Running the Numbers

Twitch isn’t just a platform but a game in itself

Video games are obviously not just for playing: Cosplay, fan fiction, and player-created mods are just a few of the forms of cultural expression that they inspire beyond the boundaries of gameplay. Live streaming is another extension, which has moved beyond its amateur fan culture origins and spawned a professionalized media industry with its own pantheon of stars and aspirants. For instance, much of the viewership of Apex Legends streams — it generated 8.28 million hours of collective spectator viewing in one day in early February, breaking Fortnite’s records from the previous year — was driven by live streaming “influencers” like Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, who personally accrued nearly a million of those hours. Streamlabs, which makes broadcasting software for streamers, processed $141 million in tips for live streamers in 2018, a 41 percent increase from the previous year. Put simply, live streaming has become a big entertainment business in its own right, and this changes the relation between streamers and spectators, feedbacking into gameplay itself.

In a strict sense, games are designed to be the same no matter who is playing them: Everyone downloads the same lines of code and are presented with the same play mechanics or storylines. But this baseline provides a stage for the live streamer to demonstrate their particular talents, producing different experiences from the same games in the aesthetic space created by the presence of spectators. “Streamers,” sociologist T.L. Taylor notes in Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming, “work to convey the moment by moment of gameplay, externalize the internal, make visible visceral experiences, and render the affective legible to spectators.” To make viewership compelling, that is, streamers need to convey emotional reactions and provocations that viewers can grab ahold of in lieu of a controller. They must provide something vivid enough to translate into a vicarious sense of play among friends, transforming what might seem to be a matter of player and screen into a publicly consumable spectacle.

Much of the streamer-as-influencer’s labor is intertwined with the chat. This can lead streamers into positions and behaviors they might not otherwise endorse

To produce these experiences, streamers “frequently find themselves having to skill up into agile one-person production studios,” Taylor notes. For this, they need not only the right equipment — studio space, microphones, cameras, lighting rigs, a computer powerful enough to stream games and run the other programs without slowing down on camera, and an internet connection fast enough to keep up — and the knowhow to operate it all, especially as their broadcasts become more sophisticated. They also need to know which games to stream to balance their own skill with audience appeal.

Many begin the “work of play,” as Taylor calls it, on the media platform Twitch, which started in 2007 as Justin.tv, a content-agnostic site that let users stream live content to a personal “channel” for whomever wanted to watch. In 2011, the gaming content hosted by Justin.tv was spun off to create TwitchTV. As CEO Emmett Shear explained, live streaming games was “advertiser friendly … When you have a webcam, anything can happen. Gaming is much more controlled.” Streamers looking to profit from Twitch operate within this logic, offering an “advertiser friendly” and “controlled” version of the potential intimacy of watching gameplay.

Essentially, streamers are playing two games at once, and they each have their own screen. Taylor describes visiting a streamer at his home studio to observe him at work. Beyond the standard video camera and microphone, he used two monitors — one for the game and the other for monitoring the audience, with a chat window and others for keeping tabs on who was subscribing, donating, and following the channel. Skype, running in the background, facilitated back-channel communication with moderators who worked to regulate the chat experience. Throughout his broadcast, which began at 2 a.m. to try to maximize audiences internationally, this streamer paid attention not just to his gameplay but also the hundreds of spectators participating via chat. Regular viewers needed to be acknowledged with an audible hello, and conversations needed to be monitored to maintain civility. Heartfelt thanks needed to be given for those who subscribed or donated. “Live streamers are not only content producers but brand and community managers too,” Taylor notes.

The end goal for streamers, above and beyond playing particular games well, is to gather enough regular viewers to achieve financial security, inspiring a loyalty that can be directly monetized through donations or purchase of in-game content featured on the stream. This approach allows streamers to become more like Instagram influencers, as they can use or endorse products and integrate other forms of sponsored content while sticking to their basic format. In turn, this refines the platform’s value. Taylor argues that “one can certainly imagine a future in which Twitch is as much a consumer data company as a gaming one,” merging the data of what spectators watch with what they are purchasing while watching.

But the streamer-as-influencer model, in which viewer counts and ad metrics are the means of separating amateurs from professionals, puts unrelenting pressure on streamers to take on increasing emotional, physical, and technical labor in the pursuit of numbers. They must constantly produce new content and grow an audience visibility. Successful streamers master this game within a game, accessing the supplemental revenue streams within Twitch that serve as another kind of scoreboard.

Much of this labor is intertwined with the chat, which is fundamental to scaling one’s audience numbers. But as viewership numbers grow, so too does their influence and the weight of their expectations. This can lead streamers into positions and behaviors they might not otherwise endorse. Those looking to harness the power of chat for their own gain can end up harnessed by it instead.

Video games have long been associated with spectatorship as well as play, from their origins in quarter-fueled arcades, where high score displays implied the presence of admiring or competitive spectators, to their migration to home screens and consoles. Live streaming chat emulates these older models, but its interaction with economies of scale on streaming platforms brings a different kind of intimacy and intensity to the experience. Chat lets spectators feel like they are there with the streamer as well as a part of a crowd, even if they are alone in their room.

