Sunday, February 23, 2014

Life and Twitch Plays Pokemon

So it's been a really long time since I blogged. I have been thinking about lots of stuff to post recently. There is so much to talk about. I will start this with a quick update about me for those who actually care and then I think I want to discuss this whole Twitch Plays Pokemon phenomenon that has me and so many other completely enthralled.

It's now like February of my first year. That's kinda crazy. I finally started doing grading for Lab 1 and it went better than expected. Well for me anyway, can't say the students agree. I like to think it was their job to make me happy not the other way around. Or maybe that second one would come from the first. Regardless I am hoping this Tuesday and the rest of the week will be full of excellent reports so I don't have to be sad afterword. Other than grading I have two classes. One of which I don't care much about as it relates more to gaseous photochemistry, which is actually kinda interesting, and other physical principles of atmospheric mass transfer, that's the blah part. My other class is taught by my adviser, and is about environmental energy, which is actually really cool. I do like it and I find the methods interesting and useful. I have also (kinda) started on my research. I have an idea of what I will be doing and how to do it. Hopefully it will be progressing faster in the coming weeks. I am helping out with the MCS FLoS still and we have an event coming up soon that we need to do demos for. And outside of school I am watching lots of Youtube (Rooster Teeth, Pewdiepie, penguinz0, Rev3Games and The Sw1tcher). And that leads me to the main point of this blog. I have been totally entranced by this little 10 day (so far) stream called Twitch Plays Pokemon.

If you have not heard of this before you really should look it up. Here is a link to the stream, god knows how long it will be up and working. It is a really clever program that allows any person watching the stream to control the character by inputting commands. This may sound like a very basic thing and maybe it sound like any other video game, but it is very different when 50000-100000 people play at the same time. It is extremely chaotic and results in a fascinating social experiment. It has pretty much taken the internet by storm at this point.

I have now seen or heard it mentioned or spoofed in a dozen or more ways and from I don't know how many viewpoints. I am going to try to talk about it with many of these views in mind and present my own semi fleshed out idea of the event.

To me this program is a really amazing feat. My first thought of it when I started watching around day 2, was wow this is a proof of concept for the theory that if you give a bunch of monkeys a typewriter and enough time they can write the complete works of Shakespeare (or a similar thought experiment). My thought was that give these people enough time and they will eventually beat the game. Thinking about this thought now, is a really simplistic view of it though. Yes they will complete it obviously because there is no way to lose the game because it is rather linear, barring some ability to take some minor different paths, but you still end up beating the 8 gym leaders and the elite 4. Anyway, after following it for a week and watching other groups' reactions to it and forming more opinions on it I really think there is a whole lot more to be said.

There are some major differences between this stream and playing the game yourself. I will start by saying that the game itself presents almost no higher meaning (other than maybe the ethics of trapping animals and making them fight each other). So starting at that base point I believe some major differences between the game and program result in the program presenting some really fascinating comments on human society.

The first difference is the amount of people playing is on average 50-60 thousand more than it should normally be. It was created to originally only be a single person controlling the sprite on the screen. This introduces some mechanics that were never there in the original version of the game. This introduces much more chaos when playing. The way I thought about it first was it basically introduces Brownian motion to the sprites motion. For those who don't know much about physics, Brownian motion is what happens to very small particles as a result of being hit by other small particles; they don't move in defined trajectories, like passing a ball to a friend at a basketball game. They move more wiggly and randomly. In this sense the character can get from the Poke Center to the Gym, but it takes about 1000 more steps and 20 more pauses than should be required by a single player. This really introduces the element of randomness and complete chaos to the game. An added level of chaos is the presence of the 20-40 second lag time. Meaning if you tell the player to go down at this second, 20 seconds later your command will appear on screen. This may not sound bad, but when that down command changes the selected option from take the Pokemon out of the computer and erase that monster forever. That is a huge deal. I was just witness to one of the more well liked Pokemon being released not too long ago. It was devastating to me and thousands of others.

There are several topics I want to quickly mention and then I will talk about them individually because that last sentence reminded me of them all and I don't want to forget: Anarchy vs Democracy modes, Pokemon evolution in the narrative, Connection of all the players to the story, Spin-offs of this stream.

