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It occurred to me recently, when I was reading a press release about how many billions of hours have been spent watching popular Twitch streamers, that there is now a generation of gamers who have probably spent much more time watching other people play games than they have actually playing them.
It’s a thought that makes me feel about 400 years old – when I was a teenager it would take several minutes to load a single screenshot on a website via a stuttering dial-up modem. I was in my early 20s during the whole YouTube and Twitch phenomenon, and I was working for IGN, the biggest games website at the time. I was one of the presenters of its first-ever livestream, a 24-hour Dark Souls marathon that started with me flying to San Francisco to take up residence in the studio and ended with me almost missing my flight back because I had fallen asleep in the middle of the day in an airport hotel.
This was around the time that Twitch became a thing and a few years into the Minecraft-driven YouTube boom in gaming videos, which I reported on with curiosity. Who are these young dudes playing Minecraft for armies of tween fans? Why are so many kids watching people scream into their mics in front of Five Nights at Freddy’s?
It was a new way of engaging with games, one that removed a lot of barriers to access; an 11-year-old might not be able to afford a console and all the games she wants, but she can watch as many YouTube videos or Twitch streams as she likes. I’ve now met teenagers who have developed a passion for games primarily through second-hand experience, only going on to actually play more games when they get a little older and have more money and self-determination.
Livestreaming is now, of course, a deeply embedded part of gaming culture for pretty much everyone under 25 and plenty of older people besides. I don’t mind admitting that I still don’t really get Twitch; I barely have time to play any games, let alone watch someone else play them. But watching people play games has been a significant part of my life. My brother and I would pad-pass our way through most of the classic games of the Nintendo 64 generation, maximising our gaming time by sharing the experiences. I know plenty of people in their 30s who got their start by watching a friend or a family member play Tomb Raider or The Sims, or Doom. Despite stereotypes, gaming is rarely a thing that we do entirely alone. Games are experiences we share with each other, whether as co-op partners, competitors or spectators.
I asked readers a wee while back about the games they like to watch, rather than play. The responses reminded me that watching other people play games has been part of gaming culture since the arcades. Here are a few of them:
“I enjoy watching any of the Monster Hunter series when I am part of a group of skilled hunters. For my own part, I am so old and slow all I can ever use as a weapon is a Hammer (basically, hit it on the head until it is dead). The other players use a whole variety of sophisticated weapons and complex techniques that I just sit back and watch in awe.” Iain Noble
“I remember thoroughly enjoying watching my partner play any type of horror game (reminiscent of the early 2010s, when every YouTuber played Amnesia on camera). Surprisingly, watching her play through The Last of Us 2 (before playing myself) was also very enjoyable. I liked the story, and some encounters were puzzles where we could either cooperate or confuse each other. I [already] had a good mental map of the game, and that made it easier than a blind playthrough would have been. Disco Elysium was also very fun to follow. I was the first to get my hands on that one – she started it after hearing me laughing so much – but watching her decisions, reactions and the subsequent dialogue (some of which I completely missed) was very fun!” Nell
“I enjoy watching NetHack, which I don’t play because I find the hunger mechanic much too stressful, and Mega Man 2, because I get frustrated if I try to play – tricky platforming is not my thing. Ocarina of Time also works really well as a spectator, because you can get involved in the puzzles and just generally enjoy the fairly relaxed atmosphere.” Nora
“I have been watching my husband play games for 11 years, and before that my flatmate at university. BioShock, FEAR and the Dead Space games were very atmospheric back in the day. More recently, Detroit: Become Human was entertaining due to the cinematic quality of its story. Similarly, Life Is Strange was just as gripping (and easy) to watch. I’m not an experienced gamer, but watching someone else play them has proved quite entertaining.” Gwen
“I’m a total backseat gamer too– but my partner really enjoyed watching me play Persona 5 during lockdown, I think because it was so chill and the music was calming. It quickly became familiar to both of us. When we were in lockdown this felt like a cosy escape.” Sophie
What to play
Card Shark is a gorgeously illustrated game about cheating the French aristocracy at cards, which I’ve just started but am very much enjoying. Here’s what our critic Phil Iwaniuk has to say about it: “Developed by the people behind the delectable swipe-right storyteller Reigns, Card Shark is essentially a mini-game collection comprising 28 tricks, taught to you over the course of a cheerfully antiestablishment adventure that moves from a caravan in the woods to the king’s own banqueting hall. A simple one to begin: scoop up discarded hands in the right order so that your partner ends up with the trumps. Later, you’ll discreetly bend cards so they rise to the top of the deck, and indicate values to the comte by the way you hold your glass. The fiddliest scams are feats of memory – first loading the deck with duplicates, then sneaking those cards out before you deal again … All of this is beautifully brought to life with scribbly, expressive character portraits, wine-coloured backdrops and a cosy, mock-serious score that suggests a chamber-music troupe lurking just across the salon.”
Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch; Devolver/Nerial
Estimated play time: About six hours
What to read
I’ve been away for a week, so I’m catching up on the news; if I’ve missed anything, it’s because I have been completely off the Internet – something I enthusiastically suggest. Anyway, Blizzard Entertainment released its dungeon-crawler Diablo Immortal on smartphones last week, which has gone down fairly well, except that everybody predictably hates the money-grubbing micro-transactions.
Sega showed off its forthcoming open-world Sonic game, Sonic Frontiers – but it’s didn’t go very well. Fans are calling for it to be delayed so that the developers can “fix” it. This is more interesting than the usual “entitled fans blow up on Twitter” kind of story, because it was fans’ appalled reaction to the original design of Sonic in the newer Sonic movies that led to a full redesign of the character – and that has definitely contributed to the success of Sonic movies at the box office. A mediocre game just ain’t going to do it for this fanbase any more, it seems.
Pokémon Go, the viral phenomenon of summer 2016, has now made $6bn – most of that in the years since its sudden heyday. It’s still got one of the most friendly and active player bases in the world.
You’ve heard of Eve Online, right? It’s a spaceship MMO where the players drive the game – so instead of the developer creating wars and missions and events, the players create their own complex network of corporations, conflicts and power structures. The game has been home to some of the most interesting stories to have emerged from video games, including this incredible heist, and these jaw-dropping virtual murders. I spent a few years attending Eve FanFest, the annual gathering of Eve players in Iceland, and always found it fascinating to write about. This year, Tom Regan returned with a story about the real-world powerful people – corporate types, military types, actual rocket scientists – who are drawn to Eve’s unscrupulous world to live out their imperial fantasies.
What to click
Welcome to Eve Online: the spaceship game where high-flyers live out their imperial fantasies
Resident Evil 4 remake announced at the PlayStation State of Play event
Card Shark: cheat the French aristocracy in this dashing period caper – review
Why Silt is a Lynchian underwater nightmare – review
Grow-your-own virtual veg: real-world farmer Dominik Diamond on trying to get his head around the online version
This week’s very interesting question comes from Pagebird: “What is your favourite unconfirmed theory about a game?”
I love a wild video game theory – especially fan theories, as they sometimes change the way that you look at a game. Here’s a good one for anyone who played Limbo, the punishing black-and-white platformer classic from 2010: the game starts with a little boy waking up in a netherworld full of traps and monsters, and ends with him approaching a little girl under a treehouse. After that, it loops back to the beginning. A favourite theory is that the entire game is the boy’s punishment for causing an accident that killed him and his sister – which is why he is trapped in limbo. It makes me shudder.