Twitch Plays (And Somehow Beats) Pokémon

Remember that single-player video game you loved as a kid but could never play together with friends because that would mean taking turns passing the controller? And remember how you never did that, because that would be, well…lame?


“I’m a robot playing Pokémon, I don’t know what I’m doing, tell me which buttons to press”

Well, the internet found a way to do it, and the results were expectedly laggy (and spastic) but surprisingly successful. In mid-February, an anonymous Australian programmer coded a custom online version of Pokémon Red, the classic Gameboy single-player game from 1998, and set it up on Twitch, the popular live gaming streaming site. The game channel was aptly titled TwitchPlaysPokemon (TPP).

Can you Crowdsource a Single-player Game?

For those unfamiliar, the concept of TwitchPlaysPokemon is simple.  It’s a stream that lets you play Pokémon with a lot of other people by typing commands into chat.  (Up, down, left, right, a, b) 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 character is being controlled by the commands entered by thousands of players in the scrolling to the right…in this case, spinning them around but with no movement whatsoever.

  • TPP has two modes for determining the input to make in the game; they are called anarchy mode and democracy mode.
  • Anarchy mode is the “classic” mode, where everyone’s inputs are applied immediately.
  • Democracy mode chooses the most popular input provided during a 20 second voting period.
  • In order to switch from one mode to the other a certain number of votes must be for the opposing mode.

Spoiler Alert: the Internet Wins


Typical player movement in TwitchPlaysPokemon

It took over 680,000 online participants a total of 16 days, 7 hours, 50 minutes, and 19 seconds to traverse through the story arc, collect 8 gym badges, catch and lose some dear Pokémon along the way, and ultimately defeat the hometown rival. As of March 1st 2014 and completion of the game, the TPP channel has reached over 36 million views, with a peak concurrent viewership of 120,000. TwitchPlaysPokemon proved that not only can you crowdsource a single-player game with viral viewership traffic, but you can also actually win. Sure, it was a cocktail of craziness (two parts challenge and frustration with equal parts trolling mixed in for good measure) and it wasn’t always pretty, but it was a spectacularly successful social experiment.

The phenomenon took over sites such as reddit and imgur over the past couple weeks and the experience has spawned entire memes, fanart, and discussions on the latest news and happenings within this shared world and experience. This imgur gallery collection of memes and images tells a visual story of the entire progression of the playthrough.

The game was never without its challenges and even major risks. Due to player input errors, longtime Pokémon were accidentally released, and nicknames were often an amalgamation of random letters, leading to some creative…nick-nicknames:


Anarchy and Democracy

While Pokémon is a certified classic for any gamer, the most interesting part of this particular event was the social interaction. Even with extensive planning and a statistically optimal strategy in place, the groupthink and hive mindset is incredibly difficult to achieve when every minor input is crowdsourced in such high volume.

But beyond the ongoing interactions between players in the Twitch chat trying to steer the character to move or act a certain way, I think one of the most ingenious parts of the experiment was to allow the players to control and freely switch between the “Anarchy” and “Democracy” modes. This division of play styles even led to nigh (and overt) religious fanaticism in picking sides in association with the two “fossil” Pokémon from the game to meme-worthy success.


Image credit: /u/Sebulba_Chubaa via reddit

So what’s next? Twitch has been very supportive of the channel in its pilot run, even moving TPP to its own dedicated chat servers, something normally reserved for very large eSports events. A new Pokémon game adventure is also expected to be revealed shortly on the TwitchPlaysPokemon channel and, with TPP followers on the rise and a bit of practice now under their belts, it’s sure to be another testament to some really neat collaboration and storytelling.

3/2/14 Update: TPP has started a new adventure (now in glorious 8-bit color!) of Pokémon Crystal.  Catch the live stream here.

Have you taken part in TwitchPlaysPokemon as an active player or a spectator?  What did you think about this experiment?

This entry was posted in Entertainment, Gaming, Storytelling and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Twitch Plays (And Somehow Beats) Pokémon

  1. Cortex says:

    This game is actually primitive example of the “MONKEY ROOM” concept of Collaborative AI.

    You might check out the Monkey Room graphic novel (crazy sci-fi) to see how far it could go:

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