Helix Fossils, Anarchy, and Playing a Game with 150,000 People

If you follow gaming news, you’ve probably already heard about Twitch Plays Pokemon. For the uninitiated, here’s the short version: Pokemon Red, a game released in 1998 (in North America) alongside the superior Pokemon Blue (can you tell which one I owned?), is being played through a streaming serviced called Twitch. Usually people will stream their games for entertainment, but in this case the chat section is being translated into in-game commands. Effectively, every viewer is holding a GameBoy, attempting to press the right buttons to help complete the game. There are interesting tweaks going on, like the voting between Anarchy (where every button press is registered) and Democracy (where every few seconds the button or combination with the most votes is inputted into the game), but most interesting are the emergent near-religious devotions of the players. If you’re seeing people say things like “Praise the Helix Fossil” on Facebook, they haven’t joined a cult. Probably.

While the memes generated can be interesting, especially to those of us who grew up playing this game, the sheer number of people playing allows the game to function as a strange microcosm of the real world. We’ve got people who are attempting to lead by providing strategy graphics. Some want to watch the world burn, and are attempting to bring in as many people as possible to sabotage all progress. I suspect some just want to cause chaos, and are simply inputting random commands, in hopes of seeing nothing happen.

The most surprising, and perhaps strangely hopeful, turn of events is the amount of progress we’ve made. We’re probably seventy-five percent of the way through the main game, roughly. That’s impressive for a group playing any game, but one as complex as this (and with many opportunities to foil progress) didn’t leave me with much hope. I’m fairly sure they’re making it through faster than I did as a kid. A million monkeys with a million typewriters will write Shakespeare, but I won’t come close to the Bard.

It’s humbling, ultimately, to realize that a large group, even one impeded by individuals set on destruction, can still work their way through something. All you need is a little motivation.

“Nostalgia” probably won’t run a government anytime soon. We won’t make progress, politically or culturally, by banking on nostalgia alone. “The good old days” isn’t a place to stand, no matter how well you remember your childhood. Progress isn’t made by nostalgia, it’s made by collections of people.

Majority opinion, coupled with action, rules. There isn’t much more to it than that, no matter how many small, well-funded minorities wish to fight. You have to convince the majority to join you, ideologically, and then push those thoughts out of heads and into hands.

Nostalgia may convince me to do something “for old time’s sake”, whether that is play a game from my youth or something else. But power does not come from triviality; it comes from people.