Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Twitch Plays Pokemon Goes Viral

These
past couple of weeks, I’ve heard familiar sounds echoing through the great
halls of our august college campus. They
bring back memories of long school bus rides, monochrome screens, link cables, and
heart-pounding battles. In case you
hadn’t guessed, I’m referring to the dulcet tones of people playing classic
Game Boy Pokémon.

My
memories of playing Pokémon involved the elements referenced above: an original
Game Boy, lots of sunlight, and a cohort of friends. Gaming research projects often list Pokémon as one of the prime counterexamples to the “games make kids antisocial” stereotype, but recently, Pokémon Red was the platform for a fascinating social
experiment that far exceeded anything that the good developers at Game Freak
could have anticipated back in 1996. That phenomenon was simply called “Twitch
Plays Pokémon” (TPP).

Usually,
by the third paragraph of these columns, I give some background for our readers
who may not know all the technical details of the topic at hand. With Pokémon, however, I can safely say that
if you have no idea what it is, you had no childhood and can lay no claim to
the coveted title of “’90s kid.”  

The
game, and the media empire that followed it, made Pokémon one of the staples of
the mid ’90s all the way through to the early 2000s. The premise is simple: Friendly yet vicious
monsters, who fit in small capsules called Pokéballs, battle each other for
supremacy, and their trainers take all the credit.

Ethically
questionable as the game plot may be, there is no
denying that the Pokémon games on the Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, and 3DS continue to be some of the best-designed role-playing games ever made. I could go on for hours about the incredible
design of the Pokémon games, but that’s not what’s so interesting for this
week.  

What’s interesting is the latest
iteration in Pokémon’s grand history of social revolutions: a massively
multiplayer online Pokémon game where the entire Internet—or at least
account-holders at Twitch—controls the actions of one collective game of
Pokémon. Think of more than 100,000 hands all pressing buttons on a single Game Boy at once, and you’ve
got the general idea.

While
TPP was an idea
brilliant in its simplicity, the far more impressive thing about the game was
that it was successfully beaten by
the hundreds of thousands of players. Yes—spoilers—after approximately 16 days, TPP was won by its various players. 

This outcome is absolutely fascinating as a
social experiment. Considering the
active nature of the online troll community (especially where Twitch is
concerned), and the number of robotic players that had no purpose except to
spam useless buttons like START, the fact that enough players coordinated to
win the game is absolutely incredible. Organized mainly from Reddit, the avid players of TPP mapped out goals
for each day, and managed to effectively achieve them in spite of the seeming
randomness of the anarchistic player environment.

Speaking
of anarchy, the game modes involved with TPP proved more than anything just how
organized the collective consciousness can be when it puts its mind to it. Gameplay in TPP could proceed one of two
ways: “Anarchy mode” simply parsed
every button input as it was entered, and “democracy mode” inputted a button every 20 seconds, based on the button that received
the most votes over that time period. 

Despite the fact that the game would have been slow but controllable in democracy mode, the community made a conscious choice to stay with anarchy for
the entire game. “How do you know it was
conscious?” you may well ask. Because at crucial moments, the community would enter democracy mode, make a vital
change, such as switching a certain Pokémon to the head of the team, and then
immediately return to anarchy mode. 

This, more than anything else, proves that the experience of TPP was deliberate and
well-planned—an amazing outcome given the huge number of players involved at
the peak of the game’s popularity.

So
what does this mean? The Internet is
really a collective consciousness capable of real organization and changing
power? The Internet is better (if only
slightly) than a random number generator? The Internet just really loves Pokémon?

It’s hard to draw a conclusion just yet, but the game is still going on
(playing second-generation Pokémon now) if you want to take a look and decide for
yourself. Either way, it’s clear that
something really interesting just happened over the course of the last couple
of weeks, and it deserves to be analyzed in the months to come.

Until
next time … all hail Lord Helix.

Tim Taylor PO ’14 studies computer science. He owns every commercially popular video game system manufactured since the Atari 2600.

For a non-tech perspective on TPP, check out “Twitch Plays Politics,” published last week in the Opinions section: http://tsl.pomona.edu/articles/2014/3/7/opinions/4921-twitch-plays-politics.

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