Right now, more than 50,000 people on a Twitch channel are trying to control a trainer in Pokémon Red. Collectively, they've acquired seven gym badges, which means that the end of the game is near. Great! Except not everyone watching is interested in helping making progress in the game.
Sure, there are trolls -- most recently, this weekend, a streamer named Destiny tried to get his followers to go Twitch Plays Pokemon and have them release Pigeot, the most powerful critter in Twitch Plays Pokémon's party. But not everyone watching/attacking the stream appears to be human, as ridiculous as that may sound. Some of the folks "tuning in" to Twitch Plays Pokémon are bots, and their purpose, as far as we can tell, is mostly to try to throw things off.
If you have a keen eye, maybe you've noticed something fishy in the blazing-fast Twitch chat on the side of the Twitch Plays Pokémon stream.
"If you watch, you will sometimes see a lot of users with gibberish names pressing the same button at the same time," Sidney Carr, proprietor of the Google doc monitoring overall progress on the stream, told me in an email. Anyone that's familiar with the internet knows that spambots can sometimes don nonsense names -- it's pretty easy to pick out a spambot over a real person. Wouldn't you raise an eyebrow at someone with the username "8_1337_689_1337_8", for example? Especially if that user also happens to be one of the top spammers on the channel? "I even remember seeing a user named 'Downbot', who couldn't even bother to hide the fact that he was trying to hijack command," Carr continued. Personally, I've occasionally noticed a bevy of users with nonsense names all spam a direction suddenly. It's rare, but it happens.
Here's what we can concretely tell you about the bots. People have, at the very least, made scripts which allow you continually spam a command without having to be at the computer...
Tools like this one allow you to enter specific text to spam into the chat, as well as dictate how often you want to spam something. In a situation where pressing "down" even just once -- like in the famous "ledge incident" -- can throw off progress, something like this could potentially be devastating in the wrong hands. On the other hand, spamming "B" was an accepted and even encouraged action during the "Start9 riots", which was when unhappy Twitch users tried their best to get the stream stuck on the start menu. Spamming "B" in that case would take players out of the start menu -- which is good!
Regardless of how these spam scripts are being used, it's clear that people are using them.
"When we were stuck in Pallet Town, many people noticed there was an unusual amount of 'down' presses keeping us from leaving Pallet and Route 1," Sanky, the proprietor of the website that monitors all the commands sent on Twitch Plays Pokemon, told me over email. Logging all the button presses in the Twitch Plays Pokémon is useful -- Sanky can tell when something is being spammed. Sometimes, the way in which things are spammed can be telling.
"[A user named] Xkeeper discovered that there were numerous people spamming ' down' (notice the space). As opposed to 'down,' a normal person wouldn't usually type it, but suddenly there were hundreds of people who did. "So I made this nifty graph, comparing ' down,' 'down' (regular down from trolls), and 'up':
(This is messages per two minutes)
"Look at the red line. Compared to the green line (which is people trying to progress), it's surprisingly consistent...this is pretty definitive proof, backed by the fact that an unusual ' down' message was being consistently spammed about 100 times per minute," Sanky explained. The reasoning here is that a normal human being wouldn't be able to be so consistent in how they spam Twitch Plays Pokémon -- not without a script or a bot, anyway. Thankfully, nobody seems to have figured out a way to use bots to take over the game -- bots are present, and they may be trying to sabotage things, but for the most part, well-intentioned humans seem to be playing.
We reached out to Twitch to inquire about bots -- whether or not there has been a notable increase in fake accounts, and what sorts of measures, if any, are being taken to deal with spammers and bots. Here's what they had to say:
The channel owner of TPP contacted Twitch this morning in regards to odd gameplay behaviour based on chat. We quickly investigated and identified a number of bot accounts scripted to influence the game. Because bots are not permitted per our terms of service, our team expeditiously banned the bot accounts en masse.
Despite this, there are still a number of spammers on the channel, not all of which appear human...but more importantly, it's clear is that in spite of elaborate efforts to halt or derail progress, Twitch players have managed to overcome every obstacle they've come across -- and that's amazing.