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The Anarchy And Evolution of Thousands Playing ‘Pokémon’

What happens when 10,000 people from all over the world control a single video game simultaneously? Now we have an answer.

The Twitch Plays Pokémon stream is a social experiment in which thousands of players control a copy of “Pokémon.” There are only eight buttons to input data into a Game Boy: up, down, left, right, A, B, start and select. Someone linked up an emulated copy of “Pokémon” to a Twitch stream — a popular way to stream video games — so that any user who types “left” into the stream would make the character move left. When thousands of people are doing it, it can get a little chaotic.

Here’s a video of the final battle in “Emerald,” a game from the third generation of the “Pokémon” series:

The participants have enjoyed considerable success. Players made relatively short work of the first-generation “Pokémon Red,” then powered through second-generation “Pokémon Crystal” to considerable acclaim. But in “Emerald,” the most recent game, the team hit a wall when confronting the final five “bosses,” the Elite Four and Champion. For all intents and purposes, the team needed to win 26 consecutive battles to complete the game. This proved difficult.

For days on end, players threw their team against the bosses. Nothing worked. Morale was low. The game’s organizer had set a completion deadline, only to extend it three days because of the failure.

And then, on the 103rd attempt, participants pulled it off. The team improved partly because all that playing earned them experience points, but it also made several strategic improvements.

The chart below represents the 103 attempts the players — they called themselves the A-Team — made against the Elite Four. There were 26 consecutive Pokémon, belonging to five trainers, that had to be defeated. The reasons we use numbers instead of the Pokémon names is that oftentimes the trainers would change the order of battle (however, you can find the Pokémon used by each of the Elite Four). A box is shaded if the team made it to that sequential Pokémon in the course of the attempt. A white X in the box means that one or more of the players’ Pokémon fainted during battle. I obtained the data from the Reddit TwitchPlaysPokémon community’s magnificent live updates.

For fans who watched from home, here were some of the turning points:

  • The 14th attempt was the first with Hariyama.
  • The 63rd attempt was the first following the return from the backtrack.
  • The 72nd attempt was the first in which Hariyama had brick-break — a powerful move — set as the top-left move. Compare pre-72nd attempts against Sidney with post-72nd attempts against Sidney.


Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.