In our community of online artists, one of the most popular and supported platforms for creativity is video game design. Games can take many forms, from single-player games without outside interaction, such as The Elder Scrolls games, to multiplayer games, such as World of Warcraft and League of Legends, that host hundreds of thousands of gamers from around the world. With advancements in server technology and MMORPGs, we as a community have become accustomed to the nature and scale of gaming as it exists today. However, in February of 2014, something went viral that none of us saw coming.
Pokémon holds a special place in all of our hearts. These adorable and ferocious pocket monsters have evolved (pun intended) from a popular collection-based card game played amongst friends to an enormous global franchise available for gameplay on multiple Nintendo-developed consoles. Gamers are most nostalgic for the early GameBoy Advanced games that allowed players to explore a rich and diverse 8-bit open world while filling their PokéDex with rare and exotic Pokémon, training them for the final battle against the Elite Four. So, it was no surprise that when Twitch Plays Pokémon went viral, it went viral hard.
Twitch Plays Pokémon (TPP) was developed by an anonymous programmer that opened the webpage on February 12th, 2014. In short, Twitch games are single-player GBA roms that allow multiple users to input commands via the chat console. If a player wanted the character to move ‘up’, they would input the command and submit it to the server and the character would move ‘up’. This would happen several dozen times per second, ensuring that gameplay often appeared anarchic and chaotic. As the game progressed, the programmer deemed it necessary to adjust the coding of the page to allow for a more ordered command flow. ‘Democracy’ and ‘Anarchy’ modes were designed to alternate between a fair and just tallied system that took the most voted commands into consideration and an anarchic system that outputted all commands entered into the console. The first game Twitch released for play was Pokémon: Fire Red, one of the most popular and well-designed games ever developed for the Nintendo GameBoy Advanced.
The reason I have selected TPP as a topic in hyperreality is because it represents the ever-changing and rapidly-evolving environment of online game design. It portrays an entirely new concept in New Media with unprecedented levels of interactivity and viral expansion. Here’s where it gets weird. TPP witnessed 1,160,000 participants engage in the online play of a single game, with simultaneous interaction peaking at 121,000 and views reaching 55 million. These figures are absolutely astonishing. The largest stadium in America is Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, home of the Wolverines. It seats 109,901 people at full capacity. This means that the peak number of active participants in TPP would’ve filled more than 110% of the largest stadium in America. Just imagine an entire stadium full of nerds sitting with their Macbooks playing one game of Pokémon Fire Red for 16 continuous days until they beat it. Indeed, this image is hard to fathom, and isn’t far from the truth. All around the world, internet denizens participated in the single-largest play-through of a single-player game in history. The simulacram of vicarious engagement through one player with one game has been altered.
Twitch represents, in many ways, the future of ridiculous online gaming. Sure, it isn’t a particularly shiny or well-crafted website, but it has achieved something unprecedented. It has remediated single-player gaming to a multi-player platform. The website is still active; the twitch community is currently working on Pokémon Red/Blue. It doesn’t look like they’ve gotten too far, but with millions of participants in all time-zones playing 24/7, I’m sure they’ll blaze through dozens of games for years to come. Gotta catch ’em all!