All Commentary
Friday, February 21, 2014

Exploring Anarchy and Democracy on a Gameboy

Give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters and they will type the works of Shakespeare. Give 100,000 monkeys a single Game Boy running Pokemon Red and what you have is a brilliant social experiment.
Twitch Plays Pokemon” uses to live stream an emulated version of Pokemon Red that is played by translating messages sent in Twitch's chat system to commands on the virtual Game Boy. Post “left” to the chat, and 20 to 40 seconds later (due to the lag) the player moves left. Likewise with other commands. What's incredible is that after tens of thousands of players have sent thousands of messages every minute to the game, they have made significant headway: battles won, gym badges awarded, and Pokemon trained. Even in this seemingly chaotic frenzy, progress is made, albeit slowly.
The game is riddled with complex mazes and puzzles the player must overcome. These areas are being conquered, but at an infuriatingly inefficient pace. Hours are spent walking into walls, using incorrect tools, and even throwing away useful items. One step forward, a hundred steps back. 
A more decisive way of sending commands was necessary to make gameplay more meaningful, so five days into this experiment a new mode was added: anarchy and democracy. Twitch viewers can vote for their preferred mode by posting “anarchy” or “democracy” to the chat. In anarchy mode the game proceeds as usual by accepting every command, but when players vote in democracy mode, the rules change. The system tallies up the requests, and after a 20-second interval, the command with the most votes gets executed. In this mode, players can also stack moves into a single command, such as “left2down3.” Gameplay slows to a crawl when the player only moves every 20 seconds, but meaningful progress can be made. 
The pattern of these modes being voted in is predictable. During normal gameplay, anarchy is the top choice because of the fast-paced, entertaining gameplay. But during complex puzzle sequences and important battles, the chat calls for “democracy! democracy! democracy!” Interestingly, without a central figurehead dictating decisions like this, a majority of the players agree to collaborate to reach a certain goal.
Not everyone is keen on Twitch Plays Pokemon being a democratic system, though. Pro-“anarchy” players submit “start9” to the messaging system to protest this new mode. Start9, if executed, calls the start menu nine times, effectively bringing the game to a halt in a beautifully simple, passive, and powerful protest.
Twitch Plays Pokemon is built on an unsophisticated mechanism. Players submit a move that is then executed on screen. Zoom out, however, and we can observe some interesting things. Playing in “anarchy” mode makes for a fast-paced and fun experience, though players make very little progress. Democracy mode is dull and predictable, and while progress is made, it’s slow coming. There is a deep trade-off here. As I watched, it was truly astounding when players made progress in anarchy mode. Players celebrated every achievement because the odds were so out of favor. When voting took place, I lost interest because my suggestions felt irrelevant. If I thought we should move up and not left, I was out of luck if outvoted. The game slowed to a crawl and I suddenly had less say. No one gave up in anarchy mode. There was always a beacon of hope that even though we were walking into walls, we would prevail. And eventually, we did. Everyone acting in their own interests, even if that interest was derailing the game, worked.
While Twitch Plays Pokemon is a fascinating social experiment, players have no skin in the game. Other than some wasted time watching the stream (and inevitably explaining it to friends and coworkers), voting at the control is costless. But what if five moves cost a dollar? Would anarchy mode be more structured and deliberate, with less throwing of random moves in place? Perhaps, but 70,000 people wouldn’t tune in to take part. The trolls, for example, might not be as willing to spend their hard-earned bones to derail the game. Save for needing a free Twitch account, any viewer can contribute without system-imposed alienation. Still, this experiment can be better. The 30-second delay between submitting a move and its execution is due to technological limitations, meaning, consequently, your appropriate “left” may not be useful 30 seconds from now. Without that delay, moving through the game may be more effective. Players have already self-started communities to discuss strategy and gameplay. These communities are free and open, sans figurehead.
Is Twitch Plays Pokemon just an isolated social experiment, or are there broader implications? The way it switches back and forth between democracy and anarchy modes may have implications for a condition in which anarchy reins but people engage in short-term forms of controlled collectivization, hierarchy, or democracy to act as a unified system and pass certain hurdles. In that case, real-life political systems could take a cue from TPP and have a built-in mechanism to switch between certain political systems. Perhaps such experiments will be tried in the near future with startup cities and seasteading.

  • Sean Nelson is a user interface designer currently in a love affair with industrial design. He likes tea and the blues. Reach out on Twitter: @partlysean.