With every new form of media comes a new panic about its legitimacy. Media history is chock full of new media platforms being met with anxiety from older generations until they are integrated as an accepted form of media. Video game streaming platforms are the new kid on the block. For those not a part of the gaming community, it can be difficult to understand the reasons why a person would willingly watch someone else play a game. Yet, seeing content on Twitch and other streaming platforms as “backseat gaming” is a surface-level perspective that does not take into account what Twitch streams accomplish as an entertainment medium. Video game streaming is about community engagement, not people being lonely onlookers at the sole player.
A common confusion of those baffled by the existence of video game streaming platforms is why anyone would want to watch the game in idle rather than play the game themselves. Why would anyone want to not directly interact with the video game? However, streaming audiences are not as dormant as an outsider would presume. Many viewers play the game being streamed themselves, sometimes while engaging with the stream through Twitch chat or subscriptions. It is also common for streamers to engage with their audience through hosting private lobbies only accessible to their viewers. The “Jackbox” series and “Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout” are two popular examples of games that streamers use to initiate audience involvement. These games allow the audience to play with the streamer. In this way, stream audiences are not restricted to being onlookers but actually have the ability to play with the entire stream community.
But even so, many people who tune into video game streaming content do not and have never played the games the streamers are playing. Video game streaming is about more than just comparing the gameplay experiences between the streamer and their audience. Some viewers simply don’t play games they love to watch streamed. Isn’t this similar to many fans that engage with traditional entertainment forms, especially sports? Some fans of sports entertainment are previous players, but many have never even played the sport. They are not too different from those who watch video game streams. Looking at streaming in this light puts it in the same category as a swath of other entertainment forms, rather than a genesis of a whole new conceptualization of entertainment.
An often overlooked aspect of the gaming industry is that it often has economic barriers to entry. The average gaming console can run a potential buyer $200 to $400, sometimes more. The cost of a decent gaming PC is much greater than that — around $800 if you want to install any triple-A games, games with large budgets for production and marketing like “Assassin’s Creed” or “Red Dead Redemption.” And that’s just the price of the system needed to run the games. Tacking on another couple hundred bucks for the games themselves and the necessary accessories, it is apparent that video gaming is not a cheap hobby. Streamers playing games on platforms like Twitch allow those without the economic means to bypass these entry fees to gaming. Watching Twitch streams allows people to taste test games and become invested in various gaming franchises without committing money to them. Creating a Twitch profile to watch a stream is entirely free. These streams give low-income gamers the ability to experience games that are out of their price range. Streams are not just viewers fawning over a streamer in envy of being the one with the controller — they provide access to gaming that many viewers would not otherwise have.
Above all, Twitch streamers can cultivate a sense of community among their audience. Some viewers couldn’t care less about the specific game their favorite streamer is playing, just that they are one of many people all over the world logged into the same channel. The sense of interaction and intimacy of Twitch streams is a lure for many. Those who balk at the idea of sitting in front of their computer to watch a random person play a video game are imagining quite a solitary experience. This could not be further from the truth. Yes, a viewer can watch the stream without socializing. But there are several opportunities to interact with others, such as sending a chat. And Twitch channels are often springboards to more of the streamer’s social media pages. Discord servers for individual streamers are common and aid to solidify the social bonds of the streamer’s fans pre-stream and post-stream. Video gaming hinges on socialization, as do most forms of entertainment. Twitch streams and platforms like it are revitalizing games as centers of intimate social interaction.
Watching a Twitch stream for entertainment does not seem so preposterous when broadening the scope of what the stream accomplishes. Video game streaming eliminates economic barriers to gaming, cultivates community and is not that different from other forms of entertainment. While it may seem bizarre that watching someone else play a video game can be entertaining, it truly is for many people. Rather than bashing streaming, esports and other entities that are the basis of the gaming community, I encourage doubters to log into a stream for at least a little while, whether they’re gamers or not. Ever since the trend to nix couch co-op from many games began, there’s been a longing from gamers to create that sense of intimate community somewhat lost to online multiplayer-only games. Twitch and other streaming platforms like it are a resurrection of that sense of close company, and I, for one, am all for it.
Benjamin Davis is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.