Twitch Plays Politics

More than 100,000 people came together last Saturday, March 1 for what they are already
calling a new national holiday. Jubilation was in the air, but it wasn’t to
celebrate the Russian invasion of Crimea. Rather, one niche Internet community
was concerned with something altogether more serious: the much-awaited defeat
of the Elite Four by the Twitch Plays Pokémon (TPP) streaming channel.

For those
who haven’t been following the Twitch escapades of the last two weeks, a quick
primer: An anonymous programmer built a Pokémon Red emulator and started
streaming the gameplay via online gaming site Twitch. There was a catch,
though. Anyone watching could type game commands into the chat (instructions
like move, select, and save), and the emulator would randomly choose one of
the submitted commands to dictate the next action.

I was more
than a little incredulous upon hearing of this project. I played Pokémon as a
kid, and I know how complex the game can get. Sure, there’s a clear goal—capture Pokémon and win battles—but within the world of Kanto there are
multiple storylines, and doubly more ways to go about achieving each one.
Given the sheer amount of essentially chance input from the thousands of
participants, seeing the game completed in a mere 16 days is pretty

That speed is a remarkable testament to the power of the
collective. At its heart, TPP was an exercise in the most modern of problems:
how to organize a heterogeneous community, made up of people from all over the
world, to realize a shared goal. TPP was really a study in state-building, and
a referendum on many of the political beliefs that we hold dear today.

The game had two modes: anarchy and democracy. At any given
time, if more than 50 percent of the participants chose anarchy, the
gameplay would proceed as described above, essentially at random. But if 80 percent voted
for democracy, the most popular command inputted throughout each 20-second interval
would be chosen instead.

Ah, I thought. Surely this democracy mode was how the
100,000+ players coordinated to beat the game so quickly. Surely, no one in
their right mind would prefer the chaos of anarchistic power-grabbing to the
rational decision-making of the majority. Surely, a rudimentary government had
formed. But I was wrong. Democracy mode was used occasionally, as when players
got fed up trying to locate a hidden elevator after 24 hours of
drunken movement around the map, but almost immediately after each crisis was
averted, anarchy mode was overwhelmingly voted back in by the participants.

This reversion to the chaotic state of nature, the one that Thomas Hobbes hypothesized to precede any formal state, rejects the very foundation of
modern political thought. Hobbes would have argued that the players of TPP were
in a perpetual state of war with each other, competing to dictate the direction
of the game, and that each would eventually cede his fractional chance of
momentary rulership to escape that state of war. No one would ever
intentionally return to it. Yet in this microcosm of the real world, people

One explanation is time considerations. Even though it curbs
wasteful repetition and inefficiency, democracy is relatively slow-moving.
Twenty seconds would elapse before actions occurred, as opposed to instant
movement in anarchy. In a world that saw over 120 million commands issued over
the course of the game, those seconds start to add up fast, and patience wears
thin—like the frustration we feel today about the brokenness of Washington, D.C.

But perhaps the willingness to let democracy dissolve back
into anarchy is really a broader rejection of Hobbesian theory. Maybe Hobbes’
idea that man is inherently evil is simply, on an empirical level, incorrect. By virtue of
signing in to join TPP, players brought with them a pre-social connection of
tacit cooperation, a certain partnership that the cynicism so fashionable today would like to

The world of TPP played out not in the Hobbesian sense, but
rather according to the views of a different philosopher: John Locke. Players
didn’t fear drifting into anarchy because they knew that the vast majority of
their peers were good in the sense that they agreed on the ultimate goal of
their enterprise, if not the exact way to get there.

As of late, the Claremont Colleges’ penchant for dissonance—the
bickering over America Pub, the outrage at Scripps College’s “We Want More” campaign, the furor
over lack of divestment—could lend itself to a Hobbesian view of things. But what if we’re all just players in a life-sized game of Bird Jesuses and
Helix Fossils? It’s our shared 5C-ness that makes us virtuous; we all live in a
state of nature that is our joint scholastic adventure. So let’s try embracing
a more libertarian perspective. Because if TPP has taught us anything, it’s that
we’ll all make it in the end.

Matt Dahl PO ’17 hails from Newton, Mass., and is a committed member of Pomona College Mock Trial. 

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