Every year, a substantial amount of academic research is published about, or with some connection to, the Pokémon franchise and/or fandom. While occasionally some of this research breaks through to the fandom and/or to mainstream news, much of this research sadly goes underreported, and unread by the wider community of Pokémon fans. We here at Bulbagarden think it's about time that changed. As part of an ongoing project to bring more of this work to the attention of the broader Pokémon community, we're looking to share recent research spanning an A to Z of academic disciplines, from agriculture and biological sciences, to zoology, and plenty of other topics in both the sciences and humanities in between. We don't have a particular schedule for how often these posts will go up, but we hope you'll look forward to them, and that you'll see something in these that catches your interest. If you've seen an article out there that you think deserves to be featured as part of this project, please don't hesitate to reach out!
With Twitch Plays Pokémon slated to feature in the upcoming Catch a Million to Conquer Kids’ Cancer charity event in support of St. Baldrick's Foundation, we thought now might be a good time to share some recent research relating to the Twitch Plays Pokémon phenomenon. Our latest featured article for this series comes from Argyrios "Aris" Emmanouloudis, who completed his PhD on online communities and video game fandom at the University of Amsterdam, and is currently the Games Programme Coordinator at SAE Institute Amsterdam. This short paper, which presents a case study on the Twitch Plays Pokémon community, was originally presented at FanLIS 2021, an interdisciplinary academic conference which brings together researchers from fandom, fan studies, and library and information science. You can view the video presention of this and other papers presented at that conference at the FanLIS 2021 Recordings archive on The CityLIS FanLIS Project website.
The following article was originally published by the authors listed below as an open access article in Transformative Works and Cultures, a peer-reviewed open access journal published by the Organization for Transformative Works (DOI: 10.3983/twc.2022.2239). TWC publishes articles about transformative works, broadly conceived; articles about media studies; and articles about the fan community. It is republished here under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license. The version published here omits the paragraph numbers from the original publication for ease of reading.
Twitch (still) plays Pokémon: When spectators become archivists
University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
In 2014, an anonymous user changed the way that game streaming worked. Through the channel of Twitch Plays Pokémon on Twitch, viewers were able to control and play the classic Pokémon Red game in real time. Without any prompt from the stream's management, fans started documenting the stream's history and records. I examine how this case transcends the regular case of user-generated fan art and becomes one of the first examples of pure fan-generated narrative, often through references to archived material.
Fan labor; Streaming; User-generated content; Video games
Twitch.tv (commonly referred to simply as Twitch) is a streaming website, used frequently for streaming video games. Operating as a platform that anyone can join, Twitch allows users to stream to live audiences, focusing more on live gaming content. One of Twitch's most popular endeavors was Twitch Plays Pokémon (hereafter abbreviated as TPP). It sparked a cult following and a robust community willing to work as archivists for the sake of communal wellbeing and growth. This active community also caught the attention of researchers interested in the project's community aspect (Carter 2014; Lindsey 2015).
I examine both the communal affordances that helped foster the TPP community and the way fans performed the role of the archivist to ensure the community's preservation in order to examine how video game-related communities can self-regulate but also maintain an archive based on decommodified labor (note 1). My methodology is divided into two parts. First, I consulted a study by Axel Bruns (2008) on user-generated content features, which helped me elucidate an understanding of communal affordances. These affordances are open participation and communal evaluation, unfinishedness, fluid heterarchy and ad hoc meritocracy, and communal property. Regarding the role of the fan-archivist, I engaged in content analysis of the community's platforms. More specifically, I followed the stream on a daily basis from January 2020 to March 2020, observing the interaction on the screen and messages in the comments section. I repeated the process in June 2020, expecting that people would spend more time at home using digital entertainment devices due to the Covid-19 restrictions worldwide. At the same time, I was following the TPP community on Reddit and Discord, two platforms used extensively by video game fans.
A screenshot of the Twitch Plays Pokémon stream, showing its audience participation elements, taken by the author.
2014 saw the introduction of storytelling in Twitch such that audiences could shape the progress of a particular narrative (the stream) and create their own content. Inspired by a previous stream on which viewers could bet on the winner of in-game fighting matches, an anonymous streamer (note 2) started a channel called Twitch Plays Pokémon, streaming Game Boy's Pokémon Red Version. Unlike the original Game Boy game, the streamed game was played by viewers who, using the comments section, would type the name of a button from the Game Boy system (Up, Down, Left, Right, SELECT, START, A or B). The platform would accept each input and translate it as a command in the game (figure 1).
