Think back to the first time you played Nintendo with your family. Let’s say it was Super Mario Brothers. Think back to the way you felt while your little sister was laboriously navigating the first level’s obstacles: rocking slightly on your knees before the television set, impatiently waiting your turn, slapping your forehead when your sister ran straight into an enemy and lost her power-up. Think back to the way your fingers literally itched as you longed to grab the rectangular controller and show her how to do it right.
“There have already been failures in this new experiment, real bang-your-head-against-the-wall stuff. But everyone soldiers gamely on.”Now imagine that you actually did have a controller in your hand at those moments. Now you and your little sister control Mario at the same time, occasionally working at cross-purposes as you both try to help Mario reach his goal.
Now imagine that you’re playing with 50,000 little siblings, each one with his or her own controller. Struggling to simultaneously obey each of those thousands of puppetmasters, Mario charges headfirst into walls, jumps in place for a solid minute, and jogs back and forth over the same two inches of space while the level timer runs out.
Sound fun? Hilarious? Excruciating? Welcome to Twitch.tv’s TwitchPlaysPokemon.
Here’s how it works. The Australian creator of the stream (who prefers to remain anonymous) has written a program that takes commands typed into the chat portion of his page and then feeds them into a single continuously running game of the classic Pokémon series for the Nintendo Game Boy. The game then reacts as if you’d pressed the corresponding button on a Game Boy. Type “up” and the in-game character (a Pokémon trainer called “Red” in the first installment) moves upward. Type “a” and the game selects the FIGHT option in a pop-up menu. Type “start” and watch the other players explode in frustration because you just opened up the ITEM menu instead of helping Red get out of the corner in which he’s been dithering for 30 minutes.
There are two wrinkles to this seemingly straightforward enterprise. The first is that, as more and more people attempt to participate, the game begins to receive contradictory commands — hence why Red has been bonking his nose into that corner for half an hour. The second wrinkle is that, because of technological limitations, there’s a 20-second delay between your typed command and its implementation. Even if you manage to coordinate your plans with the mob’s, that 20-second lag might cause your previously innocuous “walk left” command to send poor Red blithely strolling off a precipice. (This is not a hypothetical situation. Veterans of TwitchPlaysPokemon speak in hushed voices of The Ledge, an insignificant area of the game world that took them a whopping seven hours to traverse.)
I followed this experiment on its maiden voyage through Pokémon Red. The spectacle was mesmerizing. It was like watching an epileptic octopus attempt to make an omelette.
Maybe you’re not much of a gamer and this is sounding strange and uninviting, as if I’m beckoning you to enter a dark, stifling thicket of nerdiness. And it is strange, though paradoxically this strangeness is of a very commonplace sort. You don’t have to be a hardcore video-game aficionado in order for your senses to detect the familiar tang that accompanies most endeavors undertaken by large groups of human beings. Not to be grandiose, but I submit that, at its core, TwitchPlaysPokemon is a microcosm of the human experience.
As in any community, the fly in the ointment is good old-fashioned human depravity. I spent a lot of time observing the stream, and I can tell you that the temptation to muck about with the hardy souls who were actually trying to make forward progress was quite strong. (I managed to refrain from mischief, although — full disclosure — this was more from a sense of journalistic responsibility than any sort of innate virtuousness.) Plenty of others succumbed to this temptation, however, including a well-coordinated faction that purposely wreaked havoc during what later became known as “Bloody Sunday.” This was not very nice of them, but I shouldn’t judge — people in glass houses, et cetera.
Even when not being actively sabotaged by Internet trolls, the stream was a spectacle of hilarious mishaps. Players disagreed on the best way to succeed, which produced plenty of literal running in circles. Some players wanted to battle foes with a gigantic lightning canary while others wanted to unleash a highly trained cephalopod monster. Every time these conflicts resulted in Red falling on his face, I laughed — partly because slapstick is funny and partly because its absurdity was so familiar. Who among us hasn’t witnessed a project — a church ministry, perhaps — being gradually shaken to pieces by the rumblings of opposing visions?
It’s no surprise that, when confronted with such pervasive chaos, the people of TwitchPlaysPokemon searched for meaning in religion. Mere days after the experiment began, a Pokémon pantheon was already coalescing around various memes and in-game objects. Within a week, a fully formed theology had taken root, complete with its own liturgy and an oft-used mantra: “All praise Lord Helix.” One Pokémon was christened “Bird Jesus” by the community after singlehandedly delivering them from a seeming eternity of toil inside a particularly tough level. The fledgling religion even appropriated the doctrine of the Trinity, with Bird Jesus as one of its persons.
These small gestures of religious piety were all carried out with tongues planted firmly in cheeks, of course. But one can’t help but be fascinated by the impulse toward it in the first place. Ancient civilizations conceived of gods that would explain capricious phenomena such as earthquakes and storms. We now understand what causes those things, but when it comes to the most capricious and inscrutable phenomenon of all — ourselves — we still need a God to make sense of it.
Just this past weekend, TwitchPlaysPokemon managed to reach the end of Pokémon Red — a frankly astounding feat — and has since moved on to the next game in the series, Pokémon Crystal. Why stop now? There are still more discoveries to be made about the vagaries of this weird little group of people, how they unite to accomplish goals and how they trip over their own feet at crucial moments. There have already been failures in this new experiment, real bang-your-head-against-the-wall stuff. But everyone soldiers gamely on.
I never thought I’d say this: perhaps we should take a note or two from this Internet community. The story of the Church is messy, full of stumbles and falls. I happen to be a member of a faith tradition that got its start because Henry VIII was peeved that he couldn’t divorce his wife. It’s ridiculous, but it’s God’s good pleasure to use the ridiculous for His purposes. He created us to ask forgiveness, band together in community, and bumble onward — always seeking to do a little better next time. He practically encoded it into our DNA. All praise Lord Helix.