it, they're not watching the game. The multitudes passing through are also playing it.

So I assumed. How does your little nerd-conclave work?

People type the controls they want to press (up, down, left, right, A, B, start) into the chat window, and the game processes them. This results in a very slow, very chaotic game.

So 50000 people are typing in commands and they're all processed?

No, it's more complicated than that. There are two modes for how the commands are taken: Anarchy and Democracy, and people vote on which control scheme is in place at any one ...


Sorry. You're right. It's boring. I'll sum it up. In Anarchy mode, a few commands are selected at random from what people enter, resulting in slightly directed chaos with lots of weird, interesting things happening. (Assuming you are capable of finding any of this interesting, which I do, but I'm weird.)

In Democracy mode, people vote on what the next move is and a move is taken every 20 seconds. It's more directed, but painfully slow and boring.

It has arguments about politics AND religion? Sign me up!
And how long has this travesty been going?

As of this writing, 10 days and 20 hours, 24-7. It's a global project. When one continent goes to bed, another picks up the slack.

OK. Fine. They're playing an old game in a stupid way. 

It's even worse than that.

How is that even possible?

You see, there is a 10-20 second lag between what happens in the game and what you see on the screen. So when you enter a command, you're not saying what happens now, but what happens in 20 seconds. This means that even if everyone involved was united and smart, some chaos would be unavoidable.

One happy side effect of this is that it's very difficult for trolls to sabotage the project, because having any sort of directed input by anyone is very difficult.

This all sounds stupid.

Oh, it totally is. But stupid things can be interesting and fun.

But isn't it gross to care about something like this, when, say, people in the Ukraine are dying protesting their government?

Haven't you been reading? It's a global thing. I bet a bunch of kids in the Ukraine are playing the game to distract themselves from the terror and uncertainty.

Anyway, that is a dumb standard. Our ancestors fought and died in part so we could occasionally relax and do something frivolous.

Fine. An old game, in a stupid way, and it barely even works. Why on EARTH would so many people care?

Three reasons.

Oh, Lord.

First, it's a big experiment in the fascinating field of collective intelligence. It's the idea that a lot of people giving tiny inputs is smarter than any one person. A lot of research into this idea has taken place, and it is genuinely cool.

Because the most surprising thing about Twitch Plays Pokemon is that it's working. It's slow, but this confused random input is beating bosses, solving side quests, agreeing on what path to take among many possible choices, and generally getting it done. Sometimes the Hivemind even plays WELL.

That is pretty cool.


We are, after all, dealing with Gamers here.
No. Psych! Loser. What's the second thing?

The second interesting thing is the constant debate between democracy and anarchy. In other words, between slow, methodical success or fast, inefficient chaos. Anarchy is winning. In other words, people as a mass would rather do the thing in the chaotic, slower, harder way simply because it's more cool. That, if nothing else, should give you some faith in humanity.

And the third reason? If it involves fan art, I'm so out of here.

Third, the fan art.

[Sound of running away.]

Sorry, brain. You're stuck in here with me.

Ahhh. It burns us.

Twitch Plays Pokemon has evolved its own weird, funny, sometimes tiresome backstory and mythology. It is in human nature to anthropomorphize things. Elaborate stories about the insanity of Red (the main character) and the relentless voices in his head that drive him on have been crafted. It's actually kind of cool and poignant.

It helps that the chaotic interface results in a lot of painfully self-destructive behavior. Red constantly destroys his own best pokemon, throws away valuable items, and flings himself off of ledges. Twitch Plays Pokemon is truly unpredictable. Tell me, how many things in your life are like that?

Fortunately, there's not cosplay yet, but give it time.

Twitch Plays Pokemon has the XKCD Seal of Nerd Legitimacy.
What is this Helix Fossil everyone goes on about?

It's an item in Red's inventory that gets used accidentally like ten times a minute. Lots of jokes have arisen around this. It's the Cake Is a Lie/Arrow To the Knee of 2014.

Hasn't that joke been run into the ground?

To everyone who has been paying attention, yes, but new folks are hearing about the stream all the time, and it's funny to them. Also, um, how should I put this delicately? The Twitch Plays Pokemon diehards might not be the most socially-aware folks on the planet.

But the whole cobbled-together Twitch Plays Pokemon backstory does include a pretty amusing, made-up parody religion. I suspect that appeals to the demographic of the player base.

