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A Million Gamers Cooperated to Win Twitch Plays Pokémon. Did They Just Invent Something New?

A huge victory for the game's thousands of players. What now?

The Internet’s favorite game for the past two weeks, Twitch Plays Pokémon, ended Saturday morning.

Was the past 16 days, which attracted some 1.1 million players sending 122 million chat messages, the beginning of a new way to play games? Or did the Internet just digest yet another fad?

First, a brief primer for those of you over the age of 25: Twitch Plays Pokémon was a social experiment hatched in February wherein over a million players tried to control one character in the same videogame at the same time by typing over one another in a crowded text chat room. An anonymous programmer modified one of the original Pokémon games for the Game Boy to automatically “read” the chat room, translating the text instructions from participants into game commands.

In other words, viewers who typed “up” in the Twitch chat room could make the protagonist Red walk upwards, while those who typed “left” would make him walk left, and so on. It was, at times, a chaotic mess. Imagine a million people telling you what to do.

But what made it all work (and fun to watch) is that the chat ran alongside a live broadcast of the game on the gaming video site Twitch. On top of the million who “played” by leaving comments, the game attracted more than nine million “onlookers,” with up to 121,000 people watching together at any one time.

The initial popularity of the experiment was unusual. What happened next surprised everyone.

Players quickly found ways around the form’s intrinsic challenges. To bring order to the chaos, they organized on social sites like Tumblr, Twitter and Reddit to coordinate their strategies and push toward the ultimate goal of defeating Red’s nemesis, Blue.

The community that spawned from this strategizing, in turn, created dozens of new internet memes and made both watching and playing the game a shared, communal experience. And early yesterday morning, the mob community finally defeated Blue — 16 days, 7 hours and 45 minutes after starting their quest.

Fans constructed an elaborate meta-story around the game and created countless works of fan art and even original music to celebrate their devotion. Games are often about competition, but Twitch Plays Pokémon showed that cooperation on a massive scale was both fun and, eventually, still able to produce results.

“Twitch Plays Pokémon has been an incredible experience, and we look forward to the next big adventure with all of you,” wrote Twitch PR director Chase, who does not use a last name professionally, in a company blog post.

One new adventure has already begun. The anonymous programmer who created Twitch Plays Pokémon has already launched a sequel, a play-through of Pokémon Crystal, released in 2001.

The next chapter for Twitch Plays type games may also be on the PlayStation 4: The upcoming horror game Daylight may play with the formula, according to the Twitch blog. The game’s creator, Zombie Studios, did not respond to a request for comment, but the blog post suggests that viewers of a live Daylight video stream will be able to help control the scary world from which the streamer is trying to escape.

Even before their victory, and especially afterwards, the pop-up community began wondering if the same format could be applied to other games.

However, both the stream’s creator and some of the most active members of its 97,000-user strong Reddit community expressed skepticism that non-Pokemon games would work as well or achieve the same level of virality.

“Being only able to enter button presses as chat messages is not ideal at all,” the creator said. “If it was possible for the players to interact in a way that allows for more precise and complex inputs then that would open up the range of games that could work well in this format.”

However, he suggested that he would watch spinoff projects if they were executed well.

“With both consoles [PlayStation 4 and Xbox One] having tight integration with Twitch I think it would be cool to see games let the audience interact with the game in some manner,” the anonymous programmer said in an email.

The PS4 has allowed players to stream their games live to Twitch since it launched last year, and the Xbox One will get the same functionality via a software update this month, Microsoft has announced. Twenty percent of Twitch’s broadcasters between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3 streamed from the PlayStation 4, according to a company spokesperson.

Although tens of thousands of people subscribed to the Twitch Plays Pokémon’s page on Reddit, a handful of them assumed a leadership role in organizing players by monitoring the game’s broadcast throughout the day and posting live updates. I spoke to three of the most prolific updaters together, and each had his own reason to question the phenomenon’s staying power.

One updater, who goes by the moniker 8bitremixguy on Reddit, said new “Twitch Plays” games would need to feel “completely different” — somehow newer, or fresher — while still following the same concept.

“If someone tried something [else] out like this concept, I don’t think it would have that virality,” 8bitremixguy said. “People will say, ‘OK, it’s already been done.'”

Another live stream updater, pseudonym DancesWithLupus, agreed.

“I don’t see ‘Twitch Plays’ games being that large of a thing in the future,” he said. “Nothing really ever dies on the internet. There will always be some small community of people playing things. But I can’t help but feel like it will become negligible very quickly.”

Plus, as another updater who calls himself guilka pointed out, the audience for both Twitch (average age 21) and the live stream was just old enough to fondly remember playing Pokémon as a seminal experience from their childhoods.

“Another game that people aren’t as familiar with probably wouldn’t have the same draw,” guilka said.

Even if the energy around “Twitch Plays” fades away, the social experiment has left behind one heck of a legacy, like a dorky Summer of Love. A difficult but necessary step to keep the the fun going, a popular Reddit post argued yesterday morning, may be leaving all of the art and music and memes of the past two weeks behind.

“This should be a rejuvenation, and we’re starting a new game,” the post reads. “Let the game’s random occurrences manifest themselves into a new story.”

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