In February and March of 2014, a small modification to a nearly 20-year-old video game created a cultural phenomenon. An anonymous user changed the code of Pokémon Red so tens of thousands of people could input simple commands in a chat room and together direct the character. Their goal was to make it through the game’s eight “gyms” and defeat the illustrious “Elite Four.” It was being played on Twitch.tv, a website where gamers can broadcast themselves playing any game they choose. Soon tens of thousands of players caught word of the idea and began inputting commands. The social experiment grew in scale and attention.
It was chaos, but beautiful chaos. A system was added where, instead of inputting commands, users could vote on how the game interpreted commands. Players could cast “anarchy,” where the game would receive a one command every few seconds, or “democracy,” where the game would take the most popular command every few seconds. Bedlam reigned.
Forums popped up to help devise strategy. Jokes and memes flooded the internet, showcasing the high and lows of the experience. A new Pokémon narrative was attached to the original plot.
In just over two weeks, a group of over a million users issued over 122 million commands and completed the game. A total of 9 million people had viewed the stream with a peak of 120,000. It was the infinite monkey theorem in action. A constantly changing group of thousands was able to complete one task, all because Twitch is a social structure – a tangible community of disparate individuals that come together online to speak the same language and reach the same goals.
In September 2015, the inaugural TwitchCon was held in San Francisco. Everyone I spoke to shared a similar sentiment: that Twitch is a viable community. Panels like “Community as Content” and “Building Communities on Twitch” show its pervasiveness. Over 20,000 people gathered in real life, to celebrate a website, but in reality, they were celebrating the people that compose Twitch.
Fans waited in hour-long lines to meet their favorite streamers; gamers tested new technologies; stages showed off new games and practice stations dotted the floor; panel rooms constantly emptied so the next crowd could pack. Those present understood and spoke the same language.
I was traveling back from North Carolina when Twitch beat Pokémon. I was following the struggle of the game’s final trials on my phone. Post-college and looking for direction, I wanted to start over somewhere new, so I went to North Carolina to try to move there. I had left Florida, where my friends, family and familiarity stayed behind.
North Carolina offered challenges, which I wanted. And I was uncomfortable, but helping to ease the transition was a community that I could access from my pocket. Twitch was omnipresent. The language, customs and friends could be taken anywhere, even if I didn’t know where I was myself.
It is a place to laugh and learn, to be entertained and fall asleep to. It is a fascinating microcosm to view. I have seen the life and death of jokes, streams and memes. The species persists in the overall website culture, but entire lifetimes of ideas have passed.
When my mother used to take me to school, she would talk about her radio friends with a certain familiarity and fervor. I made fun of her for it. She didn’t really know these people and her relationship with them was one-way.
All these years later, I’m a total hypocrite.
Twitch has personalities among its broadcasters, those who stream at the same time of day with the same crowd watching. In a way, you get to know them. But the difference between radio and Twitch broadcasters is the interaction. There is direct and immediate feedback between the host and the audience, something extra that this strange new medium offers. The flow of information is dynamic, quick, and altogether human, fostering a sense of community.
“It connects the performer and the audience in a way we haven’t seen in digital media. It’s more like a live performance with a rowdy audience from 200 years ago,” says Dmitri Williams, Assistant Professor of Communication at USC and expert in video games and online communities. “We’ve never seen it at this scale, or with so many public performers,” continues Williams. “It’s very democratic.”
One streamer, APlatypuss, told me, “I feel like Twitch has brought this new realm of interactivity while playing video games.” Broadcasting on Twitch is his job. And he’s pretty good at it. At any point in his broadcast, he averages at least 500 viewers. Nightly, this gamer logs on to Twitch and plays, but more than that, he is logging on to entertain his committed followers. Describing the follower experience he says, “You got this culture, your community off on the side while you’re playing video games, if you wanna like tag along with somebody, boom! Easy.”
