On February 13th, a social experiment began. An anonymously-run account on Twitch.tv, a website that streams media live, set up a stream for a play-through of Pokémon Red Version, which is a popular game released in America in 1998. Here’s the trick: the viewers control the gameplay by typing key commands into the chat feature of the site. Some special coding allows for these commands to go directly into the game. Essentially, instead of one player controlling the game, it’s a collaborative effort on the parts of everyone who comments. The project is called “Twitch Plays Pokémon”, and can be found here.
A week into the experiment, nothing was going as expected. The project gained rapid popularity with a peak of over 120,000 viewers, drawing massive attention and creating utter chaos. In spite of the conflicting orders by viewers in the chat box, the group was able to make tremendous progress in the game—but this wasn’t the only surprising outcome.
Somehow, Twitch Plays Pokémon has created an entire religion for itself. This is made complete with plenty of conflict, lore, and schisms to boot. Here is the “definitive religion chart” posted by the Twitch Plays Pokémon Facebook page on February 22nd. It’s messy and complicated and almost impossible for anyone who isn’t directly involved to understand—but those who are there contributing to this saga don’t only understand it, they feel it.
Anyone who has watched the live stream would be able to identify themselves to you by their denomination—and justify their stance, too. You can find Anarchists who serve the “Great Helix Fossil” and find their salvation in “Bird Jesus”. In contrast, you may stumble across those who follow the “False Prophet” Flareon and worship the Dome Fossil as their god, citing Democracy as the right path. These two groups struggle against each other for control of the game. Twitch Plays Pokémon, after less than a week of playing, was no longer about playing a video game. This social experiment became its own religion, and then started its own religious war.
According to the definition of a religious system in America: Religion and Religions by Catherine L. Albanese, the products of Twitch Plays Pokémon are indeed classifiable as a religious system. The Albanese definition from the introduction of the book states that religions that include creeds, codes, cultuses, and communities are considered religious systems. Because of the heavy borrowing from Christianity, the Twitch Plays Pokémon religion fulfills the creeds, codes, and cultus aspects with terminology and practice almost identical to those of Christianity—just substitute the names of major figures. The community facet is the only portion of the religious system that was present even before the religious themes became prominent. The community was there from the very beginning of the game online.
How does something like this happen? Something as simple as a group of people working through a video game together has very rapidly generated an entire slough of religious denominations each with their own histories, legends, philosophies, and even artwork. From a Religious Studies standpoint, this is remarkable. So many questions can be asked about this experiment and its products, but the most glaring is this: Why religion?
Why would an internet-based, collaborative video game play-through turn itself into an elaborate religious system? Why not stop at the themes of Anarchy and Democracy and create a political climate? What about keeping to the norms of internet culture, or sticking to the theme of Pokémon games? The incorporation of religion could have happened for several reasons, but the total religious overhaul was entirely unprecedented—and it all started from a game for kids.