Pokemon is the wildly popular Japanese Nintendo video game, first released in 1996. Its goal is to collect wild creatures and battle other trainers to become the Pokemon master. Simple enough, right?
Now imagine trying to play the game with tens of thousands of people looking over your shoulder, telling you which buttons to press. That's the latest social experiment going on in the gaming community. At any given time, thousands of people are controlling a single game of Pokemon Red — the original game of the series — at the same time.
And so far, it's going ... OK.
"A lot of the time, the game is just saving itself over and over again, or the character gets stuck in the corner and just runs into walls repeatedly," says Andrew Cunningham, who's been writing about the experiment for technology news site Ars Technica.
The game has been live streaming on the video platform Twitch for almost a week, uploaded by the anonymous account named Twitch Plays Pokemon. Viewers can type commands like "left" or "right" to control the game character in the Twitch chat window.
Cunningham has been watching his screen for a few days now, and he's not alone. The game has had more than 15 million viewers in the past week and about 650,000 participants. At its peak, more than 120,000 people viewed or interacted with the game, Twitch says.
The experiment is something that Matthew DiPietro, Twitch's vice president of marketing, has never seen before on this scale. The multiplayer control causes the character's behavior to be a bit manic at times, but impressively, Twitch users have managed to progress through half the game.
"The community is rallying together and getting this character through the game, which to my mind is really interesting," DiPietro says. "It means when people come together to do something, always it's chaotic but there's always a goal in mind — which you're all moving toward at the same time."
But not everyone is rallied around the same strategy. The users have complete authority over how the game gets played, with no involvement from the account owner or Twitch. They even have control over how the commands that they enter are applied — either by majority vote, democracy, or all at once ... anarchy.
"It's kind of a continuous battle between the people who are trying to play the game as it's intended and the trolls who are intentionally trying to derail it," Cunningham says. "Every once in a while, the trolls win."
Hence, the running into walls.
Cunningham says he's not sure when the game will end. It might take a few more weeks, once the popularity dies down.
"It's kind of been a victim of its own success at this point," he says. "As word has spread, over the last few days, it's harder and harder for everybody to row in the same direction at the same time."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is Pokemon, a popular Nintendo video game that was first released in 1996. The goal of the game is to collect and train wild creatures called Pokemon and to battle other trainers to become the Pokemon master.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now, the game is bringing people from all over the world together in a social experiment on a gaming website. Andrew Cunningham, a writer for the technology site Ars Technica, explains it this way.
ANDREW CUNNINGHAM: Basically, somebody has set up a game of Pokemon Red, which is the original Pokemon game from the mid-'90s, and they've configured it so that the chat window can feed that game commands.
SIEGEL: So typing a word - up, down, left, or right - will move the game's character on the screen. It sounds simple, but when many people are typing commands all at once, the character gets confused.
CORNISH: Especially when up to 120,000 people are involved.
CUNNINGHAM: A lot of the time, the game is just saving itself over and over again, or the character gets stuck in the corner and just runs into walls repeatedly.
CORNISH: The game's character may be moving slowly, but Matthew DiPietro says this experiment is extraordinary. He's with Twitch, the website streaming the massive Pokemon game.
MATTHEW DIPIETRO: This is the first time that we've ever seen such a thing where thousands and thousands and thousands of people are controlling a single player in a single turn-based game and making progress through that game. And it's really interesting to watch.
SIEGEL: Since last Friday, when the game started, it's had more than 14 million views and almost half a million total participants. And DiPietro says the Pokemon trainer is only at the halfway mark.
DIPIETRO: But the community is definitely rallying together and getting this character through the game, which, to my mind, is really, really interesting. It means when people come together to do something, you know, always it's chaotic but there's always a goal in mind, which, you know, you're all moving toward at the same time.
SIEGEL: Still, at this rate, it could take weeks before the Pokemon trainer reaches the goal of becoming the Pokemon master.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOTTA CATCH 'EM ALL")
JASON PAIGE: (Singing) I want to be the very best, like no one ever was. To catch them is my real test, to train them is my cause. I will travel across the land, searching far and wide.
CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.