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How Twitch is crowd-sourcing an amazing Pokémon multiplayer game

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

A massively multiplayer online co-op version of Pokémon is being watched and played by more than 8,000 people right now. The game is the original Pokémon Red/Blue for Game Boy and it's being controlled, somewhat slowly and awkwardly, solely by commenters in a live Twitch stream.

The channel, Twitch Plays Pokémon, parses the flurry of Twitch chat comments being typed by thousands of viewers. While chat users can type whatever they want into the channel's chat, the software that powers Twitch Plays Pokémon only parses a handful of commands: up, down, left, right, select, start, a and b, the inputs of the original Game Boy.

Twitch Plays Pokémon was launched less than two days ago but has already amassed an impressive viewership. More than 175,000 people have watched and played Pokémon Red/Blue through the Twitch channel. And slowly but surely, and with thousands of luckily timed and errant commands, players are making progress. Earlier today, the game's thousands of players managed to defeat the Pokémon trainer Misty.

Powered by a combination of JavaScript and Python code and the Game Boy emulator VisualBoyAdvance, the channel is both an interesting technical feat and comedically entertaining in its crowd-sourced control scheme.

The creator of Twitch Plays Pokémon is an Australian programmer who told Polygon he or she is choosing to stay anonymous. In an email interview with Polygon, the channel's creator says they launched the channel earlier this week and didn't expect it to get this much attention.

"I didn't really have any plans for it from the beginning," the creator says. "I just wanted to put it up to see how people would respond. I put it together and put it up on a dedicated server all within a few days."

"Originally I was creating my own version of SaltyBet, another Twitch stream that has a strong focus on automated viewer interaction," the developer said, "but after interest in that type of content died down I decided to do something different."

Twitch Plays Pokémon's creator says they chose the original Pokémon for its "turn-based gameplay, forgiving nature and its lack of reaction-based gameplay (which isn't compatible with [20 seconds-plus] of Twitch lag)."

"I have a strong enthusiasm for all video games," the creator says, "but I do have strong nostalgia for the first two generations of Pokémon.

"I'm always thinking of other games that could be adapted to an automated Twitch stream but I don't think Twitch Plays Pokémon's style of input would work with any genre that isn't a JRPG, so I'm thinking of a different input style that would be compatible with a wider range of genres."

For now, the simpler, turn-based game will have to suffice for players captivated by Twitch Plays Pokémon's unusual, crowd-controlled brand of entertainment.

"I'm going to let it continue to run 24/7, I'd like to see the Elite Four [trainers] beaten but I have my doubts about it being possible without much better coordination."