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E S S A Y S
W i t h
F o c u s
G a m e
S t u d i e s
a n d
N a r r a t o l o g y
The following essay was presented at the Interface 2014 Conference on Friday, May 2nd, 2014:
Community-Controlled Games and the Advent of the Fourth Person Narrative
The gaming industry has undergone a significant change since the introduction of the Magnavox Odyssey, the world’s first
commercial home video game console. Up until that point, video games had been a communal experience, played out in public and in
community arcades. The Magnavox Odyssey, however, brought the games into the home, and made gaming a much more personal
experience. Despite this transition, games still attempted to retain that shared experience with the use of multiple controllers. From
Pong to Mario Party, multiplayer games allowed players to connect with each other through shared gaming experiences. After the
Sega Dreamcast introduced built-in network capabilities, however, the home-gaming industry has never been the same. Games are
becoming increasingly focused on allowing players to connect online. What gamers had lost in personal connections at the arcade,
was now being regained through a much larger network. Players were now able to connect across geographical boundaries, and could
create online communities in Second Life, Habbo Hotel or Playstation Home. While the use of the network has allowed more
individuals to connect, it was only recently that gamers could now make the ultimate connection – to play together as a single
character. With the advent of Community-Controlled Games like Twitch Plays Pokemon, gamers not only have a new means of
connecting and creating communities, but an entirely new means of creating and narrating stories.
A Community-Controlled Game, or a CCG, is any video game featuring a single avatar that is controlled by more than one person. The
origin of this type of game is often attributed to Twitch Plays Pokemon, a Gameboy game that was played through a video streaming
platform called Twitch. However, the viral success of Twitch Plays Pokemon has since spawned a number of other CommunityControlled games, including one of my own. Although this trend in gaming is actually only a few months old, CCGs are promising to
change the way we interact with video games and other players. While CCGs have become famous as social experiments, I believe that
the introduction of this gameplay mechanic can also lead to dynamic new methods of telling stories.
On February 13th of this year, an anonymous programmer from Australia streamed a live feed of Pokemon Red Version on Twitch.tv.
While the site has been live streaming video games since its debut in June of 2011, there was something about this game that made it
significantly different. The programmer had modified the game to allow viewers of the stream to actually participate by typing
commands into the chatbox to the right of the feed. Basically, if a viewer typed the word “LEFT”, the avatar would move left, or if they
typed the word “START”, the start menu would pop up. No other video stream had ever offered this level of interactivity, and players
began engaging in a massive struggle for power as the viewer count reached into the thousands. Although this new form of gameplay
was an intriguing concept, it made the game incredibly difficult to actually play.
The avatar would walk around in circles, fall off of ledges, randomly open the start menu and battle without any sense of strategy.
Critics claimed that the game would never be completed, while others asserted that it could, often comparing its completion to the
theory that, with enough time, a group of monkeys with typewriters could eventually write a perfect copy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
However, despite its criticism, the community actually completed the game within 16 days, and according to a post on the site’s blog,
the stream boasted 9 million unique viewers, with a peak of one hundred and twenty one thousand at a single time. The stream had
reached over 6 million views within its first five days, averaging roughly 80,000 online at a time. It stands as the largest single-player
game to ever be played by a community, and since then, the streamer has hosted 3 other Pokemon games – Crystal, Emeraldand Fire
Red – along with a series of short “filler” games in between them.
Due to the massive success of the original Twitch Plays Pokemon, other streamers have begun hosting their own CommunityControlled Games, allowing viewers to play games like Tetris, Pacman, Super Mario Brothers, the Legend of Zelda and even Final
Fantasy VII. While some have enjoyed moderate success, none have been able to compete with the millions of views achieved by
Twitch Plays Pokemon, and most fail to even be playable. Players of Twitch Plays Super Mario Brothers, for example, died over 6,500
times within the first level alone (Mosley). The main issue is that many of these games are reaction-based, which simply doesn’t work
as a CCG. While it may be possible someday, the current platform is unable to handle input from thousands of users in real time.
Twitch was meant for streaming videos, not interactive gameplay. Thus, there will always be a considerable amount of lag before a
user’s input is actually executed within the game, generally ranging between twenty to fourty seconds. In order to deal with this lag,
games must feature a turn-based battle system, where players will not be damaged while inactive. More importantly, however, the game
must feature what programmer Zach Gerlock refers to as a “no failure state”.
