What can the ‘Twitch plays Pokemon’ experiment tell us about the nature of our society?

In 1991 Loren Carpenter wanted to see what would happen if no hierarchy existed within a group of people. He conducted an experiment in which he projected the simple game pong onto a large screen into front of an audience split into two groups. Each audience member was given an electronic paddle with a green side and a red side and holding them either way moved the pong bat up and down. Collectively, without having been told anything, the audience successfully completed the game. Loren discovered that people formed an order out of a subconscious consensus.

In February this year a similar but much more complex experiment in scope was developed.  Nintendo’s Pokemon Red was streamed on Twitch TV and members of the website could collectively control the game via the chat function. Pokemon was perfect for the experiment as while it is a simple game in terms of the limited amount of inputs, just 4 buttons and the directional pad, it’s a hugely complex game in terms of scale. An estimated 1.16 million people participated and on March 1’st 2014 after 16 days of gameplay they completed the game as a chaotic collective.  Considering that at one point moving over a ledge took the group a day to complete, this was rather a phenomenal achievement.


The results of these experiments go beyond what the future may hold, they are already in motion every day. Twitter trends, news aggregators such as reddit and viral videos are all examples of a collective group, aided by technology, pushing information that millions of people decide is relevant. We live in new era of creativity and information that can be created and spread collectively.  What we ask of the future is just how far this can go?

Imagine businesses without CEO’s, schools without heads, entire countries without presidents or hierarchal governments. All run instead collectively by its members and their goal towards a common good. Utilitarianism aided by technology. Russell Brand has recently called for revolution due to a mass disenfranchisement with our current political system. Perhaps this is the path in which such revolution could take place?

However there are some real flaws and dangers in this utopic view of society.

I asked Adam Curtis, journalist and film maker whose documentary ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Love and Grace’  covered the original experiment, his thoughts.

“If there is a criticism – it’s not about the system – it’s how there is a serious failure of imagination in geek-land… The rise of the internet has almost exactly coincided with a massive rise in inequality and a growing imbalance in power in America and Europe. Shouldn’t new forms of collective action be directed towards trying to do something about that?”

When twitter trends are of banal celebrity gossip, viral videos are just another marketing tool and news sites are full of image memes can we have much hope in an entire society run in this manner?

Unless as a society we begin to try to understand exactly how this mass sudden rise in technology is affecting us and what it is capable of we are in danger of finding ourselves in a dystopia.  This is why for something that merely appears like a fun experiment it is incredibly important we begin to try to understand what lies beneath it.



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