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What we have to learn from “Twitch Plays Pokemon”

At its best, the new viral Internet sensation “Twitch Plays Pokémon” suggests deep and pulsing answers to questions about social contract theory and how we as humans negotiate freedom in its most unbridled form: anarchy. At its worst, the massive multiplayer online game is a savage and cut-throat reflection of our most barbarian nature.

Probably, the nature of this beast lies somewhere in between.

For those of you unfamiliar, let me take one step backwards. If you prefer, you may open up your Web browser and follow along at the following URL: www.twitch.tv/twitchplayspokemon.

Twitch Plays Pokémon is an online-platform for the popular game Pokémon Red, first released on the Nintendo Gameboy. The difference about this online game is that everyone can play at the same time. No, not simultaneous yet independent logins. Truly, every player helps control the game’s protagonist by typing commands into the chat box on the right side of the screen.

This chat box is continuously scrolling with new commands, “up,” “down,” “right,” “left,” “A,” “B,” “start,” “anarchy,” or “democracy.” The first seven of these commands move the character and navigate the menu system. The latter two determine the game’s command setting. In the original anarchy mode, each and every command issued by a user affects game play. If the collective can garner enough votes for democracy mode, however, the game applies the most popular command given in a 20-second interval.

Despite the whimsical, polyphonic background music that accompanies game play, as you may well imagine, things can get brutal. Twitch averages about 80,000 viewers, with about 10 percent of those individuals (8,000) participating in gameplay. While many of these players are valiant, pushing the game forward to defeat gym leaders, collect ‘em all, etc., many other “trolls” do their best to quench any productive efforts by spamming “start” or other troublesome commands.

Thanks to such rebellion, the players released two of their best Pokémon (a Charmander named “ABBBBBBK, nicknamed “Abby,” and a Rattata named “JLVWNNOOOO,” nicknamed “Jay Leno”). For those interested, many bloggers have more-thoroughly detailed annals of gameplay and have even drawn fan art (both of which I highly recommend if you’re in for a laugh). These histories detail the finer moments from gameplay including tales of “Bird Jesus,” “the all knowing Helix fossil,” and “Flareon the False Prophet.”

Sure, Twitch Plays Pokémon provides a laugh, especially for children of the Pokémon generation. But there’s something deeper here as well. Despite the challenges presented by the game’s “trolls,” who play the game for the sake of causing chaos, the collective has made stark accomplishments since gameplay began roughly one week ago.

I am certainly not advocating for political anarchy, but with Twitch we find some completely human manifestation in the most unlikely of physical forms. Gameplay is riddled with assholes who do their best to interfere with greater goals, but nevertheless, other players pick up their slack and keep persisting. Perhaps optimism and persistence are easier to maintain in a virtual world with a clear end in sight and no real stakes. But in the real world, easier isn’t always better and high stakes only give us more to fight for.

I guess we’ll just have to see who wins, the knights or the trolls, at the end of the game.



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