The psychology behind Twitch Plays Pokemon

Twitch Plays Pokemon

Myself and 738,000 people played Pokemon Red together thanks to, an online video platform where gamers can play live and chat at the same time. Participants typed commands through the chat to the game. This resulted in a long list of random commands by some 100,000 members at a time. Slowly and painfully, Red, the main character, has completed more than half the game from the random commands.

The game itself is not as fascinating as the audience-created story and culture that spawned from it. Although I’m not a psychologist, I noticed some patterns for why this live stream became so popular. I attribute many of my observations to the awesome psychology books by Susan Weinschenk about people’s motivations.


  • Stories make TPP understandable, interesting, and memorable
  • People work harder when they are connected to others
  • People make patterns out of randomness which can result in superstitions
  • RPGs give players a chance to see a glimpse of their “ideal selves”
  • Learning TPP memes brings players closer to the Reddit TPP in-group

From pseudo random to narrative

A random and slow-paced game would definitely be boring if it weren’t for a great story. To get specifics on the TPP story, check out this wiki or recap article.

Many studies have been done to show how storytelling is the most engaging and compelling communication tool. In TPP, all the characters have names, personalities, and a history. TPP’s story seems to closely follow that of an epic. The hero goes through high and low periods, with his fatal flaw being his sometimes poor actions. For example, Red released 12 Pokemon caught in the safari park only to release them soon after. Fans deemed this as Bloody Sunday.

This narrative format proves especially addictive because players care to check in at least once a day. Also, a community spawned on Reddit, known as a subreddit, where fanart and memes of characters help further the narrative. I wouldn’t be surprised if I started to see t-shirts soon.

Not only are US players stumbling through the game, but other players from countries like Australia as well. Frequently, US players will encourage or blame Australia for the results over the night. According to Gregory Walton, a professor at Stanford, people work harder when they feel connected to others. This explains how players could suffer through seven hours going 12 footsteps in the game.

“It took the crew almost an entire day to get past The Ledge as it was called, but it was done near the start of Day 3. The experience, as a whole made the team stronger. Many said that any task could be completed with enough time.” — TPP Wiki

The Helix Fossil has risen

Not surprisingly, superstitions in TPP’s story emerged. A Helix Fossil, which was randomly selected many times during battles, became a beacon of hope and wisdom. This behavior can be explained by B.F. Skinner’s famous study on Pigeons and the “Skinner Box.” Pigeons were found doing the same behaviors, such as spinning in circles, while expecting their good-luck behavior to cause food to enter the box when feeding time was actually random. Eventually, players assumed the Helix Fossil continued to be selected not because of randomness but its positive influence to a battle’s outcome. We’re not so different from pigeons, after all.

Becoming Red

As an avid lover of RPGs, it’s easy for me to step into Red’s shoes. Many people chalk up the appeal of RPGs to escapism. Joe Hilgard, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychological Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science, claims some players use video games to avoid problems in their daily lives.

The second and more believable theory of why RPG’s are entertaining comes from Dr. Andy Przybylski, a research fellow at the University of Essex. Dr. Pryzbylski says players are acting out their “ideal selves.” From Madden to Pokemon, players are working towards their own image. In the words of the Pokemon song: “I will be the very best, like no one ever was.”

A Culture is born

Besides the desire to follow a narrative, connect with others and take on a role, players have biological reasons to participate in TPP and the subreddit. The behavior stems from wanting to learn a meme to be a part of an in-group.

The term “meme” was originally coined by Richard Dawkins to explain the need to pass an idea, behavior, or style within a culture. Some memes will fade out or survive from natural selection. I’ve personally experienced this when I friend showed me the Doge meme. Having seen the meme made me feel closer to my friend and our group. Now, we had an inside joke to share.

The same information spread is occurring on the TPP subreddit. A long time ago, being in the in-group meant not trying to take on a lion by yourself. A very strong biological motivator, indeed.

A Doge and Pokemon meme

The Story Continues

Now that I’ve overanalyzed the experience and made readers think twice about their motivations for participating in TPP or the subreddit, I have to get back to the epic Pokemon tale.

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