Gerlock is the streamer behind the moderately popular Twitch Plays Zelda, and spoke in a recent podcast about the differences
between playing a Role-Playing Game like Pokemon and an adventure game like Zelda. In Pokemon, he states, “anyone can beat it,
because you can’t fail”. Playing the game is certainly difficult, but the only real challenge is trying to control the avatar. The character
moves erratically, making progress incredibly slow. However, despite the tedious nature of the game, time and boredom are the
players’ only true enemies. They can lose battles, but they are simply brought back to a building called the Pokemon centre and
allowed to continue on. Ultimately, there is no real way to lose, and players are always able to progress despite the setbacks. A
reaction-based game, on the other hand, will deny progression completely if the community fails to master the game.
This was the largest issue in Twitch Plays Super Mario, where players had died over 15000 times before the game was eventually
abandoned. Thus, in order to make the original Zelda work as a CCG, Gerlock claims that he needed “to remove all failure states”. What
this means then, is that he had to program the game to allow infinite health and items. In order for the game to even be playable, it had
to be impossible to lose. This is a very strange concept for a video game, as they are almost always based on some form of conflict.
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While the game may not provide any true challenge, it is in this lack of failure that I believe a CCG takes on a new purpose.
Watching or participating in the chaos of Twitch Plays Pokemon can often be a very frustrating and tedious task, and many viewers
struggle to watch the stream for more than a few minutes. Interest in the series has dropped significantly after the first game was
beaten, and the most recent game would often have less than 2000 viewers online at a time. This is a drastic change from the 80,000
viewers Red version boasted, and yet, those who still participate are a faithful and dedicated fan base. What has kept the series alive, I
believe, is the construction of a Community-Created Narrative. What the series had lost in viewers, it has gained in artwork, theories
A Community-Created Narrative is, simply, any single narrative created by a large community. This doesn’t have to be based off a
video game, but it has very unique implications for a Community-Controlled Game. While the gameplay of Twitch Plays Pokemon can
often be unenjoyable, it is this feature that has led to the creation of a vast collection of lore and creative works. The subreddit
dedicated to the game has almost 100, 000 subscribers, with one of the most dedicated fan-bases I have ever seen. Every single day,
members of this community post short bits of creative fiction and comics designed to interpret the actions of the game’s avatar. The
community votes on the stories they believe best fit the gameplay, or simply what they enjoyed reading the most. As the game
progresses, the community adds to the pre-existing narrative which they have decided as canon. This use of a canon allows all new
contributions to fit a single narrative thread, and competition allows only the most interesting or creative stories to influence later
additions. This democratic voting system gives the narrative a pseudo-Darwinian feel, placing each contribution in an arena for the
survival of the fittest. At the end of each game, a few members of the community will compile all of the highest voted stories into a
single post, thus completing the CCN.
The community’s most dynamic creation was the Book of Helix, submitted by Audry Dijeau. The book is a 27 page long collection of
the top-rated and most influential contributions from the subreddit, woven into a single, coherent text. The book is the most complete
example of a Community-Created Narrative, and although most English professors may not call it literature, it is a prototype for an
entirely new way of telling stories. Although the concept of Community-Created Narratives is not new, it is their use in a CommunityControlled Game that is. The difference, here, is that the CCN is not just based on the events in the CCG, but that the two exist in a
symbiotic relationship, dependent on each other. The game requires narrative because the gameplay fails to stimulate us on its own.
Its repetitive, antagonistic nature makes progress through the game’s own narrative incredibly difficult. More importantly, because the
game requires a non-failure state, the plot of the game becomes almost meaningless. The game’s need for conflict is based off the
nature of narrative in itself.
In order to understand this need for conflict, I want to briefly explore its place in fiction in general. In his book The Storytelling
Animal, Jonathan Gottschall explores the nature of fiction and its place in our everyday lives. He states that “[w]e are, as a species,
addicted to stories” but “we do not know why we crave story,” and “nothing so central to the human condition is so incompletely
understood” (Gottschal xiv). Stories permeate almost every aspect of our lives, so much so, in fact, that “daydreaming is the mind’s
default state. We daydream when driving, when walking, when cooking . . . In short, whenever the mind is not absorbed in a mentally
demanding task . . . it will get restless and skip off into la-la land” (11). According to Gottschall, we daydream about two thousand
times a day, with each daydream lasting for about fourteen seconds on average. We spend half of our waking hours creating narratives
in our minds (11). So why, then, are stories so important to us? What function do they serve?
