This post was originally published on my other blog, Cyborg Stories. It was written as part of a university assignment in 2020. Here’s a link.
Pokémon is one of those classic games, instantly recognisable to anyone who has anything to do with computer or video games (and even some who don’t). It’s a brilliantly-designed game – complex enough to stand up to very deep analysis, but simple enough that children can learn it.
Or a fish. Turns out, a fish can play Pokémon.
Pokémon is traditionally a single-player experience. The originals, Pokémon Blue and Pokémon Red, came out in 1996. The name, for those not familiar with the phenomenon that is this franchise, is a Japanese portmanteau of the phrase “Pocket Monsters”, as the game is about monsters that you carry around in your pocket. Actually, the original Japanese version released as Pocket Monsters: Red and Green, but we’re more familiar with the American name, Pokémon Red and Blue. Not counting spinoffs, director’s cut versions, sequels and phone app games like Pokémon Go, there have been 16 main games, the most recent of which released in 2019.
While there are exceptions, the video games have largely been single-player only. You don’t play Pokémon online, with friends, or against other players, you play it usually on a handheld gaming console (or emulator, for the older games), by yourself. You might talk about it online, compare strategies, discuss the characters and techniques for leveling your Pokémon or beating certain gyms. But the actual playing happens alone.
Enter the fish.
The HackNY hackathon in August 2014 spawned an idea that became an Internet phenomenon. Grayson the fish was livestreamed swimming around his tank, which was divided into a three-by-three grid, and each area of the grid mapped to a button on a Game Boy controller. Up, Down, Left, Right, A, B, Start and Select (no information was available on whether Grayson ever entered the Konami code, but I like to believe he did). A camera tracked Grayson as he swam around the tank, recording whenever he entered a new grid square and pressing that button. And thus, a fish played Pokémon Red.
20,000 people watched this fish play Pokémon Red. Twenty. Thousand. People.
A significant portion of those 20,000 people chose to scream abuse at a fish for more than 100 hours, for not pressing the right buttons on a game that it didn’t know it was playing and probably wouldn’t have understood even if you sat down and explained it. Despite this negative environment, within the first 125 hours, the fish had managed to select a Charmander as its starting Pokémon, and beat the rival’s Squirtle with it.
Grayson, being a fish, has since passed, but gaming enthusiasts, tech experts, and people who are interested in social media experiments talk about Grayson’s accomplishments to this day. The experience is deeply communal, too, in a way that single player games generally aren’t.
However, Grayson’s experiment was preceded by another, perhaps even more famous experiment: Twitch Plays Pokémon, abbreviated generally to TPP. This also took place in 2014, though in February. In this experiment, Twitch chat was set up so that messages that people typed into the chat were converted to instructions for the game.
This experiment is actually still running – just before writing this I spent a very enjoyable five or six minutes watching Twitch chat run a bike repeatedly into a wall in Pokémon Sword/Shield (released 2019). Here’s the stream.
Now, the stream is currently much less of an unmitigated disaster – famously the original, which also played Pokémon Red, had 80,000 people ‘playing’ … and remember how I said that the game is deep enough that strategy discussions are legitimate? Yeah. Playing one of the original games, you get 80,000 Pokémon diehards in the chat all providing contradictory instructions to execute their own personal strategies. Most people have completely different ways to get through the game, from choosing different starter Pokémon, to taking gyms in different orders. There was no filter in the Twitch chat either – it executed the moves in exactly the order they were received. All of the moves. The Internet, never known for its proportional and moderated responses to anything, let alone childhood favourite games, turned the stream, for a short time, into a pit of unmitigated rage.
Now, there are significantly fewer people watching the stream at any given time. As of writing this sentence, there are a comparatively modest 152 people watching the stream, and most of the instructions seem to be coming from between 10 and 20 users – not enough to cause such complete chaos, but certainly still enough to run a bike into a wall for several minutes running.
Also as of writing that sentence, I learned for the first time that there is a Pokémon called a Sqwovet, and I’m not sure how to continue my day now that I know this information.
TPP is known now as the event that changed Twitch forever, possibly even the moment when Twitch was put on the trajectory to become what it is today. It has also spawned research discussing what we can learn about social dynamics and even political organisation from watching the original Twitch Plays livestream and examining the players’ behaviour.
All of this begs the question: Why Pokémon? I would answer ‘familiarity’. Pokémon is the most valuable franchise ever created, has millions of fans all across the world, and thanks to its TV and comic adaptations, is even recognisable to people who have never touched a game console in their lives. It’s also just at the nostalgia sweet spot: people who are Twitch watchers these days probably remember growing up playing Pokémon as kids, whether that’s the original Red and Blue, or whether they’re more of the Gold and Silver era. My generation grew up watching the anime on Cheez TV (Or whatever passed for Cheez TV in other countries).
That kind of name recognition is vital to an experiment like this – to crowd source input with the largest crowd possible – whether that’s gathering 20,000 people to scream at a fish, or 80,000 people to scream at each other. These experiments needed as many people as possible to engage with them in order to teach us something about the way we experience things as a group, not just how we play games like this alone.
The only way these experiments could have worked – and turned out to be the experiences they were – was for the franchise to be popular enough to put 80,000 people in the same Twitch chat who all already knew how to play the game. It needed the name Pokémon on the cover to get people interested and invested. Otherwise the whole thing would have ended up like the TPP stream is now: A couple of hundred people politely running a bike into a wall, largely unnoticed by the rest of the Internet.