Anarchists and democrats clash in online game

Which way will he jump? Players vote for co-operation or each-for-himself versions.

An extraordinary social experiment is taking place online as forty thousand players attempt to play a game of Pokemon together. What do their struggles tell us about human nature?

At this moment, 45,000 people are working with and against each other in a vast online ‘social experiment’ designed to challenge the way we think about co-operation, self-interest and anarchy. It has been running for 11 days and it has attracted 26 million viewers. What is this revolutionary event? A game of Pokemon.

A streaming service called Twitch has taken the Gameboy classic first released 16 years ago and transformed it into ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’, an online version where anyone can join in and enter commands for the character.

But there is a catch: with tens of thousands of players controlling the character at any one time, the tiny grey and white man is being manipulated to turn left, then right, then left again, with no clear decision on which direction to take. It took seven hours to move just 12 paces as online players struggled to get the character across a bridge. If this were not challenging enough, footage of the game is delayed by 20 seconds, so people are giving orders before they see the latest movements.

Despite these drawbacks the online crowd has managed – eventually – to get halfway through a game. Players can type the word ‘anarchy’ next to their command if they do not want to work with other players, or ‘democracy’ if they do. If more than 75% of players type ‘democracy’ within ten seconds, Twitch will follow the majority’s order. This gives players a fascinating choice: do they pursue their own selfish urges, or do they work together towards the shared goal of completing the game?

So far the game’s users have mostly opted for anarchy: some seem to find a maddening beauty in seeing five hours’ progress lost in a moment as the character is made to jump down a hole into oblivion. Yet in the ‘Safari Zone’, a section of the game where Twitch could have become stuck for eternity, players shared elaborate online maps and worked together to set him free.

The selfish game

What does this tell us about ourselves?

Thomas Hobbes wrote that people choose to live in societies because without them, life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Some would say that ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ has proved him right. While the internet gives players the freedom to be selfish, in trying times they know they can work together for the common good – and they do.

Others argue that this mass online activity reveals the opposite: the game could be completed within hours through co-operation, but most reject collective endeavour to pursue their own ends. These individuals revel in the game’s chaotic pointlessness and enjoy frustrating the progress of others. Rather than showing man as a ‘social animal’, ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ demonstrates just how destructively selfish we are.

You Decide

  1. Is ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’ a social experiment or just a silly game?
  2. Does the near-anonymity of the internet make people act selfishly?

Activities

  1. In groups, choose a well-known game and think of a way it could be turned into an interesting experiment.
  2. Write a short presentation about the positive and negative effects of playing computer games (for example, they can enhance skills but may make some more isolated socially).

Some People Say...

“We all do better when we work together. Our differences do matter, but our common humanity matters more.’Bill Clinton”

What do you think?

Q & A

But I don’t play video games!
The success of ‘Twitch plays Pokemon’ is important not just for gamers; it is the first time a mass of online users has been asked how they want to make decisions and then been given the opportunity to act together. Imagine harnessing this method in politics. How long might it be until important choices for society are made with a click of a mouse?
What will happen when players complete the game?
The creator is planning to adapt one of Pokemon’s sequels, but later iterations may not retain quite the same fanatical following. Other games will doubtlessly find new ways to make use of multiple players making the decisions.

Word Watch

Anarchy
The game uses ‘anarchy’ to describe the state when players are not working together, but the term itself can have a wide range of meanings, and is often used to describe a political ideal of a society without state institutions. For ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’, a more accurate term for the lack of direction brought about by collective indecision might be ‘nihilism’, which justifies acts of destruction if life is without meaning or purpose.
Beauty
An older manifestation of this same principle is found in the mandala sand paintings of Tibetan monks. The mandala is a symbolic picture of the universe made with painstaking intricacy out of coloured sand. Once the picture is complete, the monk traditionally destroys it to represent the impermanence of life.
Thomas Hobbes
This famous quotation comes from Hobbes’s Leviathan, a 500-page book written at the end of the English Civil War in 1651. Hobbes imagined life in a hypothetical time before society existed, which he called the ‘state of nature’. Without the help of his fellow man, humans would soon succumb to danger.

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