Many often claim that they allow us to escape from the harshness of reality, but Gottschall states that “it’s hard to reconcile the
escapist theory of fiction with the deep patterns we find in the art of storytelling. If the escapist theory were true, we’d expect stories
to be mainly about pleasurable wish fulfilment” (48). However, most stories we read are not pleasant, and always deal with some form
of conflict. “In short,” he says, “regardless of genre, if there is no knotty problem, there is no story . . . stories of pure wish fulfillment
don’t tempt us” (49-50). “Stories are almost always about people with problems,” he claims, “the people want something badly . . . but
big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want. Just about any story . . . is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure,
usually at some cost, what he or she desires” (52). Returning to Twitch Plays Pokemon, it would seem to make little sense, then, why
so many players have continued to play the game despite its “non-fail state”. Without that sense of conflict, the game is no longer
played for its narrative. Without the ability to lose, the plot of the game is, essentially, erased.
The tedious nature of a CCG’s gameplay can often makes players quite bored. However, as Gotschall explained, it is during the tedious
tasks of everyday life that we most often tend to daydream. During gameplay, players who are bored or frustrated with the lack of
narrative progress may begin to impose a narrative on the story. Since the focus of Twitch Plays Pokemon was its gameplay mechanic,
I believe that users began constructing lore to compensate for the lack of narrative they were experiencing. This is not a new
phenomenon, and is an inherent feature of the human mind. Brian Boyd, author of On the Origin of Stories, explains that “we will
interpret something as a story if we can” (137). Stories help us to make sense of events and give them structure. Interpreting something
through narrative makes it easier for the mind to comprehend, and, as Gottschall claims, gives us pleasure (Gotschall 48). Thus, it is in
the chaotic nature of a Community-Controlled game that the need for a Community-Created Narrative arises. Despite the long, tedious
power-struggle for progression, players have continued to play even though progression of the game’s plot no longer mattered.
Each random act and each chaotic struggle provided fodder for new, creative interpretations. The game served as the community’s
muse, who could interpret it in into something more valuable and entertaining than the gameplay itself. Thus, this created a symbiotic
relationship between the game and narrative imposed on it – the gameplay needed narrative to give it purpose, while the narrative
needed gameplay to provide inspiration. While this is, certainly, a dynamic new means of storytelling, I don’t believe that the Book of
Helix will appear on anyone’s syllabus anytime soon. The problem with the Book of Helix, I believe, is that it failed to take advantage
of the unique perspective this type of narrative creates. The stories created by the Twitch Plays Pokemon community have, inherently,
always had two specific addressees. In their narratives, the community focused on the avatar in a third person perspective, but
interestingly, also narrated their own contributions within the story.
This style of narration is referred to as first-person plural, and is not a very common method of telling stories. While most of us are
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familiar with first-person singular – a story one narrates about themselves, using the pronoun “I” – a group uses first-person plural to
narrate a story about themselves, using the pronoun “we”. Part of the reason these “we”-narratives are so rare, Amit Marcus states, is
because they are problematic (Marcus 51). To narrate a story as a single, coherent whole – to collect the group into a single pronoun –
“we” – is difficult because all members of that group think differently. As we do not have access to the each member’s consciousness,
we cannot verify if all members share a common goal or really think and feel the same way they are said to within the story (Marcus 50).
Marcus claims that this is not detrimental, however, as most writers of first-person plural stories can by bypass this issue by focusing
on actions, rather than thoughts.
Actions are observable, and can be narrated much more easily than the collective thoughts of a group. A game like Twitch Plays
Pokemon, however, may also be able to bypass this issue through the use of technology, since the actions of the avatar and the
individual voices of the group members are both visible. The actions of the avatar can easily be observed and narrated, while the chat
function allows the community to see what everyone else is saying. The program can gather data from all of the discussion and
command inputs and count what is being said or requested the most. This can give structure to the multitude of individual voices,
allowing all to be heard, and more importantly, easily organized into a narrative.
While this seems to be a dynamic new way of creating a first person plural narrative, I want to argue, however, that this may actually
be something else. The problem with calling it a First-Person Plural narrative is that ignores the role and place of the avatar in the story.
With any other game, the narratives are based on the avatar, not the player. The game Max Payne, for example, is always the story of
the character Max Payne, not the player who controlled him. Although visually in a 3rd person perspective, Max narrates his own
story in a first person perspective – this is not the story of the player, because the player is not narrating it, Max is the one providing
the dialogue. As with novels, a first-person narrative is not about the reader, it is about the story’s protagonist. As Astrid Ensslin and
Alice Bell state, even second-person narratives are not always about the reader, even though they use the pronoun “you” (312). Since
they describe things that you, the reader, are not actually doing, Ensslin and Bell claim that the narrator is not narrating your story, but
the story of the “textual ‘you’”, a fictional protagonist who is simply being addressed by the pronoun “you”.
