Twitch Plays Pokemon and New Forms of Government

I could see myself looking at back at this and thinking I was really stupid to write this, but I’m going to write it anyway. I already cringe at a lot of what I previously wrote anyway. Blogging is for this, I guess. Putting out your proto-thoughts into the void so that you can laugh at them later. No, really, though, this is helping me reason through things. And more importantly, get them out of my brain so I can move on to reasoning about newer things. I’ve mostly been focusing on trashing liberals because it helps me collect my thoughts so that I can be nicer on Facebook and push the conversation leftward without people muting me right away. When people are rehabilitating Bush (and even saying they’d rather have Nixon), I feel like this is important work. I use the word important very loosely. Please don’t think I’m that full of myself. Anyway, I do want to spend some of my brainspace thinking of more positive views of the future. Even if those first attempts are awkward. So here we go.

Twitch Plays Pokemon was a massive success in decentralized decision-making. In case you don’t remember, TTP was when someone hooked up a hacked version of the original pokemon game to Twitch and let people enter commands to play. It was chaos. Anyone who could chat could play. You typed in A, B, start, select, up, down, left or right and your command was put in the queue. When I first saw it, I was like, “Oh, haha, that’s neat” and then peaced out. I was later drawn back in after a co-worker told me that it was amazing. And indeed it was.

What emerged was strategy and mythology. People posted strategies on a subreddit. (I imagine everyone is familiar with reddit, but people were talking on a forum that was just for people playing TPP.) They proposed where what we should try that day. There were competing ideas. They were upvoted and downvoted accordingly. But in the end, the vote that mattered was the hive mind. People voted by posting the moves they wanted in the TPP chat. You could see the struggles. The character would move up and then down again and then up and slowly (or quickly) one side would win the tug of war. The hive mind moved it and it obeyed. The strategies were actually being executed. All this just from a bunch of people typing commands.

I remember in particular an argument about whether we should put a pokemon in the day care or not. I disagreed. The character wobbled back and forth as the argument raged on. I kept trying to push it in the opposite direction. But I could see we were losing. We made it to the day care and deposited a pokemon. You could feel yourself as part of this collective.

As the game progressed, people posted tactics too. Ledges are one-way barriers. To progress through the game, sometimes you have to make it through a pathway with ledges. If you drop down the ledge, then you have to go all the way back around. As you can imagine, this is a much more difficult task when you have a bajillion people typing in commands, not all of whom agree with the direction you’re going. At the beginning, people were spamming up to keep from being pushed down. Eventually, the tactics changed to where people were not spamming up because it actually made going through ledges harder. (I won’t bore you with the full details because I’ve probably bored you enough.) So, the collective intelligence managed to not only move around strategically, but it managed to get smarter and more efficient.

There were also trolls. Most of the people wanted us to beat the game. That was the goal. Some people didn’t want that. They’d do things like push us towards the computer and try to release pokemon. The collective pushed back, though. What made this so inspiring is that we won. In so many other arenas, trolls win. They poison the discourse and get people to leave. They harass and destroy. They graduate to doxxing and swatting and even shooting. But if you structure the rules correctly, anarchy can produce great results. You can win even with the participation of bad agents. More importantly, most of us wanted this to happen. It truly followed the will of the people. I remember being emotionally moved when we finally won. I stayed up late to watch. At the time, we had no idea if it was possible to win or not. We won, and it was a triumph against trolls everywhere.

I used the word anarchy earlier. It might be misleading to say it was all “anarchy.” To progress through the game, you have to get some stuff in the Safari Zone. It costs money to enter and you only get a certain number of steps. With the rules in place, we would’ve run out of money and then could never complete the game. So, the game was changed. A new mode was created. Democracy mode. In this mode, there was a timer. Everyone inputed their commands. Instead of the character moving in every direction, it only moved in the direction that got the most votes in that time. Tick tick. Move move. It worked. Then, we were given a choice. You could put in the normal commands, or you could place a vote for anarchy or democracy. When it reached a certain threshold, the mode changed. The collective used this to our advantage. You see, we dynamically changed our mode of governance in order to best meet our challenges. It’s really amazing when you think about it. Usually, it’s very hard to enact such constitutional changes, but we flipped back and forth. New strategies arose in reddit and the collective mind moved.

