'Twitch Plays Pokemon' is now a fight for the soul of the Internet

Can we all just work together? New "democracy" and "anarchy" modes in the live-streaming game experiment reveal the split personality of the Internet.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
6 min read
Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

No one was quite expecting "Twitch Plays Pokemon," the massively-multiplayer Pokemon game being streamed on Twitch.tv for more than 150 hours straight, to virally erupt within a week of going live, let alone accomplish anything by way of in-game progress. Yet the channel has ballooned to mind-boggling popularity as the group of tens of thousands of Twitch users have managed to make surprising advancements in tandem with hilarious missteps.

In the process, a community unlike anything the Internet has ever seen has sprouted up, the strangest aspect of which is the disturbingly elaborate religious narrative crafted by thousands of meme-hungry participants. It would be an understatement to say it's one of the weirder things to happen on the Internet lately.

Currently, the stream has garnered more than 15 million total views and the active viewer count has at times exceeded 100,000, up almost 10 times what its peak was last Friday. The self-described "social experiment," started by an anonymous Australian programmer last week, began as a fascinating look into collective behavior and group dynamics.

And thanks to the channel owner's addition of "democracy" and "anarchy" game modes on Tuesday, Twitch Plays Pokemon has grown beyond a simple social experiment and into the realm of symbolic, quasi-political Internet culture wars. Between the trolls who find humor in the sadistic torture of the game's already snail-like progress and those who demand more speedy completion, Twitch Plays Pokemon is now a battle between the split personality of the Internet hive mind.

To refresh, the special Twitch stream is an emulated version of the original Game Boy classic Pokemon Red with a catch: to progress through the game, active viewers of the stream with a Twitch account must type in commands -- a and b or up and down for example -- in the chat box, while an IRC bot translates those comments into in-game commands with some considerable lag. As thousands of inputs pour in, the system processes only a select handful of commands. The result is a dizzying display of chaos as the main character walks in circles, opens menus repeatedly, and spends countless hours failing to surpass simple obstacles.

The main hurdles thus far have been in both the increasing size of the viewer pool, meaning more and more potential commands muddling each attempt at meaningful progression, and the fact that it was from the beginning impossible to truly know which commands were being processed at what time due to the chat lag. The latter issue has resulted in travesties like the effective deletion of the group's pivotal starter Pokemon -- let out "into the wild" thanks to an errant "a" button press -- and numerous instances through the last six days of the group being stuck for ungodly amounts of time in the same areas.

Fighting against ourselves
Enter democracy and anarchy, two game modes that pit differing playing philosophies against one another in a constant tug-of-war. The two game modes can be switched between at any time if enough people tilt the scales by typing in "anarchy" or "democracy" in the chat box alongside the button inputs and directional commands. Once one game mode is active, the other must receive enough votes to nullify it and activate the switch. A slider measures this in real time.

Fan artwork regarding the push-pull between the democracy and anarchy modes has already started filling image boards and, like the photo above, fueling the game's wacky pseudo-religious fixation on the Helix Fossil item. Twitter user @SamTheMasters

Democracy is theoretically a game mode that helps players overcome the trolling malignancy of the stream by allowing a more judicious way of governing the character. Chat comments are translated into actual button inputs and directional commands like usual, but through a voting system that selects an input every 20 seconds and then resets. While terribly slow and overall more ineffective, it's a far more careful way of performing complex maneuvers, which in Twitch Plays Pokemon can be something as simple as opening a menu and selecting the necessary option while facing the right way.

On the other side is anarchy, a game mode that retains the original channel's mechanic of an all-out free-for-all where any one of the thousands of game commands flooding in every minute can form the basis of in-game movement.

When the modes were first introduced, many felt it was a betrayal of the purity of the challenge. After all, the group had moved remarkably far along the storyline using anarchy game mechanics that up until that point were the default. The push-pull between anarchy and democracy is now easily the most visible showdown in the chat box. Those in favor of anarchy mode are so intent on victory over their democratic adversaries that they devised a clever trick to spam the command stream with a function that slowed gameplay to a crawl in order to let anarchy reclaim the throne.

"It appears that we're still wandering around Celadon City, the city of gambling and shopping...the chat seems more interested in the tug of war between anarchy and democracy than the final destination," wrote Reddit user Mandraxon in the stream's dedicated Reddit live update feed.

The dichotomy between the game modes has morphed into a philosophical debate in and of itself, with Reddit discussion threads, strategy-focused message board arguments, and meme after meme folding the struggle into the game's ever-increasing communal narrative. But, believe it or not, the game modes have begun to have profound affects on how the group participating in Twitch Plays Pokemon responds to itself, devises strategies, and overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

For example, observe this amazing chain of events that allowed the channel participants to maneuver what had been an in-game hell for more than 24 hours. Below is the moment when democracy mode takes over, allowing the group to maneuver towards an elevator hidden within a puzzling building layout that had been eluding them since day four of the stream.

Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

Inside the elevator, democracy mode allows the group to carefully select the right floor.

Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

Once on the appropriate floor, the group is finally able to confront the last enemies. Then, when in battle, they overwhelmingly flood the chat box with calls for anarchy to speed up the battle process.

Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

But the switch to anarchy ends up proving fatal to the group's efforts as the collective conscious is unable to make effective choices.

Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

While maddening to anyone invested in the game, the last-minute failure was still a simultaneously impressive and telling demonstration of strategy in the face of the steam's imposing insanity. While thousands of players fought to keep the scales between democracy and anarchy in an appropriate balance, a core group of participants was able to push the character towards a series of successful maneuvers, only to be foiled by the inherent risk in giving in to the hive mind. Democracy mode is now appearing to be a more genuinely accepted strategy with each new challenge it's used to overcome.

"As Twitch begins to realize that their efforts of clearing the tile puzzle and defeating the elevator were now in vain, Twitch's surprise begins to transform into anger, and the Twitchnauts slowly resume their push for Democracy," Reddit user Mandraxon quipped following the debacle. Twitch's official Twitter account however came out in support of anarchy in a tongue-and-cheek support of the trollish undercurrents of Twitch Plays Pokemon.

So while the humorous narrative continues to churn out meme fodder, even from the people behind Twitch itself, the question now is not which side will prevail. Both have proven to be effective when used one after another towards a singular goal. Rather, to which degree can progress be halted through those intent on failure and their misuse of anarchy, and how fruitless are future attempts at meaningful strategy when the game becomes harder and more complicated, all while tens of thousands of participants continue to pour in and play.

It was originally a social experiment that was interesting even with a few thousand people involved. But now, with the Internet hive mind enraptured and on full throttle, Twitch Plays Pokemon could very well end up being one of the most fascinating looks at organic Web behavior in a long while. And the best part is it's happening live, right now.