Anarchy vs. Democracy: The Politics of ‘Twitch Plays Pokémon’

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Written by Michael Aiken, Editorial Intern

In the past weeks, tensions along political lines have (predictably) erupted in what can only be described as all-out war among hundreds of thousands of combatants—no, not the recent protests in Ukraine, Venezuela, or Thailand. I am referencing the internet’s recent multiplayer gaming experiment, “Twitch Plays Pokémon.” For more than 390 hours, more than 29.5 million total viewers watched millions of players wrestle in real time over the control of Red, the main character of Pokémon Red (1996); after players bested the Elite Four, the adventure of working through Pokémon Crystal (2000) began. And the evolution of in-group/out-group politics and collective action in this exciting (and strange) social experiment definitely is worth examining.

Twitch, a video streaming website, currently is hosting “Twitch Plays Pokémon”, a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, where thousands of users simultaneously input commands to collectively control a computer emulator; at the game’s height, more than 120,000 users were participating together. In traditional internet fashion, Red’s quest developed an unusual following of dedicated fans, replete with political philosophies, messianic figures, heroic epics, and (of course) memes. The creator, an anonymous Australian programmer, posted the game on Twitch on February 12th. Despite overwhelming odds, Twitch users beat the astounding odds completing the game by beating the Elite Four in the early hours of March 2nd.

How the Game Works

The goal in any Pokémon game is to defeat a series of other players by assembling a team of eclectic, fighting-fit creatures. In the game, the player progresses through many battles, puzzles, and challenges to become the Pokémon Champion. These obstacles are manageable with one player, but the simplest actions become more complicated as more players join and input their own commands. If coordination and strategy were not already hard enough, consider the 30-40 seconds of lag time between when comments are added and when commands are executed on the Twitch site. (For additional background on the Twitch game, see Alex Hern’s summary in The Guardian.)

Anarchy: The Original Mode

An early development in the game introduced a scale that measures the players’ desire for democracy relative to anarchy. Users can vote for either game mode in the chat window. Under anarchy, all inputs are received and executed by the emulator in sequence, which often results in chaos and confusion. One wrong input could prove disastrous, making this mode dangerous in several situations. Under this mode, cutting a tree that blocked the path to a gym leader (something that normally takes no more than 20 seconds) took over four hours to execute.

This mode taps into the collective intelligence (or lack thereof) of the Twitch users, colloquially referred to as the “hive mind”. Anarchy is responsible for much of the game’s progress, but also many of the game’s greatest failures. For instance, Twitch users released “Abby,” one of the strongest starting Pokémon after 100 total hours of play. Self-identifying anarchists are serious about maintaining anarchy in the Twitch world. A Kotaku article documented the instance (over the past three days) of several anarchy spam attacks by bots, presumably controlled by a single user or small group of users.

Democracy: Anarchy’s Foil

After Twitch users became stuck for 24 hours navigating through the same puzzle, the creator implemented a new mode of gameplay: democracy. Under democracy, inputs are tallied up over the course of 20 seconds and the command with the most votes is executed. This leads to slow gameplay, however it becomes more efficient at times, especially when dealing with puzzles or situations requiring a low margin of error.

Once democracy was instituted, the fan base responded in somewhat of a backlash, arguing that democracy was not the proper mode for playing the game and that the new mode ruined the fun of anarchy’s unpredictability. “Start9” became the rallying cry for anarchists—a command which opens and closes the start menu four times and opens it once more. This command serves as a type of filibuster, with the purpose of delaying the game until anarchy can be reinstated.

In anarchy mode, trolls were identified from the outset in attempting to sabotage Red’s progress throughout the game. In one instance, crossing a narrow ledge in eight steps took twelve hours; in a regular single player game, inputting this simple string of commands would take about five seconds to execute. The trolls helped elevate democracy as a viable alternative to solving problems or challenges where precise commands were required, which is difficult when the emulator accepts thousands of disassociated inputs in anarchy mode. Throughout the series, Twitch users voted in democracy temporarily to overcome challenges—notably the Safari Zone, in which Red was only allotted 500 steps in the zone to retrieve key items necessary for continuing the quest. If Red failed too many times, the game may have become unwinnable.

As the users progress through the games, the battle between anarchy and democracy rages on. Understandably, both sides are distrustful of one another’s motives when one wrong move could render the game unwinnable for everyone.

Destiny: Democracy’s Downfall

Democracy, though amenable to strategizing, has a dark side as well. Much like domestic and international politics, democracy in its purest form is still corruptible by motivated forces. Theoretically, with enough organization, a user with hundreds of followers could severely damage Red’s progress and chances of finishing his quest. And that is exactly what happened, on a day named by the fan-base as “Bloody Sunday.” A spam attack occurred at 5 AM EST on February 23rd, in which hundreds of Twitch users swung the political meter toward democracy; led by a Twitch streamer (alias: Destiny), their intent was to hijack control of the game by spamming commands to deposit and release as many of Red’s Pokémon as possible. The main target was “Bird Jesus,” Red’s best Pokémon and one of the de facto symbols of anarchy and the much-loved subject of hundreds of internet memes.

