It's easy to see the whole Pokémon phenomenon of the late '90s and early aughts as a kind of great social experiment.
The Nintendo role-playing game, in which players collected a dizzying array of cutesy monsters for no purpose other than to collect them, was early proof that video-game reward dynamics could translate just as easily to marketing. The theme song for the game's cartoon, after all, sounded more like a capitalist war cry—"Gotta catch 'em all!—that little soldiers could use to guilt-trip their parents into buying them everything remotely Pokémon branded: Toys, video games, t-shirts, card games. Pokémon became a multi-billion dollar media empire.
Fast forward to 2014, and Pokémon has once again turned into a fascinating, if slightly more absurd, social experiment.
At "Twitch Plays Pokemon," the Game Boy classic is getting crowdsourced (crowdplayed?) as hundreds if not thousands of people play the same game at the same time. The anonymous creator's software works by translating comments from the channel's chat room into button pushes: Up, down, left, right, A, B, and so on.
People love it. When I tuned in to the channel on video game streaming platform Twitch earlier today, more than 21,000 were watching and/or participating. The channel's been viewed more than 1.5 million times.
You can watch it live below below:
And here's the chat room:
With so many people attempting to control the character—commands cascade through the chat room at an astonishing speed—it turns out it's very hard to get anything done.
This creates something of a meta-game: You can tell some people are desperately trying just to move the character along some logical route, while others are hell-bent on sowing directional chaos. For about 20 minutes earlier today, I watched as the character muddled about a single area on the map, walking in circles, jerking left, right, up, down without any kind of reasoning, like a defective Roomba robot.
"I'm very interested in creating automated Twitch streams with a strong focus on user interaction," the creator writes in the page's about section. We're not sure about the purpose of the social experiment, but the lesson is pretty clear: Anarchic humanity and video games are a hell of an entertaining, if completely useless, combination.
Photo by Stefan/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)