Writing this for the normals I know (where “normals” is defined by “people who don’t already know about Twitch Plays Pokemon”).
So there’s this thing going on right now — it’s been going on for about a week now — on the live video streaming service Twitch.TV. And this thing is actually one of the most important things I’ve seen happen on the Internet lately.
A little background: Twitch.TV is a site where people go to broadcast live video streams of themselves playing video games — whether it’s an organized, big-budget competitive event for hundreds of thousands of people, or just me streaming myself playing Street Fighter to a handful of friends. (I do this every now and then — most recently, I streamed a video of myself playing Street Fighter online while listening to Fresh Air on NPR.)
And there is this channel called Twitch Plays Pokemon, which is embedded here:
This channel has tens of thousands of people collectively playing the same game of Pokemon Red. All of them use Twitch’s built-in chat service to send button presses, one at a time, to a bot that some anonymous person put together that connects the chat channel to the PC program “playing” the game.
If you know what’s going on, it’s kind of painful to watch — imagine 70,000 people all trying to dial a phone number on one single phone — but they’re doing it. It’s slow and clumsy and there’s a lot of backtracking, but they’re getting through the game. There are people who try to intentionally ruin things for everyone, there are groups of people using communications tools like Reddit to align strangers all over the world, there is even something of an ad-hoc culture growing around it. And I think it’s fascinating for several reasons.
It’s the future of entertainment.
For all their content maturity (or immaturity) problems, games where cutting-edge stuff like this is happening.
One hobby programmer is using an old Nintendo game, an internet connection, and a regular old Windows PC to entertain over 100,000 people for a week and counting, and he or she doesn’t have to do a darn thing. It’s interactive in a way that TV isn’t, but it’s not as active or involved as full-on playing a video game. And it’s not something a TV network or Hollywood would ever think of doing.
I’m convinced that the next real revolution in interactive entertainment are projects like this and similar channels like Salty Bet — programs that mix automatically-generated entertainment with audience participation. Distributed gaming, if you will.
It’s a fascinating exercise in community organizing.
Just take a look at the culture and communication growing in spaces like the Twitch Plays Pokemon subreddit and you’ll see what I mean. People are using elaborate diagrams and spreading them around to build general consensus on a plan of action; what’s more, these plans even build in allowances for trolls who could potentially ruin them.
This is, of course, not so different from actual community organizing — but it’s happening on the internet! Think about how cool this is, not just as an entertaining experience, but as practice for developing new organizing tools and techniques on the internet that could potentially translate into the rest of the world.
And it’s evolving, too — a few days ago, the creator added a feature that let the chat room continuously vote on whether the game bot should be operating in “anarchy mode”, where every input in chat is executed one at a time in order, or “democracy mode”, where the bot takes votes over a fixed period of time and performs only the input that scored highest. Democracy mode has proven itself to be better at sabotaging trolls, but also slower — and as soon as the option was introduced, people had to work not just at organizing around the ideal plans of action, but also around the decision-making structure itself.
Like I said in the beginning of this post: Despite the trolls and the technical issues and the difficulty of trying to get tens of thousands of people to steer a ship, people are making it happen. It is fundamentally a story of humankind moving ever so slowly in the right direction by sheer force of will, triumphing over jerks and ignorance maybe not the first time (or the fifth) but throwing themselves at the problem until it happens.
This is just one of the many reasons why I love video games. We’ve come a long way from DOOM and Donkey Kong (as great as they were); I urge you to check out what we’ve got going on these days.