120K gamers play 'TwitchPlaysPokemon' together

More than 14 million viewers over the last six days have been watching a video game played live online, by more than 120,000 players. 'TwitchPlaysPokemon' is amassing a worldwide following, and spurring discussions about civics along the way.

By , Correspondent

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    Screen shot from Twitch.tv, which is live-streaming the hacked game 'TwitchPlaysPokemon' which has amassed more than 120,000 players since Feb. 14, and more than 14 million views of the live stream.
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If your Wi-Fi suddenly crashes as you hear your kids shouting “Anarchy!” don’t panic, it’s a good thing. A massive social experiment is taking place online via the game “TwitchPlaysPokemon,” that may result in kids and parents finding common ground to discuss how the world works.

Over the past six days, 24/7, the website Twitch.tv has run a multiplayer game wherein as many as 120,000 players try to control a single character at the same time.

So far, 14 million users have spectated the live role-playing game, to see if a massive number of gamers could work together toward a common goal. 

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“It took them four days just to get in the elevator,” my son Ian, 18, reported last night. “For the first four days, the guy in the game just stood there and twitched as 80,000 players all input Left, Right, Back, etc. at the same time.”

According to the Independent, “The stream was set up by an anonymous Australian programmer who told gaming website Polygon that he just 'put it up to see how people would respond.' "

Twitch, which serves as a video platform and community for gamers, explains that “TwitchPlaysPokemon” is “a social experiment, it is a stream of the Gameboy version of Pokemon Red.”

Its anonymous creator has turned the website's comment system into a controller for the 1996 Game Boy title. To date, more than 400,000 participants have "played" the game through the chat feature.

"This is one more example of how video games have become a platform for entertainment and creativity that extends WAY beyond the original intent of the game creator," Matthew DiPietro, Twitch's vice president of marketing, told the Monitor via e-mail. "By merging a video game, live video, and a participatory experience, the broadcaster has created an entertainment hybrid custom made for the Twitch community."

Commenters type in one of the game's eight commands to control the main character – up, down, left, right, A, B, start, or select – which would be simple if it weren’t for the fact that about 100,000 players are all typing in their choice of commands and only one move can be made as a result.

The game was based on total anarchy for the first four days. However, in the interest of getting the game to progress its designer added an option to vote for "anarchy" or "democracy" as a means of functions, according to the Twitch website and my sons.

According to the site, “Anarchy is the ‘classic' mode, where everyone's inputs are applied immediately. Democracy mode is vote-based and has a more sophisticated input system.”

In order to switch from one mode to the other, the mode that isn't active needs 75 percent of votes cast in the chat.

I would never have known this was happening if Ian and his brother, Avery, 14, hadn’t begun to shout at their laptops, “Democracy! People we need democracy!” and “LEFT! LEFT! No not anarchy!”

Curious at the constant references to political systems, I asked what they were doing. “Pokemon” was their answer in unison.

Pokemon is a roleplaying game created for Game Boy as part of the Japanese franchise many parents will recognize from cartoons, decks of cards, and plush creatures.

I am a great fan of this game in all its incarnations because it doesn’t involve guns, blood, or other mature themes, while engaging kids right through their teenage years and into young adulthood in a critical-thinking bonanza.

Kids are forced to make rapid mathematical calculations in their heads and come up with strategies in order to progress in the game.

In the interest of being able to understand the gamer shorthand spoken like a second language among my four sons, my youngest son Quin, 10, took pity on me and taught me to play the card game version of Pokemon.

Still, I have never heard my sons screaming for democracy as part of a video game battle until last night.

Last night, the Olympics (which has had the boys glued to the screen) took a backseat to this online event.

I found myself so fascinated by their sudden immersion in politics that I made a bowl of popcorn and sat down to watch my sons, who were watching the Twitch play and occasionally inputting a command.

It was a fascinating evening of rapidly evolving socio-political interplay.

It was fun to see my kids so frustrated over trying to get a group of people to do the rational thing and being thwarted at every turn.

I asked Ian and Avery what they were learning from this experience about democracy, anarchy, and working together.

“It’s hard to tell because democracy has only been an option for the last 24 hours,” Ian said. “Anarchy gets faster results, but they’re not always good.”

Avery added, “Yeah, democracy takes forever and people still don’t always agree, so it’s, like, impossible even to decide to save the game.”

However, by 9 p.m., democracy was getting undeniable results and 75-percent of the gamers online agreed it was the ticket to get things on track.

As dawn broke this morning, I fully expected democracy to have brought progress in great leaps and bounds.

I asked Ian how things were going in the game.

“It doesn’t make sense but they’re back to anarchy and making huge progress now,” he said. “Democracy was taking too long. Then, somehow everyone just stopped being stupid and started making the right choices to advance the game.”

My heart sank as I pictured 90,000 players plus 12 million onlookers worldwide growing up to throw the world into total anarchy because it worked in “TwitchPlaysPokemon” for six days.

Seeing the look of horror on my face, Ian said, “If it helps, Avery and I now have to try and research it online and try and figure out why anarchy is working so well. It’s like the game spawned a bigger puzzle to solve for us of ‘Why is anarchy working?’ ”

OK, parents, here’s the game plan, we will use this moment in time to launch a platform for discussions on social studies.

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