The game was not simple, particularly with nearly 6,000 people playing simultaneously (and 70,000 spectators) (Makuch and Haywald 2014). In other words, playing the game was like interacting in a video game with other people continuously trying to take over the game controller and play their own way, resulting in some absurd or funny occurrences in the game.
3. TPP's affordances
As is the case in most video game streams, open participation is encouraged and championed: anyone can play or just observe. Along with open participation, evaluation also plays a prominent role, which was even more important at the beginning of the stream, when Streamer occasionally looked online for comments and suggestions made by followers of the stream, so that their improvements could be implemented.
It is also important to point out that the stream is subject to constant community evaluation on external platforms such as Discord (https://discord.com/invite/twitchplayspokemon) and Reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/twitchplayspokemon/), where members frequently gather and discuss the stream's course and offer their thoughts, while forming subclubs and subcultures within cultures. At the same time, such platforms allow for the communication between a community leader and the rest of the members. In cases like TPP, fans know little to nothing about the leader who controls the pace of their entertainment and the extent of their social interaction (note 3).
In this case, Axel Bruns's (2008) observations concerning the four platform affordances are enlightening. Open participation is, as noted above, a prominent aspect of the present case and indeed, anyone can participate in Twitch Plays Pokémon as a player or an observer. Evaluation is, moreover, constant in the form of expressions of dismay with the constant input of random, inconsequential commands, so that participants can readily gain an understanding of what fellow members believe and want. Importantly, this process of evaluation can also be taken to another level, as when members create fan art that is then evaluated by others in the stream.
Because the stream never ends, it is characterized as an unfinished artifact and continuing process, given as well that this is an open community with the shared goal of completing the game and immediately starting the next game. Moreover, the stream is further complicated by the inclusion of elements of the mythos of previous games.
Meritocracy and heterarchy, meaning that everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute to and get rewarded based on their contribution, exist in this case, as well as in other cases of streaming. This is evident because apart from the anonymous streamer who intervenes only on occasion, the rest of the game's operations are left entirely in the hands of the players. While all players may express their opinion as to what the game protagonist should do next, various users slowly begin to stand out. They do so by using the tools provided by Twitch or other platforms and elevate their status to become more venerated members.
Where issues surrounding communal property are concerned, the content produced in this case is not the exclusive property of any particular community member. The community takes over the communal creative property and shapes the narrative around it, allowing for other members to make use of the characters, concepts, and events that have appeared in the game so far.
Perhaps unremarkably, the TTP project has been characterized as containing "the best and worst qualities of our user-driven, novelty-hungry age" (Cunningham 2014). And while that might be true, the impact that this stream has had on its audience is remarkable. This is to say that events that occurred in the live streaming spawned a dedicated following, whose members then adapted these events into a storyline and began making comics and novellas (fan fiction) building on the story. The stream channel then did the same thing with other Pokémon games—something that it continues to do to this day—bringing them into this persistent fictional universe and its mythos, by making use of preexisting templates (characters, locations, events) to compose new stories for the community.
Further contributing to the narrative, Streamer, who is also an efficient programmer, streamed a version of the follow-up game, Pokémon Crystal Version. In this game, the first game's protagonist reappears, and the game uses the Pokémon team from the first stream, thereby continuing the narrative and furthering the myths established in the previous game. At the time of writing, having finished broadcasting several Pokémon games, the channel has begun showing random Pokémon battles, while inviting the viewers to bet on the winners. Occasionally, playthroughs of older Pokémon games as well as playthroughs of other games may appear on the channel.
All the events that occur in the game and form the game narrative have been recorded in numerous sources, some of them curated by fans.
4. Twitch becomes productive
The community has not limited itself to giving the next commands to the onscreen avatar but has also been very active, creative, and imaginative. The stream inspired a large wave of fan art depicting the game's narrative, as well as merchandise. Many of these fan-made art pieces and items refer to various events that occurred on the stream, thus keeping its memory alive.
