Sky LaRell Anderson

Sky LaRell Anderson, Ph.D., is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Denison University. His current research targets video game player communities, narratives, and the relationships between video games and players. He is also an independent game designer.

Contact information:
skylarell.net
skylarell at gmail.com

Watching People Is Not a Game: Interactive Online Corporeality, Twitch.tv and Videogame Streams

by Sky LaRell Anderson

Abstract

Recent videogames research has followed a trend of studying the human element of gaming, meaning the people, bodies and physical contexts of gaming. Across disciplines, games researchers have begun to focus on the embodied experience of playing games, be that through a study of character representations or player behaviors. This article examines Twitch.tv in order to reveal the design strategies it employs to direct awareness to the presence of players and viewers. To accomplish this task, I apply the Grounded Theory Approach to studying human behavior in order to distinguish the human aspects of the website from the digital content of the videogames being played. Specifically, I describe the strategies the website employs to direct attention toward humans, persons and personalities outside of games. I first discuss what limited literature has been written on video streams of gaming content, including its history in the e-sports community and how online content helped give rise to game viewing audiences. I then provide a brief description of my method before spending the rest of the article detailing the categories of interactive online corporeality that emerged from the study. The final section of this article addresses the interconnections between categories.

Keywords: Twitch.tv, corporeal turn, interactive online corporeality, bodies, website design

 
“Broadcasting and watching gameplay is a global phenomenon, and Twitch.tv has built a platform that brings together tens of millions of people who watch billions of minutes of games each month” (Wingfield, 2014).

Jeff Bezos, the founder, president, and CEO of Amazon.com, made this statement after the online retailer purchased the game streaming website Twitch.tv for over one billion USD. It was Bezos’s job to promote the acquisition, and his statement accurately depicts the website’s prominence. Launched in 2011, Twitch.tv was a spin-off website from the other, more broadly focused, streaming site Justin.tv, but its focus on videogame playthroughs and commentary helped launch Twitch.tv into an untapped market of videogame viewership. As of mid-2014, Twitch.tv was using the eighth most internet bandwidth out of all websites in the world (Keng, 2014), and it was its massive popularity that inspired its acquisition by Amazon.com in August later that year.

The website is home to a variety of game streaming content, including footage of live videogame tournaments, casual playthroughs with colorful commentary and technically proficient speedruns. But what distinguishes Twitch.tv from other video hosting and streaming websites with videogame content, including YouTube.com, is the presence and participation of the players and viewers (Gandolfi, 2016). With its strong reliance on participative engagement, even single-player games become a social activity (Consalvo, 2017). It is difficult to find video streams on Twitch.tv without, at bare minimum, an audio feed of the player, and the chat box is constantly updated with messages from eager viewers. In a mass medium most often considered inhuman, robotic, or purely digital such as videogaming, Twitch.tv has foregrounded the human element, and doing so has distinguished it from other streaming services. Emergent media such as Twitch.tv require foundational analysis and theoretical work in order to understand how communication in these emergent media operates (Heeter, 1989).

Recent videogames research has followed a trend of studying the human element of gaming, meaning the people, bodies and physical contexts of gaming. In previous articles, I called this trend the corporeal turn in game studies (Anderson, 2017; Anderson, 2016). This phenomenon went mostly unnoticed while it spread across disciplines, and only recently has it been identified in an attempt to focus research agendas (Apperley & Jayemane, 2012). Across disciplines, games researchers have begun to focus on the embodied experience of playing games, be that through a study of player behaviors or with research on the embodied nature of representations. Game Studies has demonstrated the greatest concern with the corporeal element of games. Even a cursory search of the journal reveals dozens of articles on representations of characters’ gender and race, player behaviors, game addiction, torture and other embodied topics (Carr, 2014; Kennedy, 2002; Nooney, 2013; Parisi, 2013; Sample, 2008; Cover, 2006). Primarily, videogames scholars have foregrounded the human element of gaming through the study of space through exercises and movement (Gazzard, 2012; Conway, 2010, Song, Peng, & Lee, 2011; Giddings & Kennedy, 2010), identity through gender and race (Shaw, 2011; Harvey & Fisher, 2013; Kirkland, 2012; Thornham, 2008; Jenson & de Castell, 2011) and engagement through immersion and interactivity (Williams, 2013; McGloin, Farrar, & Krcmar, 2013; Shinkle, 2008; Prasch, Bianchi-Berthouze, van Dijk, & Nijholt, 2009; Jin, 2009; Juul, 2010). Twitch.tv presents a fourth category of investigation, that of the representation of players and viewers in an online space, that necessitates further inquiry. While researchers have described how game streamers present themselves (Pietruszka, 2016), this study concerns the website content as a whole.

