#BBCtrending: Why do people love #TwitchPlaysPokemon?

  • 27 February 2014
A screenshot of Twitch Plays Pokemon

There have been more than 30 million hits in the last fortnight on the retro computer game Twitch Plays Pokemon. What's the appeal? One of the game's dedicated fans, the BBC's Chris Berrow, attempts to explain.

If you were a child of the 90s, you might have wasted a large part of your childhood hunched in darkened rooms playing Pokemon on your Gameboy. I did, and it was great.

Image caption The Pokemon cartoon was huge in the 1990s

Seventeen years on, and my passion for the game has been revived by a strange phenomenon that is taking the internet by storm. An anonymous Australian programmer has created a new version of Pokemon, hosted on a website called Twitch. The game runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

What makes it different from my childhood Pokemon is that as many as 120,000 other internet users are trying to control the main character at the same time. Fellow aficionados say it's about "sharing in a common nostalgic adventure", and being part of a community. Very, very occasionally you see your own commands change the course of the game - which can make it very addictive indeed.

But there is more to its appeal than this. To play the game is to see our hero - who is called Red - anxiously pace back and forth as users send conflicting commands. Watching his troubled progress is a strangely profound experience. The reason it's happening is that although most of us want Red to beat the game's "bosses" and reach the end, some trolls will send him the wrong way, or worse, press pause.

Image caption The "hive mind" can lead to a lot of faffing...

This causes Red to stop and look at all the items he's carrying - in the early days of the game, he would neurotically re-examine something called the Helix Fossil every five or 10 seconds. So the players decided that this thing must be a religious artefact of some sort and now you often hear players cry out: "All hail the Helix Fossil!"

Then there was the moment that the Pokemon known as Pidgeot was renamed AAABAAAJSS. No one player chose that name, but that's what it is - and it's become known to players as "Abba Jesus". The actual story of the game has become secondary to these interesting accidents. It's like we are creating a story as we go.

Inevitably, Twitch Plays Pokemon is sending ripples across social media. The hashtag #twitchplayspokemon is accompanied with peculiar commands and comments on the game. Users proudly display anarchy or democracy badges, share their fan art and giggle at Twitch in-jokes.

Red has now completed about half of the game. But like all games, Pokemon only gets harder, so I think it will take at least a few weeks before we finish - if we get to the end at all.

Additional reporting by William Kremer

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