This is why people watch other people play video games

No, watching livestreams and Let’s Play aren’t the niche pastime of a handful of nerds – here’s why

It’s a night in the interminable week between Christmas and New Year and, against my better judgement, I’m at a Zoom quiz night. I don’t really know any of the faces gurning back at me from the screen – it’s one of those friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend things – but my pal split from her partner shortly before the holidays, and not even I’m cruel enough to force her to turn up at a virtual quiz alone.

Plus, I was promised a ‘What’s-The-Next-Line?’ music round and I’m freakin’ awesome at those.

And it was fine at first, when everyone was sober and well-behaved. But it’s Christmas, and everyone’s necking leftover Guinness and sparkling wine a tad too freely, and just when I think it’s been a nice-ish evening that helped while away a couple of hours and kept me from shovelling more Quality Street down my gullet, it happened: an innocent question about PewDiePie kickstarts a discussion about the ludicrousy of Let’s Plays and streaming.

To be fair, it’s one of the more unusual gaming topics I find myself running interference for. Most of the time it’s the hyperbole around violence , esports, and, bringing up the rear, the mind-blowing concept of a gamer sat in front of a screen watching another gamer play a video game.

Look, I get that some people think it’s weird. I understand that games are a fundamentally interactive medium and that passively watching someone else experience it may possibly negate the effort that goes into making them, be it the physical haptic feedback in controllers or the delightful way some game makers carefully construct their UI and layers of intricate menus. I also entirely appreciate that spectating a game on YouTube may mean you won’t buy it. But I don’t understand why the idea of watching someone else playing a game is such an unfathomably alien concept.

Dark Souls Remastered
Dark Souls Remastered. Credit: FromSoftware

Yes, games are made to be played, but there are a hundred reasons why you might choose not to. There are even more that may prevent you from doing so. Maybe it’s a now-gen console exclusive, and you don’t yet own that particular console. Perhaps you’re stuck on a specific level or puzzle, and you want to see how someone else organically works their way through the same issue. Maybe it’s a genre that stresses you out so much you prefer to be the passenger rather than the driver. Maybe you’re just skint, or time poor, or shit at playing games – I’m very often all three.

There’s also the appeal of try-before-you-buy, too. Sure, occasionally studios let us whet our collective appetite with a free demo but most don’t, and given games are so expensive – both in terms of money and time – there’s nothing wrong in wanting to have a little peek before committing your wallet, calendar, or both. And while, admittedly, it’s not without its issues – it’s true that some YouTubers, streamers and influencers are paid to play or promote a game and not all are transparent about sponsorship – it’s also a way to see unvarnished gameplay that’s not been through sixteen PR reps and a bunch of suits before it’s been okayed for public consumption. If it’s raw footage you’re after, few things can give you an authentic peek as an unedited livestream can.

Ninja
Credit: Robert Reiners / Getty Images

And I really hope this one isn’t just me but… isn’t it heartening to see people play in a normal, non-expert way? Esports players are incredible, sure, but for me, there’s something particularly compelling about watching an average gamer bumble around the place, lost and confused, for a bit… particularly if you’ve worked out what they’re supposed to do and they haven’t.

Football fans never seem to get this kind of contempt, do they? Pre-pandemic, thousands crammed themselves around a green rectangle for ninety minutes, jostling and jeering and jumping up and down when their team of choice scores. Even more of us crowd around a TV screen every week and do the same on our sofas. Like gamers, they shout and gesture and scream at the ref – “that was never off-side, you blind twat” – as if they could do better. Like gamers, they generate billions for our economy. And like gamers, our devotion to a particular player can be tribal.

So how come they get several TV channels devoted to the sport and we get nothing but ridiculed?

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