In the past week, I’ve watched far more of Twitch Plays Pokemon than I have the Olympics. This is because Twitch Plays Pokemon is an amazing Twitch channel where anyone and everyone can control Pokemon Red at once by inputting button commands in the chat window, and the Winter Olympics are not that. The choice wasn’t even a difficult one to make. Watching the madness that comes from tens of thousands of people trying to move the same character at the same time is infinitely more entertaining to watch than someone dancing around on ice to bad pop music, and that’s just science.
I wrote last week about how hypnotically entertaining it was, and here we are seven days later with a whole slew of new badges, new pokemon, and even a new deity. Yes, a deity. The Internet is weird sometimes. Unfortunately, the week has also come with one major overhaul to the fundamental system: democracy has been introduced to Kanto. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. We had been stuck at Team Rocket hideout for what seemed like the better part of our entire lives, because for some reason Team Rocket decided the best security measure to add to a super secret evil base was special sliding tiles that push your character around. While this is far less effective that, oh lets say locked doors or guards armed with anything other than Rattatas, it was the perfect defense against us as one single wrong button push would send Red back to the beginning. At some point in the process the creator of the channel decided to implement a “democracy vs. anarchy” system, where you could type in democracy or anarchy into the chat window and change how the game was controlled. Under anarchy, it is the same game we’ve been playing all along where the game reads individual inputs and then performs them. In democracy mode, however, the game would poll everyone over a set amount of time and the most popular input would be selected as the next command. And, with this single modification, fun was taken out back behind the shed and beaten with the hefty club of democracy.
One of the common arguments for democracy is that it makes the hard parts far easier and helps us get past parts we might have been stuck at for weeks in anarchy mode, an argument I usually counter by slamming my head against the keyboard and crying. This whole thing was never about being easy, or reasonable, or even realistically possible. Simplicity was never its appeal, because, whoa, hey guys, did you know we could just be playing this with one person? Haha man were we silly trying to control it with everyone at once! If only we knew this was a single player game earlier, we could’ve just designated one person to play while we all watched. That would’ve made it even easier! See, with democracy activated, the game essentially asks us the same question over and over again.
By taking every button input as a “vote” and assuming people are smart enough to account for the delay in the stream, what you’re basically doing is seeing if there are a majority of people there who want to do the right thing. This goes from a beautiful, almost random collection of movements as everyone tries to do the same thing at once to the world’s slowest Pokemon Red playthrough. Watching Red slowly trudge his way through the Safari Zone isn’t entertaining to watch because I learned how to get through the Safari Zone before I fully learned the alphabet.
“But look at how much progress we’re making!” the rallying cry for the other side seems to be which is an awful argument because, yeah, duh we’re making progress. Pokemon isn’t a hard game and any one person can easily navigate their way through any area of the game. Progress made this way isn’t particularly impressive because any six year old could do the same thing. What was amazing to watch was progress made through anarchy, where every seemingly simple obstacle was made impossible by tens of thousands of people all slamming different buttons and trying to get Red to go in every direction at the same time. Instead of moving the one square it would take to enter the building we needed to, we would check the Pokedex entry on Bulbasaur twenty times. I once watched Red get stuck in a Pokemon Center for half an hour. This isn’t the slightest bit of exaggeration. I watched him overshoot the door multiple times, fight with himself about whether or not he should risk going to the PC, and then get wedged in the corner for thirty minutes. We were stuck in a building for thirty minutes. If most people get stuck in a building for thirty minutes, someone has to call the fire department because there is at least half a ton of debris blocking the exit. We just couldn’t figure out how to use the door.
I left for several hours, and when I got back we had exited the building, obtained another badge, and moved to the next town over. Do you not see how incredible that is? We went from not being able to leave a building to navigating our way through a gym and moving all the way over to the next area. That kind of progress is astounding. It was like I left a baby alone on the floor for a while and that baby was doing stupid things even by baby standards. It was buying instant lottery tickets and DVRing every episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. I came back a couple of hours later to find out the baby is somehow now a six year old kid and that kid has alphabetized my game collection and made me a very tasty looking Play-Doh dinner. Every single minor victory was astounding and met with fanfare and a new round of memes. In the time it took us to clear a simple ledge (well, simple by single player standards) the people watching the stream had created a full fledged religious movement. Most cultures take years for something like that to happen. Twitch Plays Pokemon did it in a couple of days and did it because in between all our minor victories were hours and hours of complete and utter failure.
There was a time when I couldn’t believe we got anything accomplished. Now I can’t imagine how we’ll ever get stuck. Whenever even the most minute of obstacle is reached, people start crying out for democracy because they know we can easily get past it that way. It has sapped all the fun out of watching the stream because obviously we’re going to clear that next challenge. If we can’t do it with anarchy eventually the mob will win out and we’ll switch to democracy. Even though we’re in anarchy mode for the vast majority of the game, it still feels a bit tainted knowing we’re only here because we switched to easy baby mode for the hard parts.
When I first wrote up about Twitch Plays Pokemon, I noted how everyone playing Pokemon at once was eerily similar to an infinite number of monkeys typing up the works of Shakespeare because somehow through a random (or somewhat random, in our case) input of buttons, we were somehow making progress. Now it feels like an editor just walked through the room, gave the monkeys a banana to distract them, and typed up the entire second act of Hamlet because we were taking too long. An infinite amount of monkeys given an infinite amount of typewriters and time could eventually reproduce the works of Shakespeare given a good copy editor and an occasional ghost writer just doesn’t have the same ring to it. I still check in on the stream from time to time, but for me the fun has been lost. Forgive me Bird Jesus.