Why do we watch other people play video games?
Evaluating a curious modern pastime.
As someone born in the mid-1980’s, video games are a fact of life. My parents bought video games for me and my sister, and even played them with us, too. Video game franchises had cartoons, comics, and sugary cereals. Kids and adults alike were plenty familiar with words like “Mario,” “Zelda,” and “Nintendo.”
Playing video games isn’t weird.
What is weird, though, to my generational peers, is the modern pastime of watching someone else play a video game. Sure, we’ve all had to passively watch someone else — a sibling, a friend, the rich kid who owned the game — play while we waited our turn, but the watching was the bad part of the sequence, the part to be endured. Why, then, would you limit yourself to watching, on purpose?
Watching video games is weird.
Is it, though? Nearly forty years after the Nintendo explosion, watching others game is arguably just as mainstream and normal. In some ways, watching is less weird than playing.
Consider the complexity of a modern video game: dazzling visual spectacles with professionally-written stories, live-orchestrated soundtracks, and deep progression systems. Player immersion, a long-stated goal of game makers, has been achieved. Playing a modern video game is indeed an immersive experience, not only in the suspension of disbelief, but in the ability for the game to monopolize the player’s attention.
It can be difficult to put a game down these days. Decades of developer experience crafting incentive systems to keep gamers playing ever-longer games results in marathon play sessions. Focus remains unbroken — wrestling with advanced game mechanics, watching movie-quality cutscenes, actively deciding the fate of your avatars and their game world alike — and the real world melts away.
Gamers, rejoice. This was the holy grail. But real life is more complex and demanding than even the densest game and doesn’t well tolerate dedicating one’s time exclusively to playing.
Enter Twitch and YouTube. These platforms can be thought of, in this context, as gameplay-as-a-service. Someone else can dedicate their life to mastering a game, and you can enjoy the spoils at your leisure.
But what are the spoils, here? What enjoyment do we derive from gameplay, if not, well, playing the game?
The appeal to nostalgia is obvious. Seeing the games of our past played in the present affects us viscerally. The interactive nature of games — and the novelty of the media itself, for someone of my vintage — creates particularly potent memories, now conjured by a familiar sound effect, a memorable level, or recalling past play sessions themselves. The subsequent urge to replay these old games ourselves, however, is met quickly with the challenges — technical, in this case — of retro gaming.
Nostalgia may be how someone my age becomes a game-watcher, but cannot explain younger gamers’ fascination. There are many other spoils to be had.
Games are art. Modern games in particular are oftentimes gorgeous, and there is simple pleasure in witnessing the spectacle. More meaningfully, games can now tell compelling stories and evoke deep feelings in players (and viewers) with their multi-pronged stories, larger-than-life characters, and fantastical art styles, settings and scenarios.
Games are science. Game mechanics themselves satisfy the innate human desire for order and pattern by simple function of the predictable logic of a game’s underlying code. A button press has a predictable outcome; sequences play out the same for every player, every time. It’s relaxing. Even when this order is broken — as a speed runner breaks the code’s intentions — the result and explanation are just as satisfying; someone rearranged the puzzle and made a new picture.
Games are history. An iterative a media as any, existing ideas are constantly paid tribute and built upon. Any gamer can see the framework of the past just beneath the sheen of a modern game, recalling familiar experiences while ingesting new ones. A new idea that truly blazes fresh ground is a mind-expanding occasion.
Games are sports. We revel in seeing skilled gamers succeed in ways we never could ourselves, just as we enjoy watching professional athletes compete to push the limits of physical ability. (Increasingly, this analog is becoming more literal as esports continue to grow.) Watching speed runners race to a frame-finish can be just as exhilarating as watching a photo-finish track race.
In these ways, games are inherently pleasing to the senses, even while not being played. But there are two reasons why this specific form of expression — gameplay as performance — has taken hold.
- The decline of television is key. The sheer expense of TV increasingly means cord-cutting, and those yet to cut find ever less programming suited to their interests. User streaming platforms such as YouTube, on the other hand, can be laser-focused on any interest you might have. As it turns out, for many, subtracting TV-watching time doesn’t allow more time for reading books, pursuing hobbies, volunteering, or otherwise doing ‘meaningful’ things. Instead, apparently, we still have a need for relatively short, passive diversions. Time-wasters. YouTube is a great TV replacement, and the inherent appeal of gaming content ensures its popularity.
- Gaming content facilitates community. Social media and livestreaming spur the development of community and the para-social relationships borne of direct creator-viewer contact. Gaming content acts as an equalizer and a place of comfort for a large segment of the userbase. For one, gaming already had a strong, self-identified community, and community-focused platforms are a natural fit. But game content allows for community interaction based on the game, not on the streamer. The stereotype of gamers as awkward, introverted shut-ins — and therefore unlikely to achieve streaming stardom — is increasingly untrue, but game content as a focus allows all gamers to participate in the community. Livestreamed game content allows gamers to meaningfully interact with each other on mutual turf.
Rap music appeared in the mainstream around the same time videogames did. A novel mode of expression, it was often criticized as not measuring up to existing genres of music. Who would listen to rap when better music already existed? Decades later, this sentiment sounds very silly.
Who would watch Twitch or YouTube when TV already exists? This already sounds silly. We can easily accept that people enjoy a TV-like experience, even as TV itself dies. It shouldn’t be a leap to accept that people watch content that interests them.
Games are interesting, entertaining, and so, so watchable.