Under Control

First Date

The line between playing games and watching them has been blurred once more, in a rather interesting way, by the huge success of Twitch Plays Pokemon. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Twitch Plays Pokemon is an event which has been ongoing for the past few weeks, wherein games in the classic Pokemon series are streamed live and controlled by the audience via chat commands. Because the viewers, and therefore the players, number in the thousands, this means that the final input sent to the game is, to put it mildly, a bit of a clusterfuck.

And yet, somehow, they have completed one of the original games, Pokemon Red. Was the input random, and the game’s completion the mere realization of an inevitable statistical occurrence? Or was it just guided enough, was there just enough will and reason filtering through, to guide the poor beleaguered player character to the end of the game?

I don’t know. I speak from a position of ignorance. I didn’t watch or participate in Twitch Plays Pokemon. I’ve never played Pokemon at all. It passed me by, game after game, and only now, looking at the phenomenon that is TPP, did I stop to wonder why. Why did I never play Pokemon? At the time it came out I was fond of JRPGs and Nintendo’s first party offerings, so on paper at least I was the ideal consumer. Why?

I remember Tetris. I remember Link’s Awakening. But I also remember that, at some point, some dickhead broke into my house and stole my Game Boy. And, only now, I realize that this is possibly the sole reason I never played Pokemon, undeniably one of the most popular and influential games of all time.

It’s a cliched observation that our lives are the avalanches of tiny catalysts. Nevertheless, it is always interesting to reflect, to wonder at just when and what those catalysts might have been.

I understand two things, when I think about this.

First: Games are events. As much as we gamers often prefer to think of the time we spend in virtual spaces as being apart from our real lives, as isolated from the real world, it is still a cause with its own effects. We dream about the worlds we occupy, and those dreams, of exploration and salvation, bloody victories and endless defeats, toothless and comforting tragedies and little everyday horrors, they change how we experience the world. Our reality and our history is shaped by and draped in our pastimes: Even if they seem insignificant, their effects echo beyond the games themselves through the medium of our bodies and consciousnesses.

Second: The only form of art which accurately reflects the arbitrary silliness of life is video games. By developing these robust systems and allowing them interact in meaningful ways, we can create the butterflies that affect us. Whether it’s a grenade rolling down a hill in Far Cry 2, blowing up the intended escape vehicle and instigating a blood bath, or the mine triggered by a penguin angering the deity summoning the spiders knocking the adventurer off of a ledge in Spelunky, tiny events snowball into impossibly grand and beautiful victories and failures. It’s not the only thing games can do or should do, but it is something uniquely beautiful about the experiences games can offer us.

We are at the whim of our circumstances. It’s not clear whether we are controlled by random chance, or by a million tiny wills whistling directions we can’t quite distinguish, but we are guided in ways impossible to resist. All we can do is add our own voices to the breeze, and try to guide ourselves as best as we can towards victory, never to know for sure whether it was our decisions that made the difference or a mere summation of a statistical chance.

  1. Like you, I’ve played loads of Nintendo games and JRPGs, but never Pokemon. Not sure why, it just didn’t appeal to me, I guess. Interesting thoughts about how game experiences tie in with our “real” lives, though!

  2. It almost sounds impossible that a series of arbitrary commands could complete a video game. I suppose if there was a sub-set of serious people then in time the game would get completed because you would have “good” commands mixed with random “good” commands > commands that do not matter + commands that are detrimental. I chuckled when you said you didn’t play Pokemon because I thought the same thing.

    • Reading up on it, I understand a supermajority of the chat could vote to implement a “democracy mode”, where only the command with a majority of votes would actually be used, and this was instrumental in completing certain sections of the game. I may have glossed over the finer points for the purposes of thematic consistency.
      That said, random commands would hypothetically eventually complete any game, it would just take a heck of a lot longer and be a lot more boring to watch.

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