Besides the strategy, reddit also became a compendium of mythology. The game screen showed one thing, but we narrativized it further and imbued the game with even more meaning. The collective mind would sometimes do silly things, like look at the helix fossil a bunch of times in a row. This became a meme where “consult the helix fossil” was a phrase and the helix fossil was deemed an oracle. Then, there arose counter-mythologies about how the helix fossil was a false prophet and the dome fossil was the truth. I even own a helix fossil t-shirt. When pokemon were released accidentally or due to trolling (or a little of both), we eulogized the lost. Some of our pokemon became heroes. A single venomoth took out a dragonite. ATV slew dragonite all by his lonesome. Fan art arose. And people also explained the mechanics of the game that allowed this unlikely event to happen. It’s part of what made the game so fun. Also, because the game was global, I’d sleep and then Asia and Australia would play. I couldn’t watch or rewatch what they’d done. (Besides, literally rewatching would be boring.) However, I did get narrativized recaps through reddit. It was fun participating and it was fun spectating.

The other half of this blog post’s title is “New Forms of Government.” Now this is where I get silly, but I think this social experiment proves that this type of anarchic decision making isn’t doomed to failure. Some think that the people can’t be trusted with power, but I think they can. People point to popular votes where the “wrong” outcome was given. People vote for the less talented, but more palatable individual in a reality singing competition. People pick “Boaty McBoatface” as a boat name. However, in a world more complex than pokemon, government by an elite few actually can cause more harm. Think of the very serious foreign policy types who always argue for military intervention. Decentralized decision making was right for pokemon and it is right for the world. And one thing that is often missing from these discussions is that pokemon was a much more enjoyable experience this way. If it was run by an elite few, it would’ve been rather boring to watch. Boaty McBoatface is a great name, by the way. It elicits joy.

Even beyond actual government, so much of our world is actually tiny dictatorships. Companies are run by CEOs. Employees often get very little say. Even open-source projects, which is thought of as collectivist (because anyone can contribute), are mostly governed very hierarchically. Pull requests are committed based on the decision of the person who owns the repository. Or they endow some people with the power to approve. But it would be interesting to make git repositories that were governed different. Maybe with some type of voting system? Forums and comments are governed by admins and moderators with the power to banish or edit. What if people could be voted in or out, and this could be done without mods? While content is created in a more decentralized manner on social media, its distribution is determined algorithmically but not neutrally. That is, Zuckerberg can decide that live video is important and boom, it’s privileged more in your feed. In a more decentralized world, the platform would be open and algorithms would compete.

I truly believe that technology can positively reshape the way we govern ourselves. With new software, we can come to collective decisions more instantly, more dynamically, in a more decentralized fashion, and that this will improve humanity. I know, it sounds techno-utopian. I’m often more curmudgeonly about technology. But think about what we have already collectively accomplished. As programmers, we have collectively contributed to Stack Overflow and created this hive mind so we don’t have to waste time solving the same problems over and over. It’s free and amazing. It has collectively made us so much more productive. Open-source projects are similarly a boon to us collectively. Projects like Ruby on Rails make humanity better. Instead of reinventing boilerplate code, we can collectively create abstractions and work on what truly matters. Beyond even using an open-source plug-in to add a feature to make our lives easier, we can create infrastructure. So much of this is done for free, for the collective betterment of society, not for profit.

And, oh, we also beat Pokemon.

Imagine a world more like this. And imagine instead of administrators of these open-source projects being bogged down by fatigue, the project was maintained collectively, not just collective contributions. How much more could we improve society? This is why I am sometimes optimistic. We are in an age of instantaneous communication across vast distances. We should be able to harness this power to turn our governments into decentralized, dynamic units.

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