The Return of Zapdos: How Twitch Plays Pokemon Transcends the Medium
03 Mar 2015

The Return of Zapdos: How Twitch Plays Pokemon Transcends the Medium


by Bryan

Twitch Plays Pokemon (TPP) is a social experiment conducted by the website, where online viewers get a chance to play Pokemon together via command input in the chat bar. Last year, this unique phenomenon seized the attention of the online gaming community, and now, Twitch Plays Pokemon is back for round two.

Around this time last year, TPP reached its peak with over 120,000 viewers and 36 million total views, and the community was on its way to completing its first adventure, Pokemon Red. This type of collaborative online play can be unsettling and annoying to watch – a type of organized chaos where everyone is inputting individual commands – yet slowly but surely, there is something being accomplished. Seeing this firsthand is like watching the birth of a society, with its own religion and folklore, the establishment of order (introduction of democracy mode), and disagreement and protest (return to anarchy mode).

During last year’s playthrough of Pokemon Red, a unique culture was established with players declaring loyalty to certain Pokemon in the party. The outcome was an online folklore centered on different philosophies about how to play the game. Pokemon and items began to take on their own lives, resulting in fan art and religious sects. Many online forums became gathering places for strategizing, such as the drafting of complex maps to exit the dreaded Safari Zone, or planning to capture Pokemon capable of using specific utility powers such as Surf or Dig.

This year, Twitch is attempting to complete Red again with even more stipulations. Not only must the community complete the game, but they must also catch all 150 Pokemon as well as fulfill other minor requirements. One would think after a year of practice, the players would have streamlined the process a bit, but rest assured it’s still the same train wreck as last year, and you can’t look away.

With the community that has formed around TPP over the last year and the continued participation of the online community, it has me asking myself, what is the future of collaborative gaming? Not MMORPGs, not competitive gaming, but this type of experiment. Also, what makes a game a work of art? How can games continue this type of innovation? Not just better graphics or more precise controls, but how do they influence in our lives outside the screen?

In the past few years there have been a few different types of projects blurring the line between entertainment and artwork, and even discussions of whether games belonged in MoMA. A rather strange example of avant-garde gaming can be seen here, The PainStation, in which participants play a simple game of pong while being penalized with heat, whips and an electric shock. Where do we draw the line between products and a living piece of artwork?


Hopefully in the future we can see even more of this type of gaming artwork, crossing the boundaries from the screen into our lives. How will people continue to use new technology to connect us together and build communities? I can’t wait to find out.


I write stuff at Fedeen.