More complex collective projects began to emerge as countless fan-made artifacts developed from the stream, further resulting in what is now considered the game's bible. As a completely fan-generated product, this bible (https://issuu.com/audreydijeau/docs/the_book_of_helix) was written in a discursive mode that resembles a religious text, since the stream's lore has also been the basis of a joke religion (James 2018). The fan-made objects all contribute to the continuance of the narrative while expanding and enhancing it, thus providing more material for fans to use.
More information about the stream's history is found at the bottom part of the stream's main page. Along with the area where one can find links to resources, such as TPP information, leaderboards, and archives, the credits section includes community-run resources, including the Reddit and Discord servers, match results, archives, and databases (figure 2). Some community members who hold administrative positions in the stream also participate in the other platforms such as Reddit and Discord, although not as administrators. The stream's staff then, although eager to include such community-run endeavors, makes sure to distinguish themselves by means of a disclaimer.
The list of the stream's resources, featuring various archives run by the community. Taken from the Twitch Plays Pokémon stream.
Interestingly enough, moderators and administrators on those platforms are often separate from those in charge of the community's original source of material—the stream. Again, in this case, it is fan labor that sustains the community's presence on such platforms, through archiving and curating (fan-made) content. The staff only records technical elements and might make some lore references from time to time, but the heavier lore archiving tasks, which are foundational for the community, are being taken care of by fans themselves. In addition, it is the people on those other platforms who mobilize fellow fans to participate every time there is a special event happening on the stream.
To be fair though, Streamer has always been present, claiming that from the moment the stream started, he has always had a TPP tab running on one of his screens, as he told me in an interview (Discord message to the author, February 21, 2020). Streamer has additionally claimed that including all those fan-made archives just "seemed the right thing to do," while he is grateful for fans taking up the role of curators (Discord message to the author, February 21, 2020).
5. All good things come to an end?
TPP is still in operation at the time of writing, and no plans have been announced to cease broadcasting. The fan community likewise actively continues to produce artifacts that circulate daily through various online, and presumably off-line, channels. However, there has been an observable decline in the stream's popularity, and in terms of player participation in the stream's game, there were usually no more than 150 to 200 users at any given time in 2020, a far cry from the thousands flooding its comments section in 2014.
Here I am reminded of Henry Jenkins's claim that spectator culture has now become participatory culture (2006, 60), and I would add that participatory culture is also a hungry culture. During the phase that the TTP concept was still considered fresh and innovative, casual viewers spent a brief amount of time in the community, while devoted fans would spend hours participating in the game and creating content. However, when the original world of the first game was conquered and the idea behind the project stopped trending, most of the audience moved on, rendering its big success ephemeral. So, once the original game stream ended, fewer people remained for the subsequent streams, and even fewer are tuning in today.
Despite its diminished viewership, TPP undeniably left its mark not only on streaming platforms but also in online popular culture in general. While people still make and distribute memes and other artifacts that refer to TPP, other streams have tried to incorporate its various elements and mimic its success. However, in spite of its popularity, TPP's success was short-lived; after the first few playthroughs, the game had run its course. Hence although the game has limited continuity in the form of elements carried from one stream to another, there has been no long-term planning that might ensure the community's longevity and prosperity. In any case though, TTP created value and revenue streams for the platforms hosting its community's various iterations and creations, while that community has worked hard to keep the stream's lore accessible to anyone through work carried out to a great extent by fans themselves.
It is no overstatement to say that for an online game-related project to be monetized and successful, a devoted community willing to perform labor is required.
1. This article is based on work that is part of my forthcoming PhD thesis: A Game of Pawns: Fan-Made Content and Resistance in Online Video Game Communities.
2. The streamer goes either by the name of Streamer or TwitchPlaysPokemon, but for convenience, I will refer to him mainly by the former. The name Twitch Plays Pokémon (or TPP) was given to the entire project; therefore it will be used to refer to the project or the community behind it and not to the streamer or the name of the Twitch channel hosting the stream. Streamer is an Australian male whose real name has not been revealed.
3. Some streamers have taken on a role that seems almost godlike. Indeed, the founder and leader of a community that no one knows much about, appearing and intervening only occasionally, while providing selective means of communication, is perhaps a contemporary form of godhood in the digital era. In the community's history, the TPP streamer has been often associated with Arceus, a creature in the Pokémon lore known to be a god and creator as well, distanced but ever-watching.