Ok that is what I could remember of my thoughts. So first I want to mention the two modes of the game. Anarchy is what was mentioned above, each person typing a command has the ability to persuade the motion of the sprite one to one; meaning your command will change the screen directly in one way or another. Democracy mode, which was introduced at a later time in the game is basically an average over some amount of time of votes. So say the timer is 10 seconds, in that ten seconds the players continue to type commands but the commands are averaged over that 10 seconds, so your command may not result in any changes happening to the game. This is taken from some person I saw on the chat several days back, anarchy is going nowhere, fast, while democracy is going somewhere slowly. So what tends to happen is people like anarchy because the sprite goes constantly, but usually takes forever to get where they want it to go. Democracy seems to be really effective when they are trying to get a very specific task done efficiently, but it takes much longer because of the averaging time. This evolution of modes of movement was one of the things that I really thought a lot about. It was created similar to the creation of forms of government through human history. Things were chaotic and so they created a system that would hopefully work to the best interests of the majority. Ok so human history had a few other routes first and it didn't work out so neat and clean, but realistically this hasn't either. Much to my surprise democracy almost never got used. I mean yeah it was slow but really it seemed to work out much better than anarchy. But now as time has gone on, it makes sense. It actually is not much better for time and really, it's not as entertaining. I just watched an interview where a gamer from Twitch, named Destiny, talked about this and why he thinks it happens. And it makes complete sense to me now, why democracy is not more used. It's because the point of this experiment is not to beat the game, as I thought, it is to have fun. It sounds silly and really simplistic, but it makes sense. Anyone in my generation has played this game and knows how to beat it. The fun isn't in beating it, the fun is in the narrative that has been created around the character and the Pokemon. I could speak on how governmental anarchy is not the same as this anarchy but that seems kinda pointless and less fun than the other points I want to make. Plus this post is already super long. So let's move on.

Pokemon is not really a story based game. I don't think anyone would give it awards for having a narrative. It's just fun to catch all the Pokemon you can. But this representation of the game is definitely different. It's interesting how much more entertaining stories are when you and 50000 others are writing it. Because of the randomness of button commands many absurd things happen in the game. For example Pokemon, after being caught can be named, well imagine 50000 people trying to type on a keyboard to write a name. You might imagine some names like "aaabaaajss" or "B-!)" it's not an easy thing. This makes people laugh and have a good time. And because these are nonsensical names, people need to come up with ways of pronouncing them or come up with random nicknames based on what they have done with those Pokemon. One story I will tell is about a Pokemon named "AAJST(???", this monster was a rattata, at one point or another this Pokemon, in the flurry of random button commands was taught the move dig. For those unfamiliar with the move dig, this move while useful in battle also has the secondary ability of instantly getting you from a cave to a Poke Center to heal your Pokemon. This is a super useful skill, but when a bunch of people are randomly hitting buttons you can imagine that this will accidentally be selected and result in a huge amount of progress being lost. Well this caused this Pokemon to get the nickname Digrat and similar names and it also got him to be one of the most hated Pokemon in the party. This is one of the things I was talking about, how people can create narrative even when there really is none to begin with. One of the guys on Rooster Teeth mentioned on the Patch how it is like a soap opera, which is a pretty good analogy. So later in the game at the Pokemon Tower, it was discovered that using the dig move in battle against ghosts was super effective and killed almost all ghosts instantly. This made a lot of minds change about Digrat and he got other nicknames like Big Dig. Well I am sad to report, if you have no heard, that today Digrat was released forever and is gone. I witnessed this and even though I am not completely up on the narrative of most characters I was so sad when it happened. It was really bad. Many people were upset about it. This is the impact that this playthrough has caused. It is a powerful look into the effect of cultural phenomena on people. I am intrigued by it and I hope others of you have some insight.

So moving on to the future of it. The game is still quite a ways from being done. It's over 250 hours in and there are still 2 gyms and the elite 4 left. For scale, I completed the blue version in 125 hours, and by that I mean I caught all 151 Pokemon and beat the elite 4 multiple times. At the time I was no more than 12 years old so I wasn't exactly good at games. It's also interesting to look at how long it took to finish each of the tasks. If you want to see their progress feel free to look at this site: But because this game took the internet by storm it has spawned others like it. One of which I read actually finished the blue version of the game. I did not watch that one at all so I know nothing about it but I was impressed when I heard that it finished in only 180 hours. I would be interested to know how many people were on it on average and what kind of system of motion they had. This kind of variability makes me think that this kind of gaming may be a really fun thing to play around with for game developers in the future. I would not be surprised if it managed to get a few game companies' attention. The future should be interesting regardless.

I realize this went on for a long time and I really feel like I have not talked much about anything. But I hope this brings people up to speed on the event and brings some discussion. I want to hear more and I have other ideas about it if people want to talk about it too. Let me know.

I also have some other ideas for blogs that I may or may not be able to get out soon. I have been wanting to blog a lot in the last few weeks, but time is limited. We will see. Well for those who actually have read this far thanks and please do comment with your thoughts on this whole phenomenon. Adios.


  1. I remember getting all 151 in blue version... Its so cool to see the original Pokemon games be thrown into an experiment like this while at the same time seeing it yield so much entertainment.

  2. Yeah exactly. That is one thing I mentioned and heard elsewhere. This game is giving entertainment to thousands in a way that it was never intended. This is just another reason I think games are a form of art. Art is up to the interpretation of the viewer. This is a great example of it and it really makes me happy to see new innovative things like this in the realm of videogames.