Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.

In February 2014, a social experiment was undertaken like never before. 50,000 users tried to simultaneous play the same game of Pokemon Red. Throughout the fortnight several interesting questions were raised. What was this ‘gameworld’? Did it have existence outside of the pre-set boundaries found in the original game? Did the group of players, the ‘Mob’, have a singular ‘self’? In short, who ‘played’ the game, and was it its own separate ‘gameworld’?

TwitchPlaysPokemon was, as described by one source, “an ongoing live-stream event hosted by the video-streaming platform Twitch in which any member of the site can participate in a massively multiplayer online co-op version of Nintendo’s 1996 role-playing video game Pokémon Red by inputting various commands in chat.” It was essentially a single-player game being played as a multiplayer. Throughout the playthrough the Mob (the name for the group of players playing the game), as another source put it,

“1)Created a religion;

2)Created democracy;

3)Created small parties trying to stop the progress of democracy;

4)Created fractions within the religion;

5)Created religious fanatics;

6)Founded fears of corruption within the democratic system;

7)Had more devastating ‘deaths’ then most soap operas;

And finally

8)Beat the Elite Four and officially finished the game.”

For example, one item (the helix fossil), was designated the ‘god’ of this lore due the player character’s constant, but needless, examination of the item due to the random nature of the control input. Likewise one ‘common’ Pokemon (aka one of the first Pokemon a player can capture in the game), a Pidgey, quickly became the ‘Jesus’ of the story. It was the strongest Pokemon and, by extension, the Pokemon the stream relied on the most. Furthermore a fire-type Pokemon, Flareon, was seen as the ‘anti-Christ’. Its evolution was the undesired result of the Mob’s planning, leading it to being declared as the source of all the problems found within the playthrough. As such, a religious system was set up within the story as a way of contextualising the events that were going on. Likewise, real world events impacted the ‘lore’ of the game. After being stuck on one puzzle for several hours, the streamer created a democratic system within the game to try and achieve some progress. This created a split within the community, since many felt it went again the ‘infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters’ concept of randomness that made the stream so fun. Since this randomness was very much the purpose of this ‘gameworld’, by removing it the ‘gameworld’ was fundamentally changed. In other words, democracy was put in place and everyone voted against it. As such, TwitchPlaysPokemon ended up creating a lot of original content based on the playthrough. However, this lead to a fundamental question: Could this ‘gameworld’ be seen as an original product, and could art really be created from the inherently random nature of the playthrough?

While the experiment has been compared to the famous “infinite monkeys at infinite typewriters” theorem (but not a totally accurate comparison, due to there having been definitive reasoning and purpose behind the player’s actions), this line of thought brings us to the text “What is monkey painting?” by Lenain. In the text, the author describes whether a monkey randomly applying brush strokes to canvas can be said to be producing art. Or, due to the inherit randomness of what it is doing, it is merely simulating art without having any deliberate movement to the actions it is doing. He concludes his piece with “A monkey painting is not a work of art … [it is], in short, the illusion of a work of art … In spite of everything our glance will grant them the same weight as any other work of art … In general it is not feasible to reduce the shapes on the paper to the succession of pictorial acts required to create them.” In other words, since the work of art was not being created with a deliberate end goal in mind, it cannot be said to be a work of art. This relates to TwitchPlaysPokemon twofold. The first is whether the gameworld itself is an inherently random concept. The original game provides very clear and definite goals for the players: Capture Pokemon, train them, and then defeat the Elite Four to finish the game. It sets up obstacles and diversions when it comes to getting to this goal, but the desired outcome is the same nonetheless. Everything in the original gameworld is set up as either ways of achieving this goal or stopping the progress. When it comes to the modified gameworld of the experiment, the goals are still the same. The obstacles and benefits are still the same. The only thing that has changed is the ‘player’ (or, rather, the Mob in this instance) themselves. Now many a time the Mob would get stuck doing simple tasks (such as moving from one point in the game to another) due to the nature of the gameplay. They’d often go round in circles, losing progress instead of achieving it. However, despite the erratic nature of the gameplay, an end goal was still determined from the outset. The goal was to finish the game, which the Mob did do. As such, this gameworld is not truly random. There are deliberate attempts throughout it, meaning it is more a work of art than the monkey’s production. The second relation comes from whether the art created from the playing can be seen as deliberate works of art. While all of the artists set out to make their art in a certain way, the origin of this art is another matter. Since events in the game were unplanned (leading to many, many mistakes), the Mob seized upon these events to set up a lore. The Mob did not plan to consult the Helix fossil hundreds of times a day (since such action does not help the Mob reach the end goal), but upon doing so so often they created reasoning behind this action. As such, any art based upon this can be seen as deliberate expressions of random happenstance. None of the people playing willingly chose to consult the Helix fossil, they had another goal in mind. It was only by the commands being played out in a specific order that it happened. Similar to how a monkey painting on a piece of paper has no concept of what it is doing, neither does the player character. ‘Red’, the titular character of the game, acted in a way similar to the monkey from the article. His movements, if one were to observe without seeing any other information, appear to be random and purposeless. He is not doing anything deliberately since he appears to have no concept of what he is doing. Red, for all intents and purposes, is a monkey in this playthrough. Ultimately, TwitchPlaysPokemon can be both considered original art and non-existent art. While it has created a lot of original art, it is both based on existing properties and random chance. While the outcome is deliberate, the inspirations are not.

