Games Without Frontiers

Letsplays — in which video gamers stream themselves as they play — re-create the open-ended intimacy of hanging out

One of my earliest, warmest memories is of sitting and watching an older boy play a video game  in his bedroom. I was young, too young for preschool, and was in an apartment with a half dozen other toddlers, being looked after by a kind old woman named Bridget. We affectionately called her Breeje. She gave us exotic treats like Lucky Charms — a cereal I’d never see at home. The boy playing the game was her grandson, I think. That memory easily melts into another, from five or six years later, and I am at a wealthy family friends’ house, and a different older boy takes me off to his huge room, away from our younger siblings and parents, to show me a game on his new Playstation — connected to his own TV, in his bedroom! — before playing me a Green Day cassette, which, he promises, is “full of swears.”

Growing up, video games — like listening to Green Day or eating Lucky Charms — felt like something only kids understood, a secret club to be introduced to, a safe place to hide out. It hardly surprises me that video games are where I first started to experiment with, recognize, and claim my real gender, long before I began publicly transitioning. I spent dozens of hours customizing female avatars, sought out games with female protagonists, and started using a woman’s name in chat spaces before I was even consciously aware it had become a pattern.

The evolution of video game culture has been shaped more by the sense of nostalgia, intimacy, and privacy than by the more conspicuous desires for vicarious violence

The evolution of video game culture has been shaped more by the sense of nostalgia, intimacy, and privacy games can evoke among players than by the more conspicuous desires for agency, vicarious violence, or an instrumentalist sense of control they might speak to for a lone user. But while playing a game, that set of warmer feelings can be sidelined in the process of learning new mechanics and systems, uncovering the story, solving puzzles, being overwhelmed by sensory stimuli. The nostalgic intimacy remains, but it is most immediately accessible through the experience of watching someone else play video games.

That intimacy has proved very profitable. Watching people play video games has gone from a clubhouse-like activity for siblings and friends to a massive industry: According to a recent white paper, e-sports and “let’s plays” — streams and videos of people playing video games for an audience — are projected to be a $3.5 billion industry by 2021. Many huge YouTube stars, like Markpilier and KSI, rose to prominence with let’s plays, while streamers associated with big games have become celebrities in their own right, like Dr. Disrespect (PLAYER UNKNOWN: BATTLEGROUNDS) or Day9 (Starcarft, Hearthstone). The biggest YouTube star of all, the racist, anti-semitic Pewdiepie, has a following of 60 million, built almost entirely through let’s plays.

Viewers also play the same games they watch, and many have the capability to stream themselves — though it requires a web camera, a microphone, and a decently powerful computer, most people with gaming PCs could easily manage it. This fuels the fantasy that you too might make a living at streaming, that your ostensibly solipsistic hobby might make you a star — or at least a living. There are thousands upon thousands of streamers going all the time, filling Twitch and YouTube with free content. It’s an aesthetic that suits contemporary capitalist ideology: Games become a job, and jobs are intensively gamified.

When I first started watching let’s plays five or six years ago, I was startled by the dystopian aesthetic. The frame is mostly made up of gameplay, with the streamer greenscreened in one corner, usually just from the shoulders up, while they play. This alone is strange — the person faces and talks to you, but is clearly looking at a screen, often with a glazed-over look of concentration, absorption, even affectless boredom. But this is balanced by what their style of play reveals. Video games translate a player’s furtive gestures on a mouse or controller into visible effects, which can make it feel like you are looking directly into their brain.

Games become a job, and jobs are intensively gamified

Through this strange combination of screen-sharing and video chat, you can inhabit the viewpoint of both of the player and the computer: a full panorama of the playing experience. Looking back at the player in a way you never could in person (it would be too creepy to stare at their face while they played) you see the doubly digital translation of their thoughts and responses — through hand-eye coordination and coded to the screen — while also witnessing their emotional response and expression. This provides a glimpse into a unity of thought and feeling without requiring any vulnerability on viewers’ part. All of it, of course, is mediated by video-game companies and corporate-owned platforms.

The way streamers monetize their live-broadcast let’s plays is through subscriptions and donations from viewers. To encourage those, streamers often have text scrawls of donor lists, big animation pop-ups, sound cues when someone subscribes or donates, and various other onscreen memes. (With prerecorded videos, there is often, though not always, less visual noise). Crucially, on one side there is a chat window, where viewers talk to each other and the streamer. And it is true that you can become friends with the streamer, or at least become a mod in their chat. When a streamer gets to a certain level of fame, you can join their community, a part of a massive fanbase. As their celebrity grows, most streamers maintain interactive elements and have special chats, streams, and Discord servers for subscribers only: a fan club whose president is the star.

Study after study has shown that people under 25 are spending less time hanging out in physical space with friends and spending more time communicating online. Sitting cross-legged on the carpet of a family friends’ den, making memories like my own is less and less common. The evolution of the let’s play mirrors how the entwining of online and offline expience has altered the nature of games, relationships, and daily life.

Watching a let’s play, you feel as though you’re in the streamer’s bedroom (which often you can see over their shoulder), that you’re a friend being spoken to, joked with, played with. That this is largely a relationship of surveillance and performance — to say nothing of marketing for video game companies — does nothing to dispel its affective power. A good stream makes you feel warm, like coming home. But what kind of a home, and whose?

Vicky Osterweil is a writer, editor, and agitator based in Philadelphia. She is the co-host of the podcast Cerise and Vicky Rank the Movies, where they are ranking every movie ever made, and the author of In Defense of Looting.