Chaos or progress? A screenshot of Twitch Plays Pokemon.
Pokemon may not factor heavily into your daily life, but you kind of know it's there. Like Britney Spears or the McRib, the old classic game is something that percolates in the back of mainstream pop culture's hive mind and occasionally comes to the fore.
That's why Twitch Plays Pokemon is such an amazing phenomenon. It's tens of thousands of people all simultaneously playing an emulator of the classic Pokemon Red game online, or just watching the frustrating madness unfold.
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.
The game-streaming service Twitch has been hosting Twitch Plays Pokemon for almost a week now, and the game isn't slowing down.
Anyone viewing it can type commands into the game's chat window 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."
Thousands of people are entering commands at any given time, so what results is a crazy explosion of action – and inaction – on the screen. 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 have navigated Red through a number of the game's puzzles and mazes, battled to win badges and leveled Pokemon up. (Different Pokemon "level up" and get stronger as they gain experience.)
There has been 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 such as 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 most popular commands are used to determine Red's course of action.
As far as time wasted on the internet goes, this exercise in teamwork is actually kind of valuable.