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How the world defeated the Elite Four

A modern spin on a classic game demonstrates the power of anarchy, writes Peter Walsh.



If you wanted to play Pokémon with friends in 1996, you would need two Game Boys, two games, and a link cable. I convinced a friend I didn’t see much to trade me his rarest Pokémon (“just for the day” while I “finished something”) and then kept quiet until we left. I escaped with his prized level 60, and should have been executed then and there.

From these ancient origins, came a video channel called ‘Twitch Plays Pokémon’ (TPP), which was launched on the Internet two weeks ago. The concept is simple: “Enter button inputs via chat!”. The viewerstype classic Game Boy commands into a live chat, which are then interpreted automatically and fed into the game. By day two, TPPhad accrued 20,000 viewers watching live. When the game was completed on Saturday night after 16days, sevenhours, 45minutes, and 30seconds, TPP had hit 37,105,776 unique viewers. I played during the day and slept as others woke to continue.

The social experiment was to test whether a collective could collaborate and complete the game. The challenge seemed impossible, as each individual’s input was valued equally by the system, regardless of whether it was proactive, malicious, or random. Even the simplest of moves requires specific commands to be entered in the right sequence. For example, teaching a Pokémon to cut down a tree requires ‘start’, ‘down’ to items, ‘down’ to the item that teaches ‘cut’ to a Pokémon, ‘a’ to select it, ‘a’ to say yes you want to use it, ‘down’ or ‘up’ to select the correct Pokémon (since they can’t all learn ‘cut’), ‘a’ to use it again, and then a combination of ‘down’, ‘up’, and ‘a’ to make sure you don’t overwrite another important move. All this with thirty second delay on inputs.

In an early passage called Route 9 the protagonist must walk along a precipice. It’s about ten squares long, and any step downward causes you to fall off the ledge and start again. Something that took a minute to complete in 1996 took more than 20 hours in 2014. Anyone viewing the game could throw the protagonist off the ledge by entering ‘down’. Some say the thirty-second command delay caused the confused instructions, while others say it was a concerted effort to intentionally cause us ‘grief’.

When you catch a Pokémon, you’re given the opportunity to name it, and the random combination of directions resulted in one early catch going by ‘JLVWNNOOOO’. Affectionately, we called him Jay Leno, while our starting Pokémon, ‘ABBBBBBK(‘, was named Abby. Similarly, an early choice requires the player to select from two fossils. The players chose the Helix Fossil, which has since been conceived as something of a deity. The unselected Dome Fossil was instead rendered in art as the malicious Lucifer, tempting our character towards the wrong path. People have painted Pidgeot (‘Bird Jesus’) leading us to our salvation and others made doomsday proclamations claiming we would never progress past difficult parts later in the game. Sadly, Eevee (the Dome Fossil’s Judas) infiltrated the party and subsequently, Jay Leno and Abby were released from the party, never to be seen again, by what we assume was the Dome Fossil cult. What followed was a day’s worth of meaningless wandering in a room of moving tiles. Thankfully, we removed Eevee. Praise the Helix Fossil.

If this seems meaningless, or unfunny, it’s meaningless and unfunny in the way all memes are. Our ability to understand and empathise with the humor depends on whether we’re part of the community. Our tenure with the game results in a communal empathy. Some people come and get bored quickly, but others who have been there since the beginning persist and ceaselessly type the commands that might advance us.

After 24 hours of no progress, the game paused for maintenance and returned with a new mechanic: ‘Anarchy’ or ‘Democracy’. If 50 per cent of the viewers’ voted Anarchy, the game’s mechanic remained the same. If 75 per cent sided with Democracy, then the play mechanic changed and each movement was determined by the most popular command entered during a given timeframe. I think this was a misstep, a move by the central controller away from the brilliance of unmitigated chaos. Moves were delayed while a consensus emerged. Our protagonist moved slowly and predictably towards completion. There was none of the joy that came from achieving before.

Here we see Anarchy is the purest Democracy, even if it has us running into walls. Thankfully, some Anarchists realised that by spamming ‘start9’, it would paralyse the protagonist in one spot while he consulted the menu. Here, the originals of the viewership reject outright the designers’ intention, filibustering the game into nothing until Anarchy could be restored.

As the game entered its second week, the following grew and majority of players were no longer ‘diehard’, but ‘casual’. Now, a viewer base that was once happy to grind away at 24 hours of ledge action was replaced by a group who wanted immediate gratification, immediate progress, and a chance to see their input meaningfully reproduced on the screen. Democracy became a preference instead of a last resort. Furthermore, some questioned how genuine this democratic will actually is. Voting patterns suggested that a large portion of ‘Democracy’ votes were cast by automated bots. I might be politicising, but it seems TPP’s revolutionaries were the first against the wall.

The anarchic TPP functioned as a fractured ecosystem where ideas were subverted instantly, resulting in chaotic noise. Since democracy’s coup, the protagonist simply advanced. There were still flashes of absolute chaos when Anarchy reigned (a protracted period of anarchy resulted in the release of half our Pokémon, whichranks amongst my greatest personal tragedies) but the Democratic safety net always loomed.

After 16 days, we found ourselves winning the final battle in Anarchy, though it was won through the continued intercession of Democracy. Before the mechanic was changed, I conceived of TPP as a coherent, closed off ecosystem — a very 2014 symbol of the Internet. At its most compelling, TPPwasstill this fractured place. In Anarchy, strangers cooperated and created a culture that could be communicated, subverted, and re-communicated instantly. On the other hand, our triumphs under Anarchy were diluted by the administrator’s preference for Democracy. Still, at the conclusion, TPP was impressive because it took a game programmed only for collaboration in a limited sense and manipulated it beyond recognition, until it became a chaotic and undefinable image of our online selves.