Thus, while the community may use the pronoun “we” to narrate their own actions and involvement in their story, the avatar is still
always a protagonist, and because it is its own character, existing outside of the community, it cannot be absorbed into the narrative
“we”. It is in this dual focus between the avatar and the community that defining the narrative perspective becomes difficult. While the
easy answer would be to say that it is sometimes a third-person perspective and sometimes a first-person plural perspective, I would
argue that this isn’t the case here. While novels and games often switch between narrative perspectives, featuring first-person for one
chapter and third-person for another, the ability to switch indicates that the narrative is addressing different characters. However,
when creating a narrative for a Community-Controlled Game, we must take into account that the avatar, and the community who
controls it, exist in a symbiotic relationship – they are separate entities, but ultimately act, within the narrative, as one. When narrating
these stories, we cannot say “we” commanded this, and then “he” or “she” did that. While the story must express this causal link
between the community’s commands and the actions of the avatar, it would become very tedious to write and read this way. Thus, I am
proposing to use a new narrative address, the 4th Person, to satisfy the needs of this dual-entity, the symbiote.
The fourth person is defined as an address not to a single person – like “I”, “he” or “she” – or even a group – like “we” or “they” –
but instead, to a human-computer symbiote: two entities that, while separate, feed off of each other. While the pronoun used to
address this symbiote would need to be invented, it would be needed to signify this causal relationship. Rather than narrating, “we”
commanded this, and then “he” or “she” did that, we could simply refer to this relationship as the pronoun “we/it” did this. While you
could, in theory, use “we” or “they” to narrate a CCN, I believe that this symbiotic link is important to express, because the narrative
cannot persist without their causal relationship. Twitch Plays Pokemon is not a story about the community giving commands, nor can
it be about the avatar’s story, as most games are. Both entities are required and present within the narrative, and the causal link
denotes that both act together. It is, I admit, a very strange concept, and addressing a symbiote is not a natural method of telling
However, this is not the first alien perspective in narrative history. Brian Richardson states that “second person narration is [actually]
an artificial mode that does not normally occur in natural narrative or in most texts in the history of literature before 1919” (Ensslin and
Bell 51). So although a narrative mode may not be natural, it doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. A narrative perspective normally allows you
to get certain insights into other individuals, or, to allow others an insight into your own perspective. This, however, is the first
narrative mode to provide us with a perspective into the human-computer relationship. As we become more and more reliant on
networked technology, the symbiotic bond between us grows. As we already exist in a semi-symbiotic relationship with our phones,
laptops and gaming consoles, I believe that CCGs are important for the creation of narratives, because they allow us – as all narratives
do – to make sense of and interpret this growing relationship with networked technology that we do not fully understand.
While we cannot predict the future of Community-Controlled Games, I believe that it can have important implications for the way
stories are created and narrated in the future. Combining the anarchy of gameplay with the democratic construction of narrative has the
potential to allow new perspectives on the way we interact with games, networks and each other. Remediating a single-player game
into a Community-Controlled Game changes not only the way we play, but our reasons for playing as well. With the inclusion of a “nofailure state”, games played in an anarchic setting may erase the need for the game’s own plot, but subsequently become open for
interpretation and the creation of an entirely new story. While interpreting a video game generally follows the standard methods of
literary analysis, I believe that Community-Controlled Games, uniquely, cannot be studied in the same way.
As they are constructed through the interpretation of gameplay with unpredictable outcomes, Community-Created Narratives offer a
much more natural use of narrative: to structure and make sense of events we have no control over. This style of narration, in reference
to a virtual game rather than our standard use in everyday life, can offer new insights into the relationship between humans and
computers, and the way we interact with each other through networks. By narrating a story through the fourth-person, CCNs can more
easily demonstrate the causal link between players and their avatar, and portray a new conception of agency. Unlike most
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protagonists, the symbiote – being made up of both the avatar and the players – has ultimate control over the narrative, and can create
stories that transcend the plot of its host game. However, despite its power over the narrative’s construction, the symbiote has no real
control over itself. This dynamic feedback-loop holds the potential to generate a boundless corpus of new texts that reflect the nature
of our own increasingly-networked world, and is the reason I believe more CCGs and CCNs need to be created and studied.
Excited for one of our own MAs, Chris Milando, who presents at @interface2014 today! Break a leg! @chrisjames_08
— Carleton U English (@CUinEnglish) May 2, 2014
Chris Milando on Twitch Plays Pokemon & the new trend of community-controlled games considered as a fourth-person
— DH Carleton (@DHCarleton) May 2, 2014
Next up: Chris Milando on community-controlled games a la Twitch Plays Pokemon. #interface2014
— Lauren Burr (@burrlauren) May 2, 2014
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