Twitch Plays Pokemon: or, community building in the information cascade


“Its success will probably never be replicated and it will be long before anything similar comes close to its popularity, yet, it exists and continues to grow more popular as Red moves slowly throughout the eighteen year old game.” (Kotaku)

Twitch Plays Pokemon began on February 12th, 2014. As of the writing of this post, the channel has received 30,022,496 total views, gotten six badges, and conquered the Ledge (literally a ledge in Pokemon), restored the Helix, and released the False Prophet (an Eevee that they were supposed to be evolved to a Vaporeon so that it could be taught the move Surf but was instead evolved into a Flareon then, when an attempt was made to store the Pokemon so that another Pokemon could be taught Surf, two other high level Pokemon were released into the wild. Obviously, Flareon was blamed)(you see that iceberg? Yeah, you’re at the tip of it).

Twitch is “the world’s leading video platform and community for gamers, with more than 45 million visitors per month.” (Twitch) Twitch Plays Pokemon lets users (over 100,000 at points) play Pokemon Red online, as a group, by entering commands into the chat. They are put in, after a slight delay, by a bot in the order that they are put in. Progress comes slowly, and I personally have never been able to handle watching the livestream for more than a few minutes at a time. More often than not, Red just spins in a circle. It is an exercise in…crowdsourcing? Community building? Frustration? All of the above?

I learned about Twitch Plays Pokemon when someone referenced it on Twitter, which is how most people learned about it in the early days (it seems that only on the internet can a community grow so quickly that thirteen days in, it has “early days”). Like Flappy Bird, which bobbled onto most people’s radar about two months ago, it became popular as a result of word of mouth, on Reddit and Facebook, and a community of a small group of in-the-know people grew to a mass of fans, creating fan art and mythology.

But unlike Flappy Bird, Pokemon Red had eighteen years and a multi-platform franchise to build on top of, as well as Twitch’s existing community of users who already operate within the weird and wonderful world of gamer eccentricity. Enough people know enough about Pokemon that, when I referenced Eevee and the Helix earlier in this paper, it didn’t occur to me that people might not know what I was talking about. (If you want to achieve a greater understanding of the breadth of the Pokemon franchise and fandom, check out Bulbapedia, the Pokemon wiki. It is extensive)

I’ve spent the last few days racking my brain as to how Twitch Plays Pokemon, it’s improbable success, and the community that has built up around it can be applied to publishing. Because I felt from the very get-go that there was something here that could be applied to the issues facing publishing.

I’ll be honest – I’m still not entirely sure about application. Maybe that’s something that can come out in the dialogue that follows. But what follows are some of the thoughts that I’ve had about Twitch Plays Pokemon and it’s inflections upon publishing.

First of all, and this is the most grossly mercenary of my thoughts on the subject, it would make an interesting …and Philosophy type of title. Twitch Plays Pokemon and Philosophy. Just at the base level, the two modes of play are anarchy and democracy. Anarchy is the natural state of the game, where all the users enter commands and the commands are entered by the bot that runs the simulation (after a slight delay, which adds an interesting level of futility to decisions made by users, as they are unlikely to be responding to the thing that they are watching). This often results in the spinning Red, and the unintentional release of Pokemon. Democracy is a mode that the creator introduced when it became clear that some of the sections of the game would require a little less chaos for any progress to be made. In democracy mode, the users enter commands and the bot inputs the most suggested command after a ten second span. Democracy was mandatory for a brief part of the game’s lifespan, but users rebelled. Now users can vote on whether or not to use anarchy or democracy mode. Let that sink in for a second. And then there are the “religions” that have risen out of the game, the off-site strategizing that takes place, and the endless crafting of memes. (For the sake of not filling this paper with explanations of the already dense mythology of this fandom, I’m just going to link you to the group’s subreddit so you can search out further information if you’re interested.) Twitch Plays Pokemon has the potential to make a fascinating philosophy book. Or maybe a psychology book.

