Welcome to the Blender

Peter Hoskin

Peter Hoskin examines how Twitch and video game streaming are mixing up the culture

19 September 2018 15:00

On screen: a guy in golden armour, with a pair of abbreviated wings, is bouncing around a cartoon landscape. His momentum takes him up a makeshift staircase and into a wall, which he proceeds to destroy with a pick made from a sink plunger and a samurai sword. As the wall collapses, it reveals one of his many opponents. One shot is fired. Then another. The opponent is no more.

Within that screen: footage of a pale American boy, his shock of blond hair framed by a set of colossal headphones, as he clicks and clacks away at a keyboard. He’s controlling the armoured character and narrating the action. ‘I love when I just come in after, like, multiple potato aims,’ he barks after killing off the other player’s avatar. ‘And just clean up.’

Next to the screen: a hyperactive ticker tape of written responses that suddenly fills up with a particular emoji – a potato holding a gun.

The Twitch streamer Ninja – and a lot of potatoes holding guns.

What is ‘potato aim’? It doesn’t matter. Just know that it’s part of the crazy online scene known as video game streaming. This scene has two types of participant. First, the streamers themselves, who live-broadcast their gaming sessions online and generally add their own commentary. And then the viewers, who give their attention, feedback and sometimes even money to the streamers. It’s certainly a growth culture. The number of minutes spent watching Twitch – the biggest game streaming platform, named after the preternatural reflexes possessed by some of the best gamers – reached 355 billion in 2017, which is almost five times higher than in 2012. No wonder Amazon bought Twitch for about $1 billion a few years ago.

There are some even bigger trends behind and ahead of Twitch too. Video game streaming is where computing meets film meets reality television meets social media meets sports. Just like at the end of Nineteenth Century, when cinema was born from photography, theatre and music, new artforms are emerging from the fusion of existing ones. The old divisions are blurring.

But first another kind of blurriness: the blurry eyes among Twitch’s audience. By the company’s own calculations, those 355 billion cumulative minutes reduce to an average of 106 minutes per viewer per day. In other words, each viewer is watching the equivalent of one feature-length film every day. Moviegoers who manage that feat are counted as hardcore cinephiles. On Twitch it’s the norm.

Video game streaming is where computing meets film meets reality television meets social media meets sports.

The numbers are even more peculiar when you consider that video games were invented to be played, not just watched – or perhaps that’s actually the explanation. Twitch is easy to watch, in part, because it doesn’t demand that its viewers do so. It is forgiving of short attention spans. You can tune into a few seconds of the action, read the chat that’s expanding at the side, tap out some responses on your keyboard, leave the broadcast running as you shuffle to the fridge for some fizzy pop, and then begin the cycle all over again. Why care about what you missed? Another awesome jump or headshot is always just around the corner.

Except there’s one person for whom this forgiving schedule does not apply: the streamer. If they want to keep their viewers interested, then they have to keep on playing. And if they want to keep their viewers really interested, then they have to keep on delivering an engaging, preferably funny, commentary over the top. It’s all fuel for a very modern type of anxiety. Streamers now worry, when they’re not at their best or at their screens, that they are going to lose followers.

 

So why do it? Why not just enjoy playing the games without broadcasting them? The answers vary. For some, Twitch reinvokes the sense of fellowship that clung to old arcade halls, where kids would congregate around machines as the local hotshot attempted another high score. For others, Twitch is a way of delivering attention to old or under-played games that might otherwise be forgotten. For others still, it’s mostly about the money. The stars of streaming can draw in plenty of dollars.

Dr. Disrespect is one of those stars. This is the gaming alter ego of Guy Beahm, a 36-year-old who used to design levels for the Call of Duty games. He wears a mullet wig, a powerful black moustache and a pair of wraparound shades, and has the sort of personality that comes from years of steroid abuse and a lifetime subscription to Guns & Ammo magazine. His territory is the extremely popular genre of ‘battle royale’ games, such as Fortnite and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, in which 100 players murder each other until one is left standing. And he rules over it whilst showing maximum disrespect to his opponents.