The third concept raised by TwitchPlaysPokemon relates closely to the concept of self. The Mob had deliberate goals in mind, goals which were carried out by Red. However, whether Red or the Mob were a singular ‘self’ is something that can be explored via Judith Butler’s “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street” text. In her text, Butler describes the concept of there being two ‘bodies’ within all of us: the ‘public’ body that is defined by how the world sees us, and the ‘private’ body, how we see ourselves: “the body is itself divided into the one that appears publicly to speak and act and another, sexual and labouring, feminine, foreign, and mute, that generally is relegated to the private and pre-political sphere.” The author goes on to discuss how this concept is explored in the form of public gatherings. She relates the idea to public speaking, asking “Could we still understand action, gesture, stillness, touch, and moving together if they were all reducible to the vocalization of thought through speech?” In other words, is it possible that someone can be the voice for an entire movement? This relates to TwitchPlaysPokemon in an almost literal way. Red’s actions and movements are the product of thousands of voices all wrestling for control, all of whom have different goals in mind. He is the thoughts and actions of thousands of players reduced down to a single thought through action. As such, Red has both a public and personal body throughout the game. The personal body is the actions he undertakes within the game itself. If one were to watch the gameplay with no context, one would presume that Red is merely acting out the whims of a single person. However, his public body is that of the people trying to play him. He is being controlled by the Mob, even when said control is leading him towards ruin. He commits actions that are against his goals, such as releasing valuable Pokemon. He is the expression of the Mob’s conflicted desires. As such, if the Mob has a self within this gameworld, it is a fractured one. It is a self that is at war with itself, with different sides having vastly different opinions on the best way of achieving goals. But, since the majority has the same goal in mind, it can also be seen as a consistent self. Furthermore, the method of playing the game itself delves into this idea of the public and private body. Privately, any person inputting a command is their own separate person, living their own life. They have an existence outside of their input commands. Publicly, they are reduced to a simple command next to their username. Their entire self becomes simply a username and whatever comment they decide to place next to it. They may choose to place something witty to appear to be a funny person, or something vile to showcase that they are a troll, or simply a question to demonstrate an inquisitive personality. What matters is that what they choose to write reveals the public perception of their self, even if they themselves are not physically present. Linking back to the previous paragraph, the art created by these artist likewise reveals their public self. By creating what they choose to create, they put a version of themselves out into the public sphere to be seen. In turn, this creates a sense of self. Ultimately, the ‘self’ of TwitchPlaysPokemon is one that address multiple areas. Red has a sense of self in that he’s the reduction of the Mob’s psyche, the Mob has a sense of self in that it is a collection of singular thoughts mostly aligned to one goal, and that the individuals in the Mob express a sense of self in the actions they do in the public sphere. So the social experiment helps define the concept of ‘self’ when it comes to singular and multiple parties.

TwitchPlaysPokemon was a gameplay event unlike the world had ever seen. During this gameplay a number of interesting things were discovered. Despite the fact that it was based on an existing product, the gameworld was still original creation with its own creative offshoots. It created its own art and lore not found within the original product, meaning it was its own separate entity. It defined what it meant by the term ‘self’ in a variety of ways, from the individual level to the group level. Finally, it created a wholly original product, exploring an idea that never been explored before and giving a whole new meaning to the concept of video game playing.

Word Count: 1949


TwitchPlaysPokemon: http://www.twitch.tv/twitchplayspokemon

Gaga Knack (2014) Know Your Meme: TwitchPlaysPokemon sub-entry. Retrieved from http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/events/twitch-plays-pokemon

Pretty, Christopher (2014) In Too Deep: Why Twitch Plays Pokemon Is The Greatest Allegory Ever. Retrieved from http://ratin8tor-intoodeep.blogspot.co.nz/2014/03/in-too-deep-why-twitch-plays-pokemon-is.html

Lenain (Date Unknown) What is a monkey painting? Retrieved from Cecil.

Butler, Judith (Date Unknown) Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street. Retrieved from Cecil.

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