To this end, this article examines Twitch.tv in order to reveal the design strategies it employs to direct awareness to the presence of players and viewers. To accomplish this task, I apply the Grounded Theory Approach to studying human behavior in order to distinguish the human aspects of the website from the digital content of the videogames being played. Specifically, I describe the strategies the website employs to direct attention toward humans, persons and personalities outside of games. I first discuss what limited literature has been written on video streams of gaming content, including its history in the e-sports community and how online content helped give rise to game viewing audiences. I then provide a brief description of my method before spending the rest of the article detailing the categories of interactive online corporeality that emerged from the study. The final section of this article addresses the interconnections between categories.

E-sports and Game Audiences

Scholarly interest in game audiences has only recently begun to emerge, and any concern for game audiences usually comes in the form of studying e-sports, or professional videogame competitions. Crawford and Gosling (2009) have found some success in relating e-sports and game audiences to other disciplines in media studies, and by drawing on the ethos of those fields they are able to create foundational theories and discussions. Other scholars study e-sports in an attempt to simply define and describe the phenomenon, such as Hutchins’ (2008) investigation of the World Cyber Games. Additionally, Taylor’s (2012) book on e-sports is now a fundamental text when beginning any study of e-sports, considering it is the first of its kind.

What separates e-sports from casual play in living rooms is the ability to attract audiences, but game audiences have expanded beyond just competitions. Online video streaming services on websites like Twitch.tv and YouTube.com allow for game audiences to connect online and participate in the culture from nearly anywhere in the world. Some scholarly attention has turned toward online game viewership, such as Cheung and Huang’s (2011) dissection of game audiences into three areas of study: types of spectators, dominant stakeholders that influence spectating, and reasons why viewers enjoy watching games. Gosling and Crawford (2011) position gamers as a type of fan audience in which the social narratives of their culture exist in everyday life while also amplifying in certain physical locations, such as game tournaments. Glas (2015) suggests that game audiences experience gameplay vicariously, and Bowman, Weber, Tamborini and Sherry (2013) suggest that the presence of viewers interacts with game performance, sometimes even increasing performance.

In a medium designed for personal experience and immersion, enjoying watching somebody else play games seems counterintuitive. While the heart of the phenomenon is game viewership, the other side of the social interaction, namely the game player or streamer, cannot be ignored. If there is a corporeal element to the game streaming experience, it involves both players and viewers, and this study aims to illuminate those influences.

Grounded Theory Approach

The following research question guided the methodological considerations of this project: What strategies does Twitch.tv employ to direct attention toward humans, bodies and personalities?

As the subject matter has not been extensively studied, a qualitative method was chosen that would act as a guide to understanding the phenomena as they emerged naturally throughout the data gathering process. The grounded theory approach (GTA) to qualitative research has a rich, complicated and branching history, and its sprawling variety of applications makes it best described as a methodology rather than a method (Morse et al., 2009). Developed by Glaser and Strauss (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss, 1987; Strauss & Corbin, 1990), the primary objective of GTA is the creation of grounded theory, an explanation of data derived inductively from the data itself with the advantage of being constantly refined through further analysis and additional data. The Grounded Theory Approach contributes categorization and comparison to traditional descriptive analyses while also allowing for a wider variety of objects of study: GTA may be applied to interviews, documents, spaces, interactions and nearly anything else germane to a study of human communication.

According to GTA, researchers identify an activity or behavior to study, and, without an a priori hypothesis, they begin with thorough observation. Data emerges from observation, usually in the form of taking note of the circumstances and performance of the activity being studied, and subsequently the researchers begin to develop theoretical categories to describe the data. Finally, researchers dimensionalize the categories, meaning they compare the categories with each other, before returning to the data or gathering more data to continue to refine the categories. The goal of the process is to build an explanation of the activity being studied by comparing and describing categories of data, and hence the theory is grounded to the data. What Haas (1999) calls a site-specific theory is optimized to explain the particular phenomenon with the potential to compare the theory to other phenomena.

Following Haas’ (1999) application of GTA, as adapted from a rhetorical tradition, I aimed to gain a general understanding of the site, its design, and how its structure related to my research question. In lieu of limiting myself to a set number of viewing sessions or a targeted number of streams, I allowed any amount of exposure to the site’s contents to be viable for categorization. Before gathering data, I was already well-versed with the website’s overall design and functionality. For the purposes of this study, I used the “Top Live Channels” directory which is accessible from the front page, and from this list I was able to peruse a variety of streaming content. I took notes of any regularly occurring feature found across several streams that pointed toward the human elements of streaming and viewing game content, and after my period of data collection was over--approximately one week--I went through my notes and began to categorize the data. After categorizing my notes, I returned to gathering additional data on Twitch.tv to expand, add to, and revise my categories. I then took note of any relationships between the categories.

