Why Do We Watch Livestreams?

While I often struggle with the fact that I spent so much of my young life (I’m only 23) playing video games, the video game community’s new-found fascination with live streaming on services like Twitch and Hitbox puzzles me even more. If video games are the “interactive” entertainment medium, then why would someone want to watch someone else play a game rather than play it themselves? Are there comparable instances of people watching one another consume entertainment?

“Why would you watch someone play football when you could just play football with your friends in the yard?”

After careful examination, it seems that there are a few reasons that someone might want to watch someone else enjoy themselves (He he):

  1. The viewer is watching someone that is more talented than themselves, i.e. a professional athlete or speed runner
  2. The viewer is watching someone engage in an entertaining activity that they themselves cannot engage in, i.e. a foreign import
  3. The viewer is watching someone who adds something to the entertaining content that makes it better than the content itself, i.e. Morgan Freeman reading from a book

This criteria seems to encompass most instances in which someone might want to watch a live stream, but can there be exceptions to this rule? This seems to be the case, as there are famous streamers who are not good at games, aren’t charismatic or funny and play games that most of their viewers have access to. It also seems clear that even in instances where viewers are drawn to a livestreamer because of one of the three criteria above, what keeps them tuning in every afternoon goes deeper than those simple rules.

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Look at this lovely family sitting down to play their new Nintendo Entertainment System. Nerds.

One of the biggest draws of console gaming, at least before online gaming was as prominent through consoles, was that a bunch of friends could get together, sit down on a couch and play a game together. If PC gaming was the introverts paradise, then console gaming was the exact opposite. Now that consoles have access to wifi internet connections the line between console and PC gaming has blurred a significant amount. Console gamers may be playing less games with their friends in real life and spending more of their time online, but PC gamers have also been able to sit next to their friends while playing games, in a sense. Livestreaming emulates the “couch-gaming” experience, especially in those instances in which the streamer is not a talented or charismatic e-sports pro that plays exclusively japanese imports. The only foreseeable reason why someone would want to watch someone else play a game like Final Fantasy VII, which lasts approximately 3 hours if the player is an experienced speed runner, is because they want to enjoy the experience of sitting down with a bunch of friends while someone plays a long JRPG. In this way streaming becomes more about the community than about the game itself, as the viewers’ interactions with the streamer and with the stream chat makes the overall experience of Final Fanstasy VII more enjoyable than simply sitting down and playing it by oneself.

This doesn’t mean, however, that stream viewers are all a bunch of lonely nerds, but rather that the streaming community creates comfortable environments in which social interaction makes sharing the gaming experience more enjoyable or at least comparable to playing the game itself.

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