Massively multiplayer Pong

Many writers (myself included, cough cough) have recently mused on the intelligence of mobs — the peculiar smarts that emerge when thousands of people all weigh on a topic and you average their opinions. That’s why opinion “stock exchanges” like the Iowa Electronic Markets do such a superb job of predicting the outcomes of presidential elections.

But can people work collectively at physical tasks of motor control? Find out for yourself with Massively Multiplayer Pong, an online web game where you play on one of two teams, one controlling each paddle. It seems to work under a simple algorithm: Each of you drags your mouse around to try and shove the paddle up or down, and the game averages your movements. I played it for a while and my group of anonymous paddlers was surprisingly good, though it’s an unusual sensation: Because the paddle moves only mostly in the way you suggest, you feel vaguely like a toddler only partially in control of your body. It’s also really fun watching your co-players frantically joggle around as they try to predict where the ball will arrive: You become aware of your own physical “thinking through” of the calculus of the game.

What’s more, players leave and join your team as you play, which makes for some weird existential moments. When I played late one night, I started off with eight people controlling the paddle; but people gradually logged off until suddenly I was the only one left. I played alone for about two minutes, when another two people joined and I began amiably wrestling for control again. It felt like a form of proprioceptural split identity: I started out fighting with my alternate identities for control, briefly experienced a moment of unity, then divided again.

It also put me in mind of Kevin Kelly’s excellent book Out of Control, which reports a real-time example of this experiment: CGI engineer Loren Carpenter got an auditorium full of 5,000 people to control a game of Pong — each half controlling one paddle:

The audience roars in delight. Without a moment’s hesitation, 5,000 people are playing a reasonably good game of Pong. Each move of the paddle is the average of several thousand players’ intentions. The sensation is unnerving. The paddle usually does what you intend, but not always. When it doesn’t, you find yourself spending as much attention trying to anticipate the paddle as the incoming ball. One is definitely aware of another intelligence online: it’s this hollering mob.

The group mind plays Pong so well that Carpenter decides to up the ante. Without warning the ball bounces faster. The participants squeal in unison. In a second or two, the mob has adjusted to the quicker pace and is playing better than before. Carpenter speeds up the game further; the mob learns instantly.

(Thanks to Morgan Noel for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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