Famed science-fiction author Aldous Huxley dreamed a of dystopia in his novel Brave New World whereby the onslaught of trivial media had transformed the character of society into a burlesque. Years earlier, his grandfather—and noted evolutionary biologist—T.H Huxley had first supposed that a million monkeys on a million typewriters might one day collectively compose Shakespeare.
Neither Huxley could reasonably have anticipated that their speculations might converge and manifest themselves through the lens of Nintendo’s Pokemon franchise.
In February 2014, a user identified as ‘twitchplayspokemon’ launched a channel on Twitch.tv—an online platform for live-streaming video games—running an emulated version of Pokemon Red, an 18 year old Gameboy game. Twitch.tv boasts a lively community of gaming enthusiasts streaming, watching, and interacting around a shared interest in playing and experiencing games. The community dynamics hinge on chat features embedded in the Twitch platform, and the interactions between streamers and viewers transforms typically solitary gaming pursuits into social experiences.
Twitch plays Pokemon takes this community interaction one step further, and by bootstrapping a chat-parsing bot onto the emulator viewers can input commands into the chat stream to dictate the inputs of the game. Typing in simple “up”, “down”, “left”, “right”, “A”, “B”, or “start” will feed the corresponding action into inputs for the game. Predictably, thousands of people clamouring in chat and spitting out hundreds of commands simultaneously creates unmitigated chaos. The avatar gets stuck on terrain, he constantly flits between menu screens, spins around in circles, and ultimately behaves like a man possessed. Without pattern or purpose, the result is a bizarre mix of the trivial and captivating. For every hour spent in inaction and anarchy, brief flurries of cooperation incrementally nudge the game forward and demonstrate a complexity of collective action that verges on impossible.
This communal watch-and-play experience showcases some of the best and worst qualities of user-driven content; Web 2.0’s greatest strength also represents a terrible vulnerability, to aggregate the wisdom of the masses you have to invite their madness in too. The beating heart of Twitch.tv lies in its users coming together to share and interact, but their collective activity does little to build a community. Far from it, as TwitchplaysPokemon has demonstrated time and time again the contributions of the many are not necessarily helpful. In fact, the disruptive—often maliciously antagonistic—anarchy of the users creates something wholly unique and unanticipated from what should be relatively mundane, boring elements.
Counterpoint to Tim O’Reilly’s position that harnessing collective intelligence has an effect liken to that of the sum being greater than the whole, the Twitch community thrives not on inclusiveness and cooperation like so many other Web 2.0 hubs, but rather on the toxic levels of animosity and trolling behaviour between users. The raw energy and interest that Twitch produces is not generating a collectively ‘intelligent’ behaviour across the sum of interactions. While there is something to be said for the collective joy of achieving the most basic goals when 100 000 voices are all arguing at once, the most compelling part of Twitch—the thing that binds the community together—is how devastatingly broken it all is.
After more than 2 weeks of continuous play, Pokemon was finally beaten. This is either an incredible feat of crowd-sourced collaboration, or a tacit endorsement that monkeys might well compose Shakespeare given time. If nothing else it opens the way for a new approach to how games and gaming are consumed and integrated on social platforms. The potential for participatory collaborations on Twitch need no longer be constrained to a simple viewer/streamer relationship. The possibilities for building a community—nay, a society—around even the most trivial of media, when experienced cooperatively, is limitless should Twitch—or other platforms—choose to leverage this position.
Looking forward, it certainly appears that Twitch plays Pokemon has ushered in a brave new world for Twitch.tv.