Pokemon may not factor heavily into your daily life, but you kind of know it’s there. Like Britney Spears or the McRib, it’s something that percolates in the back of mainstream pop culture’s hivemind and occasionally comes to the fore. And that’s why Twitch Plays Pokemon is such an amazing phenomenon. It’s thousands of people all simultaneously giving inputs to an emulator of the classic Pokemon Red Version game, or just watching the frustrating madness unfold.
The game-streaming service Twitch has been playing host to Twitch Plays Pokemon for almost a week now, and the game isn’t slowing down. Anyone viewing the channel can type commands into the game’s chat and a special bot then interprets the commands for a Gameboy’s controls: “Up,” “down,” “left,” “right,” “a,” “b,” or “start.” The channel’s creator is an Australian programmer who wants to remain anonymous. But he or she told Polygon in an email, “I didn’t really have any plans for it from the beginning. … I just wanted to put it up to see how people would respond.”
Here’s how they’ve responded. There’s a delay and, you know, thousands of other people also entering commands at any given time, so what results is a crazy explosion. Basically Red* (the character you control in Pokemon) just turns around a lot and looks through his items.
But the players have also made progress! They’ve battled to win badges, leveled certain Pokemon up, and navigated Red through a number of the game’s puzzles and mazes.*
There’s been some drama with people trolling by intentionally making Red jump off ledges he’s supposed to avoid, and there have been problems with the character getting stuck behind objects like trees, but for the most part, things are actually happening.
The creator even implemented a two-mode system where players can either vote to be in total “anarchy,” where the trolls can rule, or move into “democracy” mode where the bot collects commands for a short interval and then uses the most popular one to move Red. As time wasted on the Internet goes, this exercise in teamwork is actually kind of valuable.
*Correction, Feb. 20, 2014: This post originally stated that the main character in Pokemon Red Version is named Ash. He is actually named Red.