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Twitch Plays Pokemon Is a Fascinating Vision of the Future

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An unexpected evolution.

It's like some kind of unholy convergence of every modern gaming trend. Thousands upon thousands of people wrestling for one digital controller, eyes captivated and attentions fixed, willing Red to perform the most basic functions known to Pokemon trainers. More social experiment than game, Twitch Plays Pokemon uses crowd sourcing in such a fascinating way that it's utterly mesmerizing, even for someone who could not care less about the goings-on in the land of Kanto. As strange as it sounds, this is the destination of the path gaming has been venturing down the last few years. The result is like nothing that I ever expected: terrifying yet uplifting, and completely unpredictable.

The name Twitch Plays Pokemon simultaneously communicates everything that this experience is while explaining nothing about how it works. The aptly named user TwitchPlaysPokemon created a way for Twitch goers to control Pokemon Red/Blue by typing commands within the chat window. Imagine the chaos, for a second, of countless people typing "Up" or "B" at once, forcing Red to wiggle and jive as if he had a family of Caterpie dancing in his pants. Each time someone would enter a button prompt, Red would react accordingly, causing chaos to reign over the peaceful land in which the Pokemon roam.

This tug-of-war control scheme incited a political revolution. When every person's voice carries the same weight, it's anarchy. Clearly, a proper society cannot function under such a lawless system. So how about giving power to the majority while shunning those with outside--and potentially dangerous--ideas? That's where democracy comes in. If enough users vote for democracy, the rules controlling Red shift, and his movements are restricted to what the majority of people desire. But don't expect a democratic state to rule for long. Opposing factions--also known as Poketrolls--can vote for anarchy to come back, so not only are people typing commands in the chat box to move Red, but they are also continually voting for which political system they favor.

The result is like nothing that I ever expected: terrifying yet uplifting, and completely unpredictable.

The result is much more appealing than I would have imagined. Every small success is so unexpected, so empowering, that even I, someone who has turned his nose up at Pokemon for more than two decades, couldn't help but laugh. How so many people could work together to achieve the same goal is a testament to the fortitude and willpower of the human spirit to overcome the cruel nature of other humans. And that's only a slight exaggeration. Considering how frustrating it is to deal with the usurpers who are trying to thwart every smart strategy, the fact that the determined are still making progress is an achievement I wouldn't have thought possible.

Crowd sourcing normally surfaces in gaming through alternate ways to fund projects or enact community feedback on content updates. Seeing it implemented in such a drastically different way is certainly novel, and definitely aggravating, but also an example of why it's so difficult to predict trends. Who could have seen this coming?

And you thought Dark Souls had an interesting social dynamic.
And you thought Dark Souls had an interesting social dynamic.

It's also a bold step in an unexpected direction for social connectivity. The current consoles were built upon a foundation of a connected community, and developers have taken steps to tear down the walls that separate solo efforts from multiplayer events. Twitch Plays Pokemon takes something that has become an accepted part of gaming and turned it on its head. There's little similarity between the expansive adventures the upcoming Destiny will house and what's going on in that Twitch channel, and yet they come from the same place. People inevitably flock together, be it to collaborate on awe-inspiring creations in Minecraft or to kill a common foe in Dark Souls, though such games follow typical gaming rules. Twitch Plays Pokemon changes everything, stripping out the direct control and multiple characters that we've taken for granted, to produce a unique social experience.

How about the clash between cooperative goals and competitive conquests? That element, which has made something like Evolve so enticing, surfaces in Twitch Plays Pokemon, though in a markedly different form from the hunters vs. monsters showdowns in Turtle Rock Studio's forthcoming shooter. There aren't opposing factions within the game; rather, the two competing sides exist in the real world. There are those who want to achieve Internet glory in Pokemon Red/Blue by somehow finishing this classic with thousands of strangers by their side. And then there are those who would rather halt the fun of others by having their own brand of fun. It's good vs. evil, builders vs. destroyers, earnest trainers vs. riotous griefers. Pick your team wisely. Once the dust settles, you won't want to be left standing on the wrong side.

Twitch Plays Pokemon also exhibits the free-to-play model that has transformed so much of what we love into something unrecognizable, but there's no asterisk on this game. It's free-to-play without any small print; it's free in every way. The only currency that will run dry is your patience. We're also seeing a use for live-streaming that comes out of left field. It's pretty incredible that Twitch Plays Pokemon surfaced after the sea of Let's Plays out there, and it's great that Nintendo's lawyers didn't try to halt people's fun. And don't forget about schadenfreude. Getting pleasure from the misfortune of others is a core aspect of game design, be it in the way we hound peaceful citizens in Skyrim or laugh while cutting down a newbie in League of Legends. In Twitch Plays Pokemon, the schadenfreude extends even further, for not only are you making the life of someone else miserable, but you are hurting yourself as well--unless you enjoy watching Red investigate his inventory every few minutes, gazing wistfully at his useless Helix Fossil.

Hunters vs. monster has nothing on Pokemon's chaos.
Hunters vs. monster has nothing on Pokemon's chaos.

Pokemon isn't the only game that has been forever changed. Unbeknownst to the Twitch Plays Pokemon users, they're simultaneously controlling a version of Tetris on another channel. How bizarre is that? As they urge Red to move left or right, tetrominos move in the corresponding directions in a riveting Tetris game. Granted, it's strange that the blocks can float up instead of just dropping down, but it's great that Twitch Plays Pokemon has already spawned crazy spin-offs. There's also a game of QWOP that is every bit as hilarious as the main game. Scores of people controlling the individual muscles in a sprinter's leg? That's comedy gold.

I don't expect Twitch Plays Pokemon to stay around for long. It's a fad that is burning bright, but it's too frustrating and chaotic to have long-term appeal. But even if its stay is brief, it shows the diverse branches that gaming can take. We think we understand what crowd sourcing and social connectivity mean, and we think we've seen everything that trolls can accomplish, and then this comes along and we have to rethink the boundaries we've set. Twitch Plays Pokemon may be utter nonsense, and it may be too ridiculous to stomach, but it's a great example of how unexpected and bizarre games can be. If so many modern trends have combined to form something as interesting as this, maybe there's hope for all the Flappy Bird knockoffs in the future.

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