A Twitch chat allows spectators to experience the powerful ambiance of an arena around particular streamers, without any of the checks or risks of physical co-presence

Drew Harry, director of the science team at Twitch, told Taylor that the chat window, with its streaming cacophony of text and emojis, “could be seen as akin to the cheering one would find in a sports stadium.” That is, it is less like talk among friends than a kind of “festive riot,” which, as Ronald Paulson argues in The Art of Riot in England and America, endures in rock concerts or sports events. Festive riots are rooted in Dionysian celebrations such as Saturnalia or Carnival, where regulations and restrictions on intoxication, sexual activity, and societal norms are loosened or reversed for a defined period or in a defined space. Collectively seditious behavior — which might otherwise appear as strikes, riots, and other forms of spontaneous protest — was sanctioned and encouraged within these appointed holidays and turned into a form of frivolity. These celebrations provided a safety valve for venting off societal frustrations, allowing those at the bottom of society to temporarily bend the rules and briefly behave as masters.

Books or art, Paulson argues, can “realize and transmit” a festive riot’s affect while holding audiences at an aesthetic distance, apart from a riot’s more subversive potentiality. These representations can safely transmit these affects not by indulging them as festivals do but by aestheticizing them and making them a private consumption experience.

A Twitch chat does similar work of representation. But despite the physical distance involved, this experience is not necessarily distanciated, as it is with art. Instead it allows spectators to experience the powerful ambiance of an arena around particular games or streamers and contribute to sustaining it. Participants may at any moment depersonalize from individuals into a crowd, suddenly capable of disinhibited group behavior despite being alone in a bedroom. This sort of consumption on the brink of riot produces a kind of viewer engagement that keeps spectators coming back for more. Live-streaming gameplay holds intimacy and riotousness together, allowing them to emerge from one another without any of the checks or risks of physical co-presence.

Platforms and streamers both have incentives to deliberately foster this tenuous balance of affects, which plays out as streamers’ efforts to convey an “authentic” experience. One of the streamers Taylor interviewed pointed out that the repeat viewers “are here specifically to watch you and your mannerisms, and learn about your life … you are the entertainment versus what you are streaming being the entertainment.” Taylor argues that the perceived authenticity of a streamer “becomes a powerful affective anchor in fostering supportive communities along with building audience connection and loyalty.” That is, it fosters a sense of group-oriented allegiance outside the confines of a national culture or the interpersonal order of everyday life.

Streamers’ sense of personal authenticity may be reshaped by what can hold an audience that is oriented toward seeking riotous affect. Spectators can exert tremendous influence over streamers

But that authenticity is not necessarily defined by the streamer’s fidelity to some inner personality so much as the willingness to transgress norms. If streamers understand their appeal to audiences (as recorded through the variety of attention metrics) as an index of their authenticity, then their sense of how well they are conveying (i.e. performing) that authenticity will be revealed in how audiences respond. This means that streamers’ sense of personal authenticity may be reshaped by what can hold an audience that is oriented toward seeking riotous affect.

Spectators can thereby exert tremendous influence over streamers, not only through their subscriptions and donations but through the stereotypes they promulgate in the chat. Streamers can become beholden to the audience’s idea of what is authentic, and this may have more to do with airing stereotypes and defying “political correctness” than with anything unique about the streamer.

The pursuit of affective intensity in livestreams can and often does tip over into antisocial and hateful behavior. There is no denying that as a streamer’s audience grows, their live-stream chat can become flooded with misogynistic, racist, and homophobic harassment. “Over and over again,” Taylor observes about Twitch, “judgements and policing around femininity, sexuality, embodiment, and women’s presence have come up.” She notes a 2016 study of live-streaming chats that demonstrated a gender divide with respect to the amount of objectifying comments streamers faced. This compounds the taxing emotional labor, the “work of play,” for streamers who aren’t straight white men, and intertwines their professionalization with their ability to tolerate or even cater to categorical stereotypes.

Taylor points out that some streamers enlist moderators from trusted, longtime viewers and use customizable bots to assist in promoting a specific viewing experience. To assist less technically savvy streamers, Twitch integrated an AutoMod setting into its user interface in December 2016. But moderation is always in tension with the demands to produce “riot.” Holding a riotous audience captive, keeping the frivolity from descending into chaos, is a real concern of streamers, who must continue to produce perceived authenticity while preserving an atmosphere that seems to exist outside the rules governing other spaces. Streamers must produce the carnivalesque on demand, day after day.

Paulson reminds us that a riot is made of a crowd and that “it is the nature of a crowd to be expansive and so to exceed boundaries.” Whereas the riotous nature of conventional spectator sports is generally limited to an arena, Twitch knows no such limits. The passions stoked can continue to expand beyond the abilities of a streamer to keep them in check, even one armed with an army of moderators and automated chat bots. And unfortunately, the inverse is true as well: A streamer can stoke the riotous nature of chat and extend it without limit, putting “engagement” in service of demagoguery and hate if necessary.  

Video games are not unique in their ability to anchor live streams that transform private acts into public spectacles. And there are many streamers who undertake the “work of play” as a way to share gameplay experience without any thought of compensation or growing spectator numbers. But under the auspices of centralized platforms like Twitch, the “work of play” will always become a numbers game unto itself, at least until the volatile passions of the audience being used as counters become uncontainable.

Jeremy Antley holds a PhD in Russian History from the University of Kansas and currently resides in Portland, Oregon. His most recent work on wargames and culture can be found at First Person Scholar and in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming.