Big groups can do amazing things with surprisingly few implements, and internet communities can spontaneously become collaborative experience designers. Redditors are playing a new game of sorts with themselves and each other involving a color-changing button and a timer, and the emergent memes are weird and glorious.
You can read a relatively-complete "History of the Button" here, but it goes something like this: On subreddit /r/thebutton, a large, tempting colored button looms beside a 60-second countdown. If 60 seconds pass and no one touches the button, it changes to a different color, counting backward from the rainbow (purple, then blue, then green, and so on). Simple, right?
Each reddit account gets only one chance to push the button. When they click it, their reward is a flair beside their name of the same hue the button was when they pressed it. The rarer your color, the greater your status, which means color changes are usually met with a flurry of rapid-fire buttoners eager for that flair.
From these simple ingredients are brewed a delightful sprawl of tensions in the player group: Do you join the ascetics of /r/NoTap, pledging never to touch the button in the hopes of seeing what wondrous result might lie beyond red? Have you pushed the button and now regret it? Confess. Factions form, different groups devoted to different ends. The devotion is so intense it's no surprise users have collectively been documenting the story of the button and its ever-morphing facets with almost religious language.
When we first heard of The Button, half a million people were playing it, and that was weeks ago (here's some statistical analysis on how they've been playing). A community that size births massive spheres of lore, fan art, new rules, methods of scorekeeping and other internal tools created by people who ultimately want to make the experience more fun for one another.
It's not unlike the fervor around Twitch Plays Pokemon or Salty Bet, where the tension among a massive community pursuing goals simultaneously gave rise to a dense lexicon of memes, superstitious practices and collective storytelling. One stops being able to tell where the hilarity ends and the intense sincerity, the joy of being Part of a Movement, begins.
It's sort of a new frontier for online gaming, social groups brewing colonies around the same absurd core concept. Last year I did an interview with online streaming giant Twitch, which said it wanted to make it more possible for developers to create games that could be shared and voted upon by groups. We're on the way to a world where the relationships of play are set to evolve beyond just "the creator" and "the consumer" in ways that are lots of fun to watch.