Whatever alchemical rites this doctor is performing, they yield gold. Many of his two million followers donate money to him during his hours-long broadcasts, or instead sign up for a Twitch subscription that gives him a cut. It’s estimated that he makes at least $100,000 a month from these two revenue sources – and that’s before all the merchandising and the sponsorship deals.

But whenever people project their personalities on screen – even fake personalities such as Dr. Disrespect – the reflected light can burn. At the end of last year, the Doc took off his wig and his shades, appearing as just Guy Beahm, to confess that he had cheated on his real wife in the real world. ‘I want to be completely transparent with you guys,’ he began as his eyes filled up, ‘I’ve been unfaithful.’ The comments feed went nuts: ‘OH GOD WHAT HAPPENED???? …. he doesnt know hes live …. Here for you Doc.’ Dr. Disrespect then took a couple of months off Twitch.

He wears a mullet wig, a powerful black moustache and a pair of wraparound shades, and has the sort of personality that comes from years of steroid abuse and a lifetime subscription to Guns & Ammo magazine.

If there’s anything that Twitch specialises in generating, aside from video game broadcasts, it is stories and arguments about people – or about their clothing. One of the fiercest battles being waged on the site concerns female streamers in low-cut tops. Are they cleverly using what they’ve got in order to extract cash from panting teenage boys? Are they letting other girls down by submitting to stereotypes and male fantasies? Or is it simply nobody’s damn business what they choose to wear? This isn’t a new debate: it was explored in Ariel Levy’s 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs, for instance. But on Twitch it is happening live, unceasingly and furiously. The culture has emigrated there, along with its divides.

Twitch, as a business, understands that it is about more than video games. In 2016, it introduced a ‘Social Eating’ category so that people could broadcast themselves as they ate. Then, a few months later, a new IRL – that is, In Real Life – category took the idea beyond the dinner table. In theory, this means that streamers can now share their normal lives with their viewers. In practice, normal doesn’t really come into it.

Some of the most prevalent IRL streams are those dedicated to another acronym: ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, a tingly sensation which some people experience when hearing particular sounds or seeing particular sights. Kaitlyn Siragusa, a twenty-something girl from Texas who operates under the screenname Amouranth, typifies the format. She loosens her hair, sits in front of a swirling backdrop, taps delicately at various objects with her fingernails, and breathes thank-yous and welcomes into a microphone. If she gets enough subscriptions, she might even do all of the above whilst dressed as a superhero.

There are other ways in which Twitch is expanding beyond video games. Earlier this year, Neill Blomkamp, the film director who made District 9 (2009), screened five of his shorts on the platform, accompanied by his own commentary. It was an experiment: a small film festival on a big streaming site. But it was also business: Blomkamp wanted to raise money from Twitch’s audience to turn one of those shorts into a feature-length movie.

But the real question is whether Twitch will now expand beyond its own boundaries altogether, and seep into other forms of media. Which is to say: instead of bringing their movies to Twitch as Blomkamp did, filmmakers could bring Twitch into their movies. Perhaps there will be more movies done in a single shot, mirroring the continuousness of video game streams. Perhaps cinemas will install comments feeds on the side of their silver screens. Perhaps ASMR will become a goal of sound design. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. It is all speculation for now, but Hollywood was founded on speculation – and its inhabitants will not have failed to notice that there’s gold in them thar online thrills.

The fact is, we are living in an Age of Coalescence. The boundaries between different artforms have dissolved to the point that tech titans are now media moguls, a TV loudmouth is President, and video game streaming is everything. This situation may not last – there are some people who argue that streaming sites are a single copyright lawsuit away from oblivion – but longevity has never been the same as importance or influence. Twitch is the here and now. It is the mixer for our mixed-up time.

This essay first appeared in the Inaugural Issue of DRUGSTORE CULTURE. Buy a copy here.

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