TwitchPlaysPokemon – Cutting Edge of Games & Society?

Gaming has changed inexorably since the dawn of high-speed internet.  Playing games online is now a standard feature, but watching games online is also something that is considered extremely normal in the modern age.  YouTube was the first platform for this market, as players captured footage themselves to upload themselves.  As internet speeds improved, live streaming gameplay has become available – and new consoles streamline the process to a point where anyone can do it at the touch of a button.  Live streaming has also produced a new and unique way of experiencing a game: crowd-playing.

The best example of this came in the last few weeks where the most popular online game streaming site Twitch.tv has been taken over by the TwitchPlaysPokémon channel.  Throughout the first playthrough of Pokémon Red, Twitch claim that over a million people participated in the stream with a peak of 121 thousand online at a time and an average of over 80,000 viewers per hour.  It is truly an unprecedented triumph of the internet’s collective nature.

How it works takes some explanation: The anonymous user that created the channel created code that allowed Pokémon games to be controlled by users through their inputs into the stream’s chat functionality.  These commands can be executed in different ways depending on the state of the chat, as decided by the people in the chat itself.  These states are anarchy and democracy.  In anarchy mode, every input is executed immediately regardless of the consensus. In democracy mode, when a decision is to be made every input into the chat box is tallied and treated as a vote and after an interval of several seconds the decision is executed.    Democracy can be introduced by being voted upon democratically.  To make sure that democracy has a chance (in the current playthrough) it is re-instated every hour – although anarchy can prevail afterwards.

Crowd-playing is an extremely interesting development.  Rather than experiencing a game on your own, or with friends in the case of co-op games – you can experience the same events in the same way as thousands of others.  Feeling a part of something larger and making decisions on behalf of it are two inherently human desires.  These two are the basis of society and of politics.  Crowd-playing brings these two concepts into video games in a way that has never been done before.

Whilst TwitchPlaysPokémon made its way through Pokémon Red, which it completed last Saturday after 16 days of game time, the community playing the game created a narrative for themselves out of the way the game’s story unfolded to them.  They named characters through inputs which produced garbled strings of text and then subsequently making some sense of them.  An example is how the starter Pokémon, a Charmander, was named “ABBBBBBK (” by chat inputs but subsequently affectionately nicknamed Abby by the fans.  Throughout the game, certain events created their own lore and fiction that will be understood by the legions that followed it.  When 12 Pokémon were released accidentally in one day because of poor input commands the day was known as “Bloody Sunday”.  This communal story-building adds another layer on top of the enjoyment of video-games.  It is a meta-story that goes further than the game’s original plot ever could.  Being a part of this strengthens a bond between a community, no matter how the community is created or based – and shows how the internet has evolved into a completely mainstream and credible form of social interaction.

The concept of democracy and anarchy is particularly noteworthy and can be examined as a social experiment, not just a gaming phenomenon.  Watching the stream you will find that democracy tends to last for only a short time before anarchy sets in.  Whether this is shows that people want to have control of the action themselves, as in true anarchy, or they are disaffected with the slower speed of democracy can’t be said for sure – however either way it is an interesting analogy for real politics in a time where direct democracy is more viable than ever.  On the other hand, democracy mode was in play when the game reached its’ end point and the final bosses were conquered.  It is worth considering whether or not this could have been achieved under anarchy.

Full crowd-playing functionality for modern games is years away from coming to fruition, with the complexities of real-time combat and exploration being far more challenging to account for than the pseudo turn-based system of Pokémon.  Even still – there are ways in which even modern games can be played almost collectively.  One of the original YouTube gameplay commentators Xcalizorz recently streamed playthroughs of the Mass Effect series where he played through the game and created user polls to decide things like character appearance, mission selection and taking other important in-game decisions.  All combat decisions and general gameplay decisions were made by the player alone.  Mass Effect’s heavy emphasis on user choices lends itself well to this style of playing and would be the ideal starting point for a crowd-played game.

Crowd-playing has the potential to be the cutting edge of both games and society.  If a developer can create a game where complex actions can be undertaken by harnessing the will of a community then something truly special could be at hand.  With live-streaming’s integration into modern consoles and their capacity for expansive stories the tools are all there.  On the society side, this microcosm shows that more direct democracy could be achieved.  I’ve already said before how our current system of electing representatives is archaic and, although on the surface not the most relevant example, TwitchPlaysPokémon shows that the mechanisms to capture the opinion of millions of people at once are there.

TwitchPlaysPokémon could be seen as merely another fad of the internet, which it undoubtedly is.  The difference is, though, that this fad has the makings of a cultural change that could have far-reaching effects on not just the internet, but beyond.

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