“Praise Helix!” “All Glory to the Dome!” “Save us Bird Jesus!”
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, chances are you are not one of the 30 million people who has tuned to “Twitch Plays Pokemon,” a hack of an old video game that went viral last week.
TPP, as it has come to be abbreviated, is a version of the 1996 Game Boy game “Pokemon Red” that an Australian programmer hacked to be controllable through “Chat” commands. The concept is simple: you tune into the game on Twitch’s website, type in a command in the chat sidebar (Up, Down, Start, B, etc.), and the game attempts to read the inputs. With a couple of people playing, it works perfectly. With 62,000 people inputting commands at once, movement becomes marginally more difficult, to say the least.
In an effort to control this chaos, the programmer added an all new dynamic to the game – Democracy versus Anarchy. If enough people vote for Anarchy mode, the game progresses as normal: thousands of button presses get put in at once, and everyone just hopes for the best. If the group collectively votes for Democracy, however, the game changes entirely: every 10 seconds players must vote on what action the main character, Red, will take.
The game has inspired a cult following. Because of the muddled nature of the controller inputs, menus become almost impossible to navigate, simple puzzles sometimes take days to solve and valuable Pokemon and items are “accidentally” disposed on an almost regular basis.
You might think that Democracy mode is an obvious solution to the problem. Actions often take longer, but players can be far more deliberate in their choices and the likelihood of mistakes being made diminishes significantly (supposing that Internet trolls don’t attempt to subvert the voting process).
But honestly, is a victory with Democracy mode really worthy of being called a win at all? When this game started a few weeks ago, it had one question at its core: can we impose a massively multiplayer strategy onto a quintessentially single-player game? Some might see it as the video game equivalent of giving a room full of monkeys a typewriter and waiting for them to write Shakespeare, but the amazing thing is that players have actually made significant progress through Anarchy. They trained a powerful team of Pokemon, defeated some of the hardest trainers, caught one of the most powerful Pokemon in the game, and managed to start their own pseudo-religion, all thanks to an ostensibly random series of button presses.
Sure, there were a couple of instances where they nearly undid all their progress, but moments like that are exactly what make the experience fun to watch. We might forget about this phenomenon just as quickly as we did last year’s Harlem Shake, but for the time being this sort of chaos is fun for anyone to watch. In real life, Hobbes’ State of Nature might lead us to an existence that is “nasty, brutish and short,” but in this digital dystopia, anarchy might be the shibboleth by which the denizens of the Internet succeed. And even if they don’t, the laughs this game has evoked make the experience worth the setbacks.