Then there’s the information cascade that led to the game’s popularity. I mentioned before that there was no promotion for this game. People in the know linked to it in their various social media streams and eventually it achieved a level of popularity that led to it being addressed in the mainstream media. The creator had no inkling that this game would achieve the level of popularity that it has, stating in an anonymous interview with The Guardian that they figured that Twitch Plays Pokemon would max out at around 300 users. (Hern) The information cascade is something that is occasionally, briefly, touched on in the marketing side of publishing, but it is something that is so dependent upon outside contributions and so resistant to being directed that it isn’t really worthwhile for marketers to direct their energy towards, other than to know what it is and hope that it works in their favour.

The aspect of community building is more interesting and, I think, more important to publishing going forward. Communities will and have sprung up independently of direction in publishing before, and will in the future, but I think that this game is an example of the power of community to launch something from niche into mainstream. Obviously it’s an example on steroids, because as I mentioned before it is working with a vast existing network and mythology, but I think that the freedom that users had and have to take to social media and share, create, and remix content has been a big part of the success. If Twitch Plays Pokemon had operated in a closed platform, it wouldn’t have taken off the way it had. Likewise, if there had been an effort on the part of the creator to control the story rather than just letting it develop, it would probably have failed. I think that there is a system of establishing a platform and then benignly neglecting it that publishers can take something away from. Creating a situation where readers can connect with one another and contribute without being policed or feeling like they’re being controlled (the general anti-“democracy” stance of Twitch users is easy to identify as a disapproval for being controlled).

Interactivity is the last thing that I’m going to talk about before concluding. Twitch Plays Pokemon can seem like a collection of random and inconsequential acts, an exercise in futility and frustration. And sometimes it is exactly that. But it is ultimately people interacting, engaging, passionately and consistently with a story that they love. Pokemon is a game that is familiar to many, and many jumped at the chance to engage again with a game that they probably played as earlier in their lives (my mom played Pokemon, and while she didn’t engage with the sometimes schizophrenic feed on Twitch Plays Pokemon, when I showed her the fanart and memes that had been born out of it, she was vastly entertained). It’s interaction with a story that is itself “contained.” I don’t think publishers need to concern themselves too thoroughly with creating stories that people can change in the moment of reading them, but rather focus on publishing stories and creating an environment that fosters engagement. Making it easier to build community and letting that community grow organically. I think that’s a hard thing to do because there are no projected revenue streams for it.

I’m going to conclude this hazily, because it isn’t something that I’ve been able to come to concrete conclusions about but which has rather given me a collection of interconnected thoughts. What I’m most interested in is having a dialogue about the lessons that Twitch Plays Pokemon has to offer publishers, whether they established, new, or self, whether they’re things I touched on or not.

One Reply to “Twitch Plays Pokemon: or, community building in the information cascade”

  1. Brittany this was a very interesting essay. Twitch Plays Pokemon is not a topic I would have thought of for our program, but I really liked reading about it! I am fascinated that it is a game within a game. There are those playing pokemon (with thousands of their “closest friends,” with only one controller) and then there are those playing Twitch Plays Pokemon. And the two games can have increasingly different objectives.

    I agree that while the information cascade is fascinating, it isn’t really able to be harnessed. Especially for publishers as the commitment of a book (or long form literature) goes against the information cascade. Since a book is something that you can’t simply share with one click (at least, that would be bad manners to spoil a book like that).

    I think there are a couple of things publishers could take away from this experiment: things move fast on the internet; you must pay attention or you’ll miss out; and sometimes online experiments are very successful (also that out of chaos can come success but I think publishers know that already). Twitch Plays Pokemon was a rapid-fire 13 days experiment that became an online phenomena. And from that phenomena a whole new community has been created.

    I like your notion of publishers creating more communities that allow a bit of anarchy. The “situation where readers can connect with one another and contribute without being policed or feeling like they’re being controlled” that you ruminate on sounds a lot like fan fiction sites. If you meant forums or chat-rooms I think it would be hard to have a specific book-forum that didn’t offer much else. Did you have any more thoughts on how readers could connect in the way you suggested?

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