Anarchy vs. Democracy or Twitch Plays Pokemon

on Wednesday, Feb. 19th

What does an old video game have to teach us about politics in the Digital Age? Possibly everything.

As I begin writing this, members of the gaming-centric live-streaming site have been playing Pokemon for six days, 22 hours, 14 minutes and 16 seconds straight. Specifically they have been playing one copy of Pokemon Red, the classic game for the Nintendo Game Boy first released in the United States in 1998.

Hundreds of thousands of gamers have played the game together–after a fashion–controlling the main character via text commands in a chat window. These are translated into button presses thanks to the coding work of an anonymous Australian.

Millions of people have tuned in to watch the game unfold in herky-jerky fashion. Progress can be slow when there are thousands of competing wills attempting to control the focal point of agency. As Twitch Plays Pokemon was first presented, the game resolved whatever commands were given to it in the order they were received.

This was fine at first.

As the stream grew more popular, progress ground to a halt as the inevitable trolls showed up. Things got so bad that the creator modified the input system, so that users could vote to choose between the original “anything goes” mode, or a more “sophisticated” control scheme that stacks commands based on votes. Here’s how the game’s F.A.Q. presents the solution:

Anarchy and Democracy

TwitchPlaysPokemon now has two modes, anarchy and democracy.

Anarchy mode is the “classic” mode, where everyone’s inputs are applied immediately.

Democracy mode is vote-based and has a more sophisticated input system.

In order to switch from one mode to the other, the mode that isn’t active needs 75% of votes as indicated by the dotted line, the current percentage of votes is indicated by the black line.

In democracy mode you can compile a sequence of inputs. left2 will move left twice, left2down2 will move left twice and down twice.

With this change, the anonymous creator of Twitch Plays Pokemon has captured the political soul of the Internet like nothing before it.

While millions of people tune in to watch the main character RED alternate between moving randomly and a sudden flurry of purpose, I find myself drawn to the chat log. Here the political instincts of the hive mind are laid bare for psychoanalysis.

More numerous than the actual button commands are the votes for “anarchy” and “democracy”. It is mesmerizing to watch; those terms flash by almost faster than the eye can track. The id and ego of the Internet generation at war for control. A perfect little metaphor for humanity drawn down into an absurd point.

The path through the game is known, and with enough players cooperating it would be possible to win. The problems of our species–climate change, mass extinctions, income inequality–don’t have clear cut solutions. What we do have is the sum total of human knowledge at our fingertips from almost any corner of the globe at any moment.

Despite this we collectively approach our problems with no more finesse than those who “spam anarchy” in the chat log. With that in mind, it is my sincere hope that either the pro-democracy forces of Twitch Plays Pokemon win out, or that the anarchists amongst the players give up trolling and decide to be excellent to each other.

In real terms, beating a 15-year-old game win won’t mean much. Yet it would be a little ray of hope that maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for us after all.


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