How 'Fish Plays Pokemon' gathered an audience of thousands

Co-creator Patrick Facheris explains the magic behind's latest phenomenon, "Fish Plays Pokemon."
Grayson Hopper, the fish, plays Pokemon.

Right now, thousands of gamers are waiting for Grayson Hopper, a live fish in a tank on a dorm room shelf, to make his move so that a vintage Pokemon video game can progress. Grayson’s owner, Patrick Facheris and Catherine Moresco, rigged up special controls so that the fish’s actions steer the game. More than 30,000 viewers have tuned in on to watch the fish and his journey to become a Pokemon master. 

“It started a week ago Thursday with just six people watching and blew up overnight,” says Mr. Facheris, a senior computer science and math major at Columbia University. He started the live video stream, titled Fish Plays Pokemon, with Ms. Moresco, a junior physics major at the University of Chicago. “Catherine called me at, like, 3 a.m. one night and said she had this dream about a fish playing Pokemon.”

Facheris and Moresco created the project in just 24 hours to create the game as a part of hackNY's 2014 fellowship program, which is organized by New York University and Columbia University.  

Today, the reddish-orange betta fish is unwittingly “playing” Pokemon Red, the first title in the Pokemon franchise. Grayson is in his bowl, on camera. The camera screen is divided into nine sections, eight of which are command buttons – up, left, right, down, A, B, start, and select. The ninth is a “randomize” key. When the fish swims in one of those sections, a program registers the button command and inputs it into the game.

“I’m really shocked that it’s getting so huge, but I guess I shouldn’t, because I recently heard Jonah Peretti, [chief executive officer] of Buzzfeed, say in a lecture that to make something go viral you had to be willing to make it something you’d talk about at a party,” says Facheris. “What could be a better conversation starter than a real fish playing Pokemon?”

The game is also clearly a riff on Twitch Plays Pokemon, in which viewers voted on their next move. The mad dash between anarchy and democracy went viral back in February. It attracted more than 200,000 players at a time collectively playing the vintage game.

The game screen turns black for about eight hours each night when Facheris goes to bed. He cannot afford a night vision camera or a tank light. The team has turned down two sponsorship offers, he says, but have collected about $175 in donations from viewers.

“Because we are moving into our new dorms today, App Nexus here in New York has offered to host Grayson so he will now have light at night and hopefully there will be no more lapses in game coverage,” Facheris says. “If we get more donations, we would like to get Grayson a bigger tank and a night vision camera.”

Facheris says that any amount collected beyond what Grayson’s needs will be donated to hackNY and the National Wildlife Federation.

Fish Plays Pokemon has no music or sound – and viewers have no control over the game at all. Grayson is fed at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., which is about the only constant in this game, because it ensures the fish will come to the top of the tank at those times and, in so doing, “select” functions in that area.
 While Twitch Plays Pokemon allowed players to vote on their next move, Fish Plays Pokemon has stripped away the game play. It has turned a popular video game into a spectator sport – or maybe an art installation. It’s now a statement about the mesmerizing, unifying power of gaming culture. A fish can hold the community's attention 24/7. Even when the lights turn out, the online chat room keeps talking.
 It reminds me of the kid who gets a huge gift for his or her birthday and chooses instead to spend the next week playing in the cardboard box the gift came in.
 In fact, that could well be the next big thing – cardboard box. Just overlay the game panel and let a room full of toddlers at it on camera.

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