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Twitch Plays Pokémon – A Massively Multiplayer Online Social Experiment

pokemonFor years video game fans have fantasized about a massively multiplayer online Pokémon game. That dream has yet to become a reality, but this last weekend, something along those lines cropped up out of nowhere. As I type this, more than 50,000 people are working together to play a single game of Pokémon Red online. This is called “Twitch Plays Pokémon,” an experiment described simply as, “I’m a robot playing Pokemon, I don’t know what I’m doing, tell me which buttons to press.”

One innovative Australian programmer thought of a way to use the popular video game streaming service Twitch.TV as a means of creating a live crowd-sourced interactive experience by allowing viewers to directly influence the progress of a single video game. The programmer did this by creating a program to interpret inputs such as “down,” “a,” “b,” and “start,” from user comments in the video stream’s chat room and sending them to the game via emulator. Such a novel idea steadily gained traction over the weekend to the point that tens of thousands of users are actively participating in the game simultaneously.

The result is an intriguing social experiment involving the ability (or inability) of a massive amount of Internet users to work together towards a common goal, which in this case is to complete the classic Gameboy game Pokémon Red. In an interview with Polygon, the creator said Pokémon was the ideal candidate due to its “turn-based gameplay, forgiving nature and its lack of reaction-based gameplay (which isn’t compatible with [20 seconds-plus] of Twitch lag).”

Pokémon Red is traditionally a single-player game, so these 50,000 people are all controlling a single character. Thousands of inputs are being sent every second, and it’s very hard to get everyone to agree on something. For every hundred players legitimately trying to progress through the game, there’s a hundred more that are actively trying to sabotage it by spamming the least desirable outcome possible.

screenshotIt’s highly entertaining to watch, as the mess of inputs causes the player character to spaz out, going in seemingly random directions and engaging in nonsensical actions such as constantly walking into a wall or repeatedly talking to non-player characters. It’s a common situation for the player character becomes stuck in a small section of the game for hours. The majority of Saturday had players struggling on a section of the game that simply required the player to move to the right for a small distance. However, a deluge directional “down” commands from players hoping to disrupt the game’s progress kept them in that section for hours and hours on end. For comparison’s sake, a normal game being played by a single player would probably have them spend not even 10 minutes in this one area. To someone who didn’t know the circumstances, one could very easily mistake Twitch Plays Pokémon for a game being played by an incredibly inept player.

Yet, through all the chaos, progress is being made due to a somewhat common sense of direction and goal among most of the player base. Over a period of 5 days, the collective of users have made considerable progress through the game. Various discussion forums on the Internet have cried out the impossibilities of the collective passing certain events, and every time so far they’ve overcome the odds. It’s just taken them multiple hours to do so. In many ways, the experiment is self-correcting. As people become bored and drop out of play, the player base becomes smaller, making the game easier to control. The sudden progress in the game reinvigorates interest in the project, causing chaos to once again ensue. Then disinterest will eventually come about due to the lack of advancement, and the process begins anew.

Twitch Plays Pokémon has gathered an extensive following outside of the tens of thousands of people typing into the game’s chat. A group of users put together a public Google Doc documenting the players’ current status and goals for people to edit and add to. One user created extensive statistical lists that detail the frequency of button inputs and chat commands. Someone has even put together time-lapse videos of entire days of gameplay.

Many artistic fans took it upon themselves to express their love of the experiment with their own fan art, recreating some of the more humorous moments of the game. These works often depict the player character as a schizophrenic child with thousands of Internet user’s commands acting as the voices in his head. More memes involve the faux “religions” surrounding the various generally “useless” items that players constantly use on accident due to the bedlam of thousands of simultaneous commands.

Unsurprisingly, many copycat streams have surfaced, as well. One of the more unique spins on the project takes the chat commands from Twitch Plays Pokémon to play a virtual game of Tetris, resulting in incredibly bizarre and impossible moves (that often result in game overs). Another stream uses completely random inputs generated by a computer to play through the same Pokémon game at 500% speed, and it hasn’t come even close to catching up with Twitch Plays Pokémon. Again, it serves as evidence that the seemingly random, chaotic inputs from the human players participating in Twitch Plays Pokémon actually have a common sense of direction.

For any fans of Pokémon, I definitely recommend tuning into this fantastic experiment, or even directly contributing to it! They’re going to need all the help they can get, and even if they spend hours wandering around aimlessly, it’s still extremely entertaining to watch them struggle through the simplest of endeavors. I literally watched them spend an hour trying to cut down a bush, only to be thwarted by a second bush minutes later.

pokemonTwitch Plays Pokémon has currently been running for more than 4 days, and the creator intends to keep the game running 24/7 in hopes that the players eventually reach the game’s end. At this rate, that could be months from now, but it’ll be exciting to check in every once in a while to witness the next obstacle to plague players for the next 5 hours.

By Alfredo Dizon, eParisExtra

Young Title Company