Pokemon social experiment draws connections to democracy
Published: Thursday, February 20, 2014
Updated: Thursday, February 20, 2014 22:02
Last week, an anonymous Australian programmer created a social experiment using the classic game Pokemon Red. He created an emulator for the game and then uploaded it to Twitch.tv, a popular live streaming service for video games. The game has a bot which translates commands from the chat section to actions within the game. So, for example, if someone were to type in “right,” the character in the game would take a step to the right. And thus, Twitch Plays Pokemon was born. However, as you might expect, things get a little ridiculous when you have thousands of people typing commands, and it has only gotten more hectic as the number of people on the stream has gone from about 10,000 a week ago to more than 80,000 at the time of writing.
Surprisingly, the community has made impressive progress in the game — having already received four gym badges, which puts them roughly halfway through the game. This feat is honestly shocking if you watch the stream for just a few minutes. The main character, Red, consistently keeps running into walls, unnecessarily opening the menu and quite literally goes in circles. Yet, despite being stuck in areas for hours on end, there has been substantial progression. The creator has also since introduced a democracy mode in which not every command is performed, but rather the most popular command in the last 20 seconds is performed. The community can opt to remain in the original anarchy mode or shift between the two if enough votes can be mustered (there needs to be a 75 percent majority vote to change from one to the other).
Twitch Plays Pokemon has not only captivated thousands of participants and viewers, but also spawned an entire culture and created an organizational structure with a Google site. Social media accounts record all of the progress and discussions on how to proceed with the game. There are even factions within the community that range from the more general, such as preference for democracy mode or anarchy mode, to more specific issues, such as how to go about acquiring a Pokemon that can learn Surf for the all-important water travel.
Its popularity likely won’t last and is probably just the latest internet craze, but what I find most intriguing about this social experiment is how organic the process has been and how nicely it parallels our own formation of a political society. Just as in the Twitch Plays Pokemon community, there are different opinions in almost every society about what to do and which direction to go. The process of forming a democracy is – in some ways – an example of how we come to a decision as a society when there are so many differing opinions. Rarely does everyone get what they want, but meaningful and definitive action can be taken. Even though anarchy mode is by far more fun to watch, there is no question that this highlights the importance and effectiveness of democracy. It will be necessary to enact, with at least some form of precision, if the community ever hopes to be victorious; something the community is slowly coming to terms with.
Many have compared this social experiment to the idea that putting 1,000 monkeys on 1,000 typewriters will, given an infinite amount of time, eventually produce a Shakespeare play. While this is an accurate portrayal of the randomness, I also find Twitch Plays Pokemon to potentially be one of the most modern day antitheses to Thomas Hobbes’ age-old assertion of the evil of mankind and the need for a forceful ruler. There is no clear decision maker or singular governing authority in the community, as Hobbes advocated for. In Hobbes’ worldview, Twitch Plays Pokemon cannot succeed because of human nature’s condition of “war of everyone against everyone” would not allow it.
Rather, the completion of the game is essentially banking on enough people with a desire to complete the game coming together in the form of an internet democracy to carry out the necessary actions. In other words, it’s banking on John Locke being right and that people on the Internet are actually good by nature and seek the formation of benevolent unions rather than the often stereotypical “trolls” who are intent on wreaking havoc at any given opportunity.
This may be a flash in the pan – and how it all plays out may seem trivial – but the formation of organizational resources, the ebb and flow between democracy mode and anarchy mode and the constant conflict between ideas of how to achieve the same goals act not only as a parallel to our own society, but also as a live reflection of the culture of the internet and the nature of those that inhabit it.