So we did it. After over two weeks, the hive mind beat Pokémon Red. They strugged with Anarchy and Democracy, fought against false prophets, revived Lord Helix (all praise to Lord Helix by the way) and slowly made their way up Victory Road to claim victory against the Elite Four and that asshole Blue. Now we are well on our way to beating Pokémon Crystal with new Pokémon, new rules, new members of the hive mind, and a refreshed drive to see progress once more.
But what does this mean? Is this just a cavalcade of noise controlling a series of Gameboy games? Is this nothing more than mindless entertainment in service of internet memes or does Twitch Plays Pokémon actually mean something?
A lot of people have called this a real life version of the Shakespearian Monkey thought experiment. The idea is that if a room full of monkeys has infinite time, eventually they will bang on typewriter keys in the exact right way to write the entire extended works of Shakespeare simply due to random chance. But Twitch Plays Pokémon isn’t random. It’s guided. There actually is another stream that is watching a random number generator play Pokémon, and even though it started around the same time as Twitch Plays Pokémon, it still hasn’t finished. Not only that, but it’s running at 400% speed and the creator had to step in to get the game to progress 13 times.
Twitch plays Pokémon, however, is controlled by people, and people have a goal. Unfortunately, it’s not all the same goal, which made the game hard to complete. Some people, obviously, are directly attempting to hinder progress. Others are there simply for the memes that spring up from the journey. Still others are simply adding noise to the room, as they use Twitch Plays Pokémon’s feed to do things like play Tetris. Heck, there are even bots that are made, specifically to spam the window with a single input in order to hinder progress.
Not only that, but each individual person had very little control over the game. Due to Twitch’s chat protocols, you couldn’t type commands in as fast as you liked, especially if it was the same command over and over again. At the stream’s highest points, over 100,000 people were watching, which meant all of your commands only mattered 1/100,000th of the time, even less so if you weren’t absolutely dedicated to posting every time Twitch allowed you to. Not only that, but the stream was delayed for about 20 seconds, meaning that anything that you posted based on what you were seeing would only come into effect 20 seconds later, usually after the input meant anything or was useful in any way.
But regardless of all of these stumbling blocks, people managed to band together and create progress. Movements were organized to slowly bombard the chat with a command and push Red in a certain direction. Legendary Pokémon like Zapdos actually managed to get caught! Plans were made to counteract the noise, by generating counter-noise for all the bots in the channel. Memetic religions were made, and those started to guide people’s actions, as goofy as they were.
These religions soon got tied to the game’s systems of government, Democracy and Anarchy, which were constantly at war with each other. Democracy slowed the game down and only allowed Red to make a move once every 30 seconds according to the most popular action voted by the stream. Anarchy is the classic mode where everyone’s chat command counts. Anti-democracy factions literally got together to start riots… no literally, they were “start riots.” Democracy was spammed with Start9 to keep the game in an eternal state of stasis until Anarchy came back. However, despite this war the frothing public many times acquiesced to Democracy’s ability to slowly push forward. Now, all it takes is one popular vote for Anarchy for the game to descend back into chaos, yet movements have been made to keep the game in Democracy for extended periods of time, just to push forward. Sometimes these movements take place under the cover of night so that fewer people are playing. Other times, they are simply a huge group of people all acting at once for the common good.
Are you seeing any patterns here? Twitch Plays Pokémon could kind of be looked at as a model for early human life. It starts with roiling chaos, but then people start creating things to help them make sense and guide the chaos. We see religions, governments, anti-government movements, covert operations, ideologies and even theories of existence as players try to figure out how the anonymous creator’s scripting code works. We are watching the rise and fall of civilization on a microscopic scale, and there’s no impetus needed other than progress. Somehow, amidst the bots, trolls, arguments and religious wars, we still pursue it.
Maybe Twitch Plays Pokémon is really saying that against all odds, humanity will find some way to make progress… or maybe it’s just saying we all should have been paying attention to this instead of Flappy Bird.
Former Contributing Writer