You may have heard of this phenomenon that invaded the internet over the last two weeks: Twitch Plays Pokemon. It was a social experiment set up by an anonymous user to see if people on the internet, working together, could progress through a video game (Pokemon Red) with all of them inputting commands into the same interface. Any direction entered into the chat interface would be processed by the game. It garnered enormous attention and resulted in about 75,000 people inputting commands at the same time. Naturally this led to lots of the game’s character walking in circles, making dumb choices (like releasing all of their Pokemon who knew an important technique), and spending twenty-four hours trying to walk past a simple ledge without accidentally jumping off of it.
Amazingly, they finished the game last weekend.
They’re now playing another game (Pokemon Crystal), if you want to watch the madness, but I wanted to blog about something interesting that happened about halfway through Pokemon Red.
There’s this area called the Safari Zone where you’re only given 500 steps in order to reach a house at the end of the area. If you run out of steps, you have to start over. Obviously there was no way the internet’s hive mind could do this when they took two steps back for every three steps taken forward.
Fortunately the Twitch interface included two modes of play. The first, anarchy mode, is the default, where everybody’s commands are processed by the game immediately. The second, democracy mode, counted every input as a vote and processed the highest-voted command every thirty seconds or so. This was way less fun to watch, as it was SLOW, but it gave the hive mind the ability to work with more precision. The players could vote themselves into one or the other mode with enough support.
I was watching the live stream of the game when they were going through the Safari Zone, using democracy mode so they could actually do it. (I was totally not procrastinating on something else I was supposed to be doing. Honest.) Immediately after they reached the end of the area and achieved the goal they had to meet in under 500 steps, they voted themselves back into anarchy mode. It seriously took about ten seconds, and boom, back into chaos.
I found this really interesting because I think it says something about our nature. We can work together and put up with tediousness in order to achieve a common goal, but the second that goal is accomplished, we want our sense of power back. We want our own commands to be processed immediately. We want to feel like we’re doing something, even if we’re doing it really inefficiently. We choose the route that gives us a sense of control–we, by ourselves, want the power to do something apart from the group. (We also choose the route that promises the most entertainment and hilarious mistakes.)
I don’t know if this is a universal human desire, or if it’s more present in the internet generation–the people who would be inclined to play a video game with 74,999 other people in the first place. But it’s worth noticing that we apparently want a sense of agency.
Maybe feeling a lack of that sense of power–the economy is bad, can’t find a job, rent is hard to meet, boss is overbearing, etc.–is why we do things like play video games at all. In a game, you have complete control. You can try an area again if you fail. You can decide what to do and when to do it to achieve your goals. And if all else fails, you can simply turn off the game. Gaming might meet a need for a sense of agency that we lack in certain areas of real life.
In fact, maybe that’s the motivation behind our creative outlets as well. Maybe we make art because we have complete control over what takes shape on the canvas or in the clay. Maybe we compose music because we’re solely responsible for the way the notes interplay with each other. Maybe we write books because we are the agents of every event that happens in them.
Or maybe I’m over-thinking this. It is, after all, just Twitch Plays Pokemon.
What do you think? Can an internet experiment really reveal important aspects of human character? Or is it just a game?