And who is doing all this? Shut-in boys, right?

Ummmm ...


The only survey I could find of players is here, and, yeah. Guys. Which is, itself, interesting. I don't know if this sort of activity has inherently higher value to men, and, if so, why. Maybe if Anita Sarkeesian reads this, she can tweet something.

So how will it end?

Nobody knows! It is completely unclear if the hive mind can finish this stupid thing, which adds a pleasing sense of suspense to the whole thing.

But if you want to help find out ...

I don't. Oh lord, I don't.

Humor me.

Internet culture moves fast and is unpredictable.
Fine. What would I do if I cared?

Well, if you want to read the history of the thing and see a lot of surprisingly funny and elaborate fan art, go here.

If you want a live update of what is happening, go here.

The freshest fan art is here.

My personal favorite pieces for fan art are here and here, though you need to know the culture a little to get it.

I still don't see why anyone should care.

Because, try as I might, I can't think of any analogue to this in human history. The duration, the planetary scale, the chaos, the joyous frivolity of it.

Unprecedented? Really? What about Second Life? SETI@home? WIKIPEDIA?

OK, you're right. I got a little overexcited there. How about this? Twitch Plays Pokemon is a reminder that we have not even begun to scratch the possibilities of what the hordes on the Internet can do when something piques their interest. And, sometimes, like with Wikipedia, those things Anonymous spits out can be genuinely valuable.

God. You're even more pathetic now than when you were telling everyone who'd listen about Doctor Who back in the 1980s.

And now everyone watches Doctor Who.

And that's why everyone who reads this should go to Twitch Plays Pokemon and enter just one command. I don't know if this is a harbinger of bigger things or not, but, if it is, don't you want to think you were on the ground floor?

OK. Fine. I went and voted for 'Democracy.' Happy?

Filthy casual. Anarchy or riot!

Everyone who reads this will laugh at you.

I love you, brain.



Like all the cool nerd kids, I'm on Twitter.


  1. The original artist for both the linked fanarts has a website, here:

    She does several webcomics, one about supervillains, one about literature characters and their antics, and one in a roleplay setting called World of Darkness. Basically she's pretty awesome. Check her out!

    Back on topic, I am constantly surprised at how Twitch Plays Pokemon keeps progressing through the game. It's truly amazing. I wonder if this will redefine the infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters thing. Also, Helix bless you.

  2. Like a number of things, I ended up looking into it because of xkcd, and I think it's pretty interesting. Just in the brief time I watched it, I was actually surprised how well people seemed to be doing (and also sort of fascinated by the relentless speed of the chat window). The development of all of these collaborative parts of the Internet is really pretty exciting, whether it's this, or something as practical as Wikipedia. It's neat to see people experimenting with what is possible.
    Also, Twitch (and the larger trends toward transparency in indie development) has been pretty engaging to me in general, as I can go watch some of my favorite developers actually making and testing their games in progress, while having real-time conversations with their fans. On the Enemy Starfighter blog, he posted a painting that someone made of one of his ships while they were watching his livestream.....

    As far as why it's predominantly male, I couldn't say, but I would hazard a guess that the core of nerd-dom is still dominated by males (which is a whole other discussion). As someone who spends their time with relatively balanced, non-nerdy people, I've met few if any women who were into the sort of systemic meta-ness of things like Twitch Plays Pokemon. I'm not saying they don't exist....

    1. (waves) Hi. Also, the artist I linked above, her wife-to-be, and another lady friend of mine send their best.

    2. Yep, as I said, not saying they don't exist, just not among anyone that I know in person. Which is a very small sample size...

  3. Though I have little interest in Pokemon I also found this amusing. Also Jeff, your blog is simply the best - never stop, NEVER. I think the reason it is mostly male is because the twitch is used primarily to watch e-sports (I do), so likely that was their initial audience.

    1. There's also the fact that the poll was apparently taken on Reddit, which is an overwhelmingly male population. I missed the poll entirely, myself.

  4. As far as why it's predominantly male, Rokettube I couldn't say, but I would hazard a guess that the core of nerd-dom is still dominated by males (which is a whole other discussion). As someone who spends their time with relatively balanced, non-nerdy people, I've met few if any women who were into the sort of systemic Asian meta-ness of things like Twitch Plays Pokemon. I'm not saying they don't exist Gay Porn

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