Twitch Plays ‘Pokemon’ and the Power of Democracy

Twitch Plays Pokemon

While it might seem that you’d never get 120,000 people to ever collaborate together well enough to complete any sort of task, never mind something that requires coordinated effort like navigating through a video game, those people who have stepped up to play Twitch Plays Pokemon have proven that it can be done and the power of democracy is the key to it all.

Twitch is a website that allows people to stream their video gaming experiences to the world.  Normally people just sit back and watch; but, with Twitch Plays Pokemon, numerous players from around the world are working together to play a computer-emulated game of Pokemon Red Version.

Controlling the game occurs through the chat feature.  If a person types “up,” the pokemon trainer moves up; if he or she types “down,” he moves down; and so on.  Where it gets complicated, however, is when multiple people are attempting to control the movements at the same time.  In fact, it has been reported that as many as 120,000 players have been on the channel at the same time.  In addition, Twitch estimates that around 738,000 players have accessed the game during its short existence.

Amazingly enough, the experiment is working.  Currently, visitors to Twitch Plays Pokemon have made it about halfway through the game.

Unfortunately for the owners of the website, it may be working a bit too well.  Twitch’s Customer Experience Director Jason Maestas has said the game has been putting “enormous (and unforeseen) stress” on their chat system.  In fact, they took a step normally reserved only for large game tournaments on Sunday and moved the game to its own dedicated server.  He notes, however, that even then there will still be “fundamental issues with [Twitch’s] chat infrastructure.”

The collaborative process within the game was actually something that evolved over time.  At first anarchy reigned, with the game rapidly coming to a half as multiple players battled it out over which way the trainer would move.  Then, the anonymous creator of the channel made a tweak to the game which changed everything:  players could now type “anarchy” or “democracy” into the chat box, casting their vote for how the game experience would proceed.  With enough “anarchy” votes, the game remained as it originally was configured, with the game attempting to sort out the hundreds of controls coming in every second.  However, when the vote swings in the direction of “democracy,” order is brought to the chaos and the majority of button presses that occur within a 10-second time frame govern the trainer’s next move.  This one simple change has allowed for players to vote to collaborate together in key moments of the game, like say an important battle, in order to efficiently coordinate in-game movements.

So, what does the great social experiment that is Twitch Plays Pokemon teach us about human nature?  The biggest message seems to be that people will naturally seek out order from chaos through cooperation and democracy if given the right tools.

Editorial by Nancy Schimelpfening



ARS Technica


The Washington Post

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