How Does “Twitch Plays Pokemon” Work?

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On February 12th 2014, one of the more intriguing social experiments took place on Twitch: it was called “Twitch Plays Pokemon” and the idea behind it was a program where Pokemon Red was played and completed solely through messages posted in Twitch chat.

The experiment was a massive success, with over 1.16 million people contributing at some point, and over 55 million views. It also served a landmark moment for creating even more interactive experiences between stream viewers and what was being streamed.

How Did “Twitch Plays Pokemon” Work?

The programmer (who remains anonymous to this day) created a system that used a bot written in Python and connected it with the Gameboy emulator “VisualBoyAdvance.” This was then connected to the Twitch channel, where messages posted in Twitch chat would translate to inputs within the emulator; for example, typing “Start” would have the emulator immediately press “Start” in the game, with the effect obviously depending where you were in the game.

Due to the forgiving simplicity of an old JRPG game, Pokemon Red was the perfect prototype to test for this sort of script. It’s a wildly popular game that doesn’t require an absolutely large amount of precise inputs. The chances of the game actually being completed were…not as slim.

What Is “Twitch Plays Pokemon” Like In Action?

The easiest way to describe what “Twitch Plays Pokemon” played like was “frantic.” The character would consistently move in random directions, and constantly open and close the Pokedex in a truly chaotic playthrough.

The script for analyzing inputs also couldn’t handle the tens of thousands of participants at any given moment, meaning that balancing the trolls, the try-hards and people who had a different idea of how the game should be played was nearly impossible.

Part of what made this such a mesmerizing social experiment, however, was the effort to push and complete the game. After the initial chaos had subsided, there were concentrated efforts to drown out the trolls in the chat, as well as ways to coordinate chat messages so as to really move forward in the game.

As a result, Pokemon Red was completed on March 1st, after over 16 days of nonstop gameplay, in large part due to the improved coordinated effort among Twitch chat.

Are There More “Twitch Plays Pokemon” Events?

Since the original “Twitch Plays Pokemon” launch, the channel has continued to play various Pokemon titles, as well as Pokemon ROM hacks, using this same script format. There has been a noticeable improvement in the quality of the runs (some games being beaten in less than a week) and they remain very popular, despite not reaching the viewership numbers of the original.

In addition, this experiment has spawned a series of other games that use the same type of formula; games such as Dark Souls, Metal Gear Solid: Ghost Babel, Tetris and more all have been played using the chat command script.

The “Twitch Plays Pokemon” phenomena has laid the groundwork for games and streams that fully integrate viewership participation. It will be fascinating to see what other wildly popular games and events pop up that further connect the streamers and their viewers.