Creation myths, the human condition, and twitch plays Pokémon

Imagine playing Pokémon. Now imagine tens of thousands of people all trying to play your copy of the game at the exact same time, fighting for the controls. Congratulations! You pretty much understand Twitch Plays Pokémon, a self-described ‘social experiment’ that may not actually reveal much about society, but instead tells us quite a lot about humanity. By Matthew Weddig

The twitch community gave their pokémon affectionate monikers in an attempt to make sense of their garbled, random inputs. Image: Larunex / Reddit

The Twitch channel originally featured a live stream of the original 1996 game Pokémon Red, that viewers could control by typing button inputs into the live chat. Someone types ‘up’, the character moves up. Someone else types ‘A’, the game registers that command too.

As it grew in popularity, however, tens of thousands of people were suddenly trying to play this game simultaneously, making progress slow and erratic as participants entered conflicting commands, resulting in unmitigated chaos. Simple tasks like cutting down trees and not jumping off ledges held back progress for the better portion of days, and Pokémon would be given incomprehensible nicknames, such as starter Pokémon Charmander “ABBBBBBK)”, a Rattata named “JLVWNNOOOO”, and a Venomoth named “AATTVVV”. The community translated these incomprehensible names into the more decipherable “Abby”, “Jay Leno”, and “All-Terrain Venomoth”, respectively.

Surprisingly, the game was completed in about two weeks through sheer brute force. Think of the idea that a thousand monkeys and a thousand typewriters could eventually produce Shakespeare, except instead of Shakespeare, it’s Pokémon, and instead of a thousand monkeys, it’s a thousand people on the internet. The latter is not that far off the former when you think about it.

And while it wasn’t Shakespeare, the hive mind of Twitch Plays Pokémon actually did produce a narrative. Far more interesting than the stream itself, is the storytelling the community produced. Watching the live stream they came up with their own mythology and even pseudo-religions around the patterns and oddities of their erratic gameplay.

Users could vote to switch between two input modes: “Anarchy” and “Democracy”. Image: Wikipedia

At one point early on in the original Pokémon, the player acquires either the Dome Fossil or the Helix Fossil. While the item can be used late in the game to revive a prehistoric Pokémon, any time it is used before then simply produces a message that it isn’t the time to use it. Usually the player sees this message once, if at all. Twitch Plays Pokémon saw this message all the time. Participants joked that their character was consulting the Helix Fossil for guidance, a joke which evolved into somewhat-serious statements of “Praise Helix!” whenever something good happened by happenstance. Helix was now their lord and savior.

They’re easy to laugh at, but such instances also say something more interesting about the social fabric of the internet. In this example (and there are plenty of others), a community of people collectively experienced something strange, and rationalized it as best they could. Humans have been doing this forever. Is there much difference between the ancient Greeks seeing the seasons change and producing the story of Persephone, and the modern day Twitch community seeing a deity in an 8-bit fossil? Probably, because we might not believe a fake fossil is responsible for success in the same way an ancient civilization believed a God pulled the sun across the sky in a chariot. But at the same time, there is a genuine earnestness when something good happens in the stream and the chat fills up with cries of “Praise Helix!” and that timeless human impulse doesn’t look terribly different.

Things got more complicated as the community became divided over its interpretations of the events taking place, not unlike the schisms in thought and doctrine that divide real religions. It might not be Martin Luther posting 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle’s church door, but the debate over Zapdos’s role as an asset to the team or as another false prophet isn’t a dissimilar thought pattern. In both debates no consensus was ever reached. The oral tradition lived on.

Others have made similar observations about the mythology surrounding Twitch Plays Pokémon, and observed that humans always have and always will create stories to make sense of what they don’t understand. The difference, however, is that modern humans understand the sun and the rain in a way that ancient societies never did. Besides death, modern civilization has demystified the world’s puzzling phenomena that gave humans throughout history such trouble. Our new challenge? Understanding the internet.

The internet is, as anyone who uses it knows entirely too well, a very strange place, so when humans do what they’ve always done and make stories to make sense of it, it’s only fitting that the stories are correspondingly strange. TPP and its tales of good vs evil, democracy vs anarchy, and Lord Helix are stories that could only have been created by a community such as Twitch. The stories that people create are inseparable from the cultures that create them, which can be seen at a very structural level in language. In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha, a post-colonial and post-structural critic, has described language as an “ill-fitting robe” that “alienates content in the sense that it deprives it of an immediate access to a stable … reference ‘outside’ itself”. Language, culture, and the stories we tell using the former to create the latter are all inseparable. What could be a more ill-fitting robe than “ABBBBBBK)”?

Society may have evolved, but human nature remains the same. While ancient humans struggled to make sense of the seasons, the new unexplored space we struggle to make sense of is the internet. Twitch Plays Pokemon might be a modern mystery, but the ways we try to understand it are not only ancient, but constant.


Originally published at abstractmag.com on March 27, 2014.