So what exactly is the culture of a website dedicated to playing a video game? What are the traits that make up a culture in the first place? “Short answer is that it’s the customs, laws and activities that make one group different than another,” says Williams.
The internet is its own culture, from Tumblr to Twitter to YouTube. Platforms develop communities, whether large-scale like the VlogBrothers’ Nerdfighter community on YouTube or small like the art pockets of Tumblr. Twitch’s online collective shares and operates on the same core ideas and principles, complete with its own community leaders.
Twitch “heroes” are the wildly popular streamers, the professional gamers who play in leagues and tournaments the world over, drawing in tens of thousands of followers. But the heroes truest to the community ideals are the ones who came from nothing.
Lethalfrag is one of these heroes. A few years ago, he quit his job and began streaming every day for two years. His dedication paid off. At TwitchCon, he was the first inductee to the Twitch Hall of Fame.
Heroes guide the community through video game tales and show them how to overcome great trials, in game. But outside of game, the communication only becomes more powerful, with streamers often giving advice and helping fans and followers through problems.
The opposite is true too, with fans offering support to streamers. Earlier this year, a popular streamer named Geronimo had a relationship with another streamer come to an end. He was devastated. Geronimo already has several thousand viewers nightly, but when he was hurt, thousands more flocked to his page where he expressed his grief. He poured out his soul to the audience and they offered him emotional support and well wishes. Aphromoo, another pro, logged on just to play some games with Geronimo, cheering him up.
But by no means is the community perfect. It has quirks and faults that are ingrained in the dialogue. Good gameplay and humor is highly recognized – the best streamers showcase this – but a dark vein of sexism and racism unfortunately persists
Imagine: The stage is set and the lights are glowing brightly at the latest eSports event. As the pros square off, the prize pool of money is near a million dollars. Thousands of fans fill the stands. To capture the excitement, a boom camera raises and pans across the sea of rabid gaming fans to focus on the face of one – a woman. And in the chat window, filled with hundreds of thousands of viewers, remarks such as “Was that a girl??” or “Grill!” flash by.
“Grill” is another way to say girl. This acknowledgment is mostly innocuous, but tells that women are noticed for being “different.” The same thing happens for different races or any deviation from the “gaming norm.” They are not necessarily insulted for being “different” but always at least acknowledged, even if it is someone, like a pro or streamer, who is a very familiar face. The comments, ever present and the taste, ever questionable.
All of these instances indicate a thriving interaction. It emphasizes that this website is more than just random thoughts and shared ideas, it is an active, live community with its own points of pride and points of failure. Those involved are united by their shared love of gaming, but stay on a particular channel for hours on end because they feel like they belong to something bigger, even to a particular streamer’s tribe. If you are a regular, the host will greet you. Even chat members, who are only known by their username, will greet you. You return to that channel for the gaming, the fun and the feeling that you fit in.
Jeff Watson, USC Assistant Professor of Interactive Media and Games Division, told me that gaming has a long history of community. “If you go back to say, the 1920s, and you were to say, ‘oh, she’s a gamer,’ you would probably be talking about a very social person,” Watson says. Games were social events where people gathered to play together.
Gaming, at one point, became a digital and therefore solitary endeavor with the rise of the home computer and video game consoles. “In fact,” Watson says, “it was so unusual to play by yourself, that we had a name for the one game that you would play by yourself. And it was Solitaire.” Gaming as a hobby was relocated from the parlor to a dark bedroom. From a many- to a single-player experience.
Now, through online gaming, the social interaction is shifting back to where it once was, and Twitch is just an extension of that, adding viewership to an already social phenomenon. And a community develops that revels in that shared experience. An experience that had been missing for too long.
The website is only four years old, its community young and still-developing. Some of the ideas that the Twitch community develops last, like the language and codes it uses, but many more disappear. Still, there is no denying the established nature of the ideas and ideals that encompass the community, nor the strength of that community.
And regardless of where you are in the world, a simple hello in chat can make you feel at home.