The sheer power of organized numbers led to the inevitable deposit and release of many Pokémon. However, regular Twitch users quickly figured out what was going on and spammed “B” to prevent the horde of democratic trolls from releasing “Bird Jesus” and other high-level Pokémon. According to “Destiny” in a e-radio interview, “Technically, we’re not doing anything against the rules of the experiment…any number of people can input chat commands…That’s why it’s such an interesting social experiment.” Despite Destiny’s genuine interest in the social experiment aspect of things, the majority of players cried sabotage.

Collective Coordination

While “Destiny” and his followers conspired to derail progress, several other groups had organized for the opposite reason—to plan, organize, and strategize to beat the game. One example of superior organization was the real-time update stream on Reddit. This Reddit stream typically has 4,000 to 8,000 viewers at a given time, whereas Twitch Plays Pokémon typically has about 40,000 to 80,000 viewers (each depending on the time of day). Given that many of these Twitch viewers are not active participants, the Reddit crowd represents a significant minority of organized individuals, capable of inputting strategies into the collective consciousness. Links are usually posted (albeit for a few seconds as more inputs flow in) on the chat window. Another example is the community Google Document, which detailed ongoing strategies and accomplishments relevant to the game.

This informal group of strategizers also uses Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media platforms to communicate. Both the Google Document and the Reddit stream have circulated strategies in the form of pictures (usually maps with annotations) so that Twitch players can input the appropriate commands while still considering the 30-40 seconds of lag time between inputs and gameplay. Of course, not all players are accessing these maps; but this type of organization facilitated progress in both anarchy and democracy modes. What is particularly amazing about this progress is the degree of planning and forethought put in to these strategies.

As the group inches toward the homestretch, individuals increasingly have drawn up maps from strategy guides, thereby communicating the purpose of the current strategy to Twitch players. Of particular interest is “Project Surfboard,” where Twitch users would teach the move “Surf” to able Pokémon. Users reasoned that this water-type move would be effective against upcoming gym leaders and Elite Four opponents. Coordination of this long-term strategy seems almost impossible because it involves navigating the menu screen, when one rogue command could instantly undo a good deal of work. However, after many arguments, filibusters, and failures elsewhere, the fan-base succeeded in teaching the move to both able Pokémon within nine hours of the initial Reddit update mentioning the plan.

Lessons Learned

What does this social experiment say about group psychology and politics? One of the most interesting aspects of the game is the progress made over the more than 15 days, amidst all the infighting and chaos.

Perhaps the greatest lesson learned from this game is the true strength of collective purpose—that thousands of unrelated individuals working on a seemingly unimportant goal will rally together when the collective purpose is threatened. “Destiny”, the Twitch streamer that organized the plot to release Bird Jesus, said this of the fan-base’s efforts to protect the game’s progress: “There’s always the opportunity for the community to respond in whatever way it sees fit. Which is what happened here—we were able to push things over to the democracy side, but as soon as it started to gain traction and publicity on Twitter and Reddit, everybody stepped in and started pushing back toward the anarchy side.” This type of behavior mirrors the type of behavior seen in protests in Ukraine, Venezuela, and Thailand. The only difference is the context in which the human behavior occurs.

Ten Worthwhile Lessons from Twitch Plays Pokémon:

  • • Just like in diplomatic relations (and in the Prisoner’s Dilemma), lack of communication can be the largest obstacle to progress.
  • • Increased communication allows for friendlier relations among players and the mutual understanding of beliefs and objectives.
  • • Increased access to information provides for healthy debate and compromise.
  • • Without consensus and a legitimate arena for debate, gridlock hinders progress toward any goal.
  • • Strategy falls apart without each of these vital components: forethought, communication, persuasion, and consensus.
  • • Amidst chaos and disunity, an organized force may seek to tip the scale in its favor, thereby exploiting the situation.
  • • Collective action is difficult, especially when numerous interests prevent consensus.
  • • However, people tend to overcome challenges after failures by learning from mistakes and communicating with others.
  • • In a game of anarchy and democracy, anarchy does the most poorly in solving complicated tasks (due to rogue inputs), whereas democracy does better in these tasks (so long as each vote is equal).
  • • Anarchy is responsible for much of the progress as well as disasters in the game, whereas democracy has been utilized in narrow situations where complex menu selection and navigation is required (where one troll can ruin everything).

The Destination or the Journey

The debate over the purpose of this social experiment continues. Is it about the destination (beating the game), or the journey (the communal cooperation needed to progress)? For many, beating the game represents the ultimate achievement; for others, the context and the unpredictability of the journey is the real accomplishment. In his interview, “Destiny” continued, “Seeing things happen with 50,000 people doing the commands—the creation of that content—is arguably what the progress is in this game. Even if we never finish this game, or we end up getting stuck somewhere, or the computer dies and we never come back, I think that most people would still argue that this has been very entertaining.” The democrats and anarchists may never agree on the proper way to play the game; but one would be hard pressed, to find any participant in this social experiment that thought “Twitch Plays Pokémon” was not entertaining. And there, at least, lies some common ground.