Relationships

Pika Pals

How playing (and hacking) Pokémon helped me catch a friend.

A collage of Pikachu, Nintendo, the MSN Messenger logo, and two kids interacting.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by MSN, Nintendo, the Pokémon Company, and Paha_L/iStock.

Now that we live in the future, everyone has friendships that began on the web, nudged along by some combination of likes or RTs or DMs. In “Internet Friends,” writers will tell stories of friendships created, maintained, and (sometimes) ended online. To pitch your own Internet Friendship, email humaninterest@slate.com.

At the age of 11, I managed to break two internet rules implemented by my parents. The first rule was not to set up an MSN account to chat with friends. The second, a more universal principle, was not to speak to strangers on the internet. These two acts of betrayal intersected when I got my hands on a copy of Pokémon Diamond, the fourth generation of the “gotta catch ’em all” creature video game.

While scouring Pokémon forums online using our recently acquired Wi-Fi router, I quickly learned about players manipulating bugs within the game to clone their Pokémon. Cheat codes were the norm in other games like The Sims but nowhere near as common in Pokémon, so I had to see how it worked for myself. I met a self-proclaimed cloner, KK, through a GameFAQs forum. I pleaded for a clone of my Dialga, the one-of-a-kind poster Pokémon of the Diamond video game—mainly for novelty, not usefulness. We connected on MSN in order to talk business. KK agreed to my request, and after a few attempts at exploiting the glitch, the deed was done. KK remained a contact in my MSN friends list after that, and we kept in touch.

After a while, KK had a proposal for me. I was recruited to their trainer’s guild, which was just a free web forum and an Internet Relay Chat. KK had big plans of recruiting newbies, battling other groups, and forming alliances. Off we went, promoting our new organization on established forums in the hopes of recruiting members. The guild grew, and I met others from Australia and the U.S. I reveled in a feeling of belonging, something which stood outside of my day-to-day routine. Then, as my knowledge of the game’s secrets and inner workings became stronger, I stumbled across what was known as the R4.

The R4 was a Nintendo DS flash cartridge that allowed gamers to download and play unlimited Nintendo DS games on a micro SD card. The flash cartridge could not be imported legally in Australia, but I was able to get my hands on one when a family friend traveled overseas. Being able to download games meant also being able to directly edit save data—including, in my case, the Pokémon someone owned.

With a legally dubious piece of hardware in my possession, KK and I would spend our spare hours producing artificial Pokémon for strangers around the world. We’d team up and battle other trainer organizations and recruit newbies to the growing guild. My investment in the ragtag bunch and friendship with KK quickly grew. I learned that, in addition to being a great trainer, they were a high school student with an interest in Mortal Kombat and other action-filled games. Over MSN, KK were blunt with their communication, and an attempt at humor could only be discerned when their messages were appended with an “xD.” We became a production house for the Pokémon people who weren’t willing to work for themselves, like knockoff pixel dealers.

As with all friendships, there were episodes of conflict. One moment comes to mind, when I was logged in to the chatroom. The warning “once it’s on the internet, it’s there forever” rang true as I discovered remarks about me made by KK etched into the chatroom records. I logged off in a huff, outraged by whatever schoolyard name KK called me. I knew they were ironic, but it completely took me by surprise, and I never learned why I was hurt this way. I returned around an hour later, leaving just enough time for KK to think about their actions. KK apologized, and we moved on. Holding grudges was never a talent of mine.

Over time, members of the guild began to lose interest and fade away. My conversations with KK, though limited because of our dwindling passion for the game, still lingered on MSN. Eventually we became friends on Facebook. As we grew up, we’d get glimpses into each other’s lives that fell outside the realm of gaming. We shared stories about our school lives, mine from Perth and theirs from Singapore, and we soon realized how culturally different our experiences were. However, when you’ve never met someone in real life and never fully understand them or their humanity, a Facebook friendship feels like a highlights reel: They’re with you, but true depth is missing.

Nintendo continued to flog the horse and brought out Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver and the forgettable Black and White generations. The new Nintendo DS console was designed to reject my R4, rendering it useless. The guild died out, and the forums became a stagnant record of outdated l33t speak (e.g., “n00b” and “pwned”) and cheap emoticons before shutting down entirely. High school demanded more of my time, as did the friendships I was enjoying offline. KK and I last spoke in 2011 in the form of a Facebook birthday post. Up until MSN Messenger finally closed down in 2013, they were just an ever-present green icon on my friends list.

I am still friends with KK on Facebook, in the weakest sense of the term, as I am with a number of other guild members. Surviving multiple friend culls, they act as a monument to a sort of friendship of convenience, a connection that waxed and waned around a single aspect of our personalities. I never made a friend in that way ever again. But that isn’t to say I cherished it any less. Much like the Pokémon I caught and raised, the KK chapter in my life is nice to revisit from time to time. It reminds me of an era when the internet was mysterious and new, and when a bit of illicit code was grounds enough for taking my first steps into online friendship.