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Thursday, September 28, 2023

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Twitch gives Pokemon players the chance to level up

We have all had our faith in humanity shaken at some point as we face the apparent inevitability of wars, discrimination or even just not being able to find a parking space. But sometimes, that faith can be restored by the simplest and most unlikely of sources — such as seeing millions of people try to simultaneously play a video game.

Twitch Plays Pokemon was, as its name suggests, a stream of the game Pokemon Red hosted by streaming video provider Twitch. Created by an anonymous Australian programmer, the game was controlled by a group chat: Any user could type in a button, such as “left” or “A,” and the game would execute that command.

The game ran continuously for just more than two weeks from Feb. 13 to March 1. In that time, Twitch estimates more than 1.5 million people entered chat commands, and at least 9 million people watched, with a peak of about 120,000 all watching at one time.

The going wasn’t easy. Because of the chat setup and the sheer volume of commands, button presses took about 30 seconds to be executed, and many were dropped entirely in the haywire. As a result, mazes took hours to navigate, valuable Pokemon were mistakenly released and players frequently found themselves accidentally accessing the menu and repeatedly examining their items — one of which, the Helix Fossil, was memetically interpreted as a god the player character was consulting for advice on what to do next.

But through all the chaos, those 1.5 million people somehow managed to successfully finish the game. It’s been compared to the proverbial monkeys with typewriters who, given infinite time, will manage to produce the entire works of Shakespeare by simply random input. I don’t think it’s that simple, though. This isn’t just a case of random input producing eventual results — it’s a case of human beings working together to act as a group without a leader.

The same thing can be seen in a 1991 social experiment by Pixar co-founder Loren Carpenter. According to “Out of Control,” a book by Wired magazine’s founding executive editor, Kevin Kelly, Carpenter set up a version of the arcade game Pong to respond to simple controls by a crowd of 5,000 people. Each person had a cardboard wand with red and green sides, and a camera scanned the crowd to detect how much of each color was being displayed. The more red, the faster the game’s paddle moved up; the more green, the faster it moved down.

Without a leader and with barely any instructions, the group adapted remarkably well. Each move of the paddle depended on 5,000 individual decisions — if everyone decided to move the paddle in the same direction, it would move too quickly and overshoot, so both colors needed to be displayed in ever-changing proportions. And yet the crowd managed so well that Carpenter changed from Pong to an airplane flight simulator, on which the group successfully pulled up out of two near-failed landings and even whimsically made the plane perform a barrel roll.

Now take that conference room of 5,000 and magnify it to a virtual room of 1.5 million. Instead of Pong or a flight simulator, set them up with an entire role-playing game with all the complexities therein. Twitch Plays Pokemon rose to the task and proved again, 23 years later, that unguided, unsupervised humans can accomplish surprising things.

Like a bird in a flock or a fish in a school, no individual player of Twitch Plays Pokemon could know precisely what move each of the others would make at any moment. But still, the flock successfully flies south for the winter, the school successfully migrates to find food — and the group mind of Twitch successfully finished Pokemon Red. If humans can coordinate so naturally in the virtual realm, imagine what we can do in the real world if we put our collective mind to it.

Copy chief David Bryant is an English literature senior and may be reached at [email protected]

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