I Watch People Playing Videogames

… which is apparently a weird thing to do, according to a popular American comedian who has his own show in the US. I keep a keen eye on the Kotaku UK site for gaming news and deals and such, and chanced upon the articles discussing Kimmel’s criticisms and subsequent YouTube backlash, and the whole thing actually made me think about my routine of coming home, switching on the computer, and sticking Twitch on in the background.

So, why do I do it?

I started watching when Twitch was JTV, and chanced upon it a few years back whilst at university. I work best at night and in the early hours of the morning when no one is up, and sitting in an eerily quiet flat typing away and reading for my next essay was uncomfortable. As much as the noises in these kinds of places can be distracting, they can also be a comfort – like the chattering of folk in a coffee shop. It can actually help the mind focus.

It started then. I’d tune in to Four Player Podcast when they rolled up in the evening. It was like having a few friends in the room chilling around and playing games, and it also stirred up childish logic: if some other kid is playing with the toy I want to play with, then I can’t play with it and should wait until he/she is finished.

My Iceni expansion in Rome II: Total War.
My Iceni expansion in Rome II: Total War.

Four Player Podcast got me through the longest, emptiest nights during my studies. They stopped me from giving in to my gaming urges (snapping out a ‘fuck it’ and launching a brand new campaign on Rome: Total War is wayyyyyyy too easy) and provided me with the coffee/friendly atmosphere I needed, which had a more comfortable and less invasive feel than something like the radio.

It turned from passive viewing to active not long after.

Summers were long, and me and my friends would often have gaming sessions in the house. Eventually we settled on Starcraft, and then when the second game was released we spent what time we had playing against each other on that. I’d walk my laptop round to my friends flat, and we’d get a pizza and play for near days straight. One of my buddies was a really solid player who had played in competitions abroad and he told me about the huge eSport championships for games like Starcraft. I got interested – I wanted to be better at the game, and video’s like those put together by Day9 and streams of the Championships at Dreamhack could really give you an edge.

Empire: Total War - not Starcraft, but there's a whole lot of strategy here too!
Empire: Total War – not Starcraft, but there’s a whole lot of strategy here too!

There is real strategy in a game like Starcraft. I could go off on a tangent about the questionable strategy in FPS’s like Call of Duty, and I would question their legitimacy as an eSport (although, hand-eye co-ordination and perception are characteristics present in many sports, sooooo), but games are a form of media that requires a lot of thought and interaction. These Starcraft streams helped me experience the game in new ways, *and* gave me an edge when playing against my friends.

The next step.

One of the legal secretaries at my workplace has a son who has been heavily into Minecraft for a year or so now. We chatted about his interest a few months ago, and she commented on how he watches streams of people playing Minecraft so he can work out how to build certain things, and it gives him new ideas for things to create in-game. The Minecraft community on Twitch and YouTube is HUGE, and the game can now be found on most computers in schools up and down the country.

For those who don’t know Minecraft – Minecraft is essentially virtual Lego, but with enemies and basic survival mechanics. These can be tweaked, however, and even removed completely, allowing the player to concentrate solely on building. Like Mechano, you can also create basic moving parts, or more complex machines – even computers. The great thing about Minecraft is that, unlike Lego which comes in tiny boxes and is viciously overpriced, you pay once for Minecraft and can build anything you want, no matter the size. It’s a blank canvas with a whole lot of potential.

Watching Minecraft streams leads to new creative endeavours, which in turn can teach players basic skills which can employed outside of the gaming environment. Minecraft has been used to teach kids about simple and complex circuits, about space and architecture as well as coding! So I began watching these streams for the same reasons, to try and find out what should be placed where in order to make such-and-such function correctly. These streamers often played other games in their own time, and having followed them through their experiences with Minecraft it was interesting to see how they tackled other games. I also enjoyed being part of the online community.

Now.

That leads to now – where my evenings are spent writing with streams on in the background. I still find it calming and less invasive than the radio, and it combats the loneliness of writing. Sitting here at my desk, at an ungodly time of the morning, watching folk escape into a new game, struggle over a puzzle, muse on the strategic outcomes of invading France in Civ V – it makes me feel like there’s someone else in the room with me, but I don’t have to play host for them.

I can imagine others with similar creative pursuits find videogame streams similarly comforting. You don’t have to concentrate, there’s no ‘plot’, you can walk away and come back to it whenever you want to. It’s oddly relaxing, for some it’s very educational, and for others it’s just like TV.

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