The following categories describe what I call the interactive online corporeality that emerges from Twitch.tv, meaning the design elements that point to humans, bodies and personalities, whether physical or digitally represented. The categories that emerged from this study were: 1) Showcasing players/ streamers: features on Twitch.tv that draw attention to the players and commentators on the video streams. 2) Showcasing viewers: features on Twitch.tv that draw attention to the website users, viewers, or chatters. 3) Showcasing the relationship between players and viewers: features on Twitch.tv that draw attention to the interplay between players/ streamers and viewers. The following section details these categories of data and the relationships between them. As GTA requires that the categories emerge from the data collected, some categories will naturally emerge as more prominent than others. In this instance, the category “showcasing players/ streamers” greatly outweighs the other two in terms of data collected, and the length of my description reflects that fact.

Showcasing Players/ Streamers

Twitch.tv viewers may often choose between many different streams featuring the same game, and so what sets some streams apart from others is the presence and identity of the streamer. It is important to note that Twitch.tv continues to change several of its design elements, and the descriptions I offer may not remain up-to-date.

1. Streamer profile images

Each game stream featured a profile picture that accompanies each stream page as well as every search result when searching for a game or streamer. On the stream page, the profile picture occupied a prominent place to the left of the stream title and the name of the streamer. On the search results pages, the profile picture was placed in the bottom, right corner of a screenshot of the game currently being played. The profile picture did not always feature the face of the streamer, although it often did. For instance, may profile pictures were of stream/ brand logos or abbreviations of the streamer’s username.

Regardless of the contents of the picture, it pointed to the identity of the streamer, and it served several functions when delineating to viewers which streams to watch. When searching for a game currently being streamed, each stream channel screenshot was always accompanied by a profile picture. The truncated representation of streamers’ identities was useful for sorting through game streams since a screenshot of the game looked relatively similar across various streams. It is only the profile picture and the name of the stream that set each channel apart. Therefore, the profile picture served a fundamental purpose when showcasing the player/ streamer by directing attention away from the game itself--or at least a visual representation of the game--toward the streamer, and thus toward the human element of gaming. Profile images function as avatars inasmuch as they come to represent discrete elements of identity (Kapidzic & Herring, 2014; Nowak & Rauh, 2005; Misoch, 2008). In many cases, the profile picture was of the streamer’s face or upper body, thus tapping into corporeal aspects of the streamer that may draw viewership, such as physical attractiveness, production quality of the photograph, gender, race, etc. While seemingly innocuous, these identity clues may have some influence on whether viewers choose one stream over another. For instance, there is a very large community of female streamers on Twitch.tv, and their popularity might speak to the desire from the gaming community to watch women play videogames. Whether attributed to voyeurism, the male gaze, or simply perhaps a desire to support breaking away from the stereotype that only males play videogames, the simple fact of the matter is that a profile picture which delineates identity traits such as gender may influence viewership.

2. Streamer labels

While the title of the stream sometimes changed from one moment to another, the tagline description underneath the title and to the right of the profile picture offered consistent insight into several important characteristics of the stream (see the tagline description underneath the stream title in Figure 1). The description always followed the format of “streamer” playing “game” on “team,” with each name or title being a bright purple color indicating that they may be clicked to see more content. For instance, one description seen during the study was “RatedEwithElspeth playing Portal 2 on CC5,” whereas RatedEwithElspeth was the streamer, a popular female Twitch.tv personality, Portal 2 (Valve Corporation, 2011) was the game and CC5 was the team--or the collection or organization of other streamers--with which RatedEwithElspeth affiliates.

Much like the profile picture, the fact that the streamer name is the first piece of information provided to viewers is indicative of the person-centered approach to gaming on Twitch.tv. The game being played may change from day to day, but the unifying element of a game stream is the player. The streamer’s username is more than just a substitute for their “real” name; while on Twitch.tv, the username represents the streamer’s corporeal presence in the stream, delineating the difference between the game itself and the streamer’s personality, appearance and overall physical occupation of the gamespace.

The team name represents a group of streamers as a collective identity, grouped together as a brand. For example, one popular team is Elite Gaming Network. Elite Gaming Network is an organization with individuals governing how it is run and which streamers may join the team. It includes over fifty streamers so that if viewers appreciate the content on one stream they may see what other streams are available on the same team. Much like streamer/ player names, teams and team names present a move away from a game-only focus for streaming content to a person-centered approach in which people are at the forefront. The current streamer might attract most of the viewer’s attention, but the team name acts as a reminder of the many other bodies currently being heard or seen on the various other streams on Twitch.tv.

3. Streamer video

Many streams included a video feed of the player. Usually appearing in a corner of the video feed, the player appeared either in a boxed-off area or a green-screen overlay much like a weather reporter on a television news station. With the inclusion of video feeds of players, viewers are no longer just watching games, they are watching people, and the player’s movements, facial expressions, body positions, gestures, expression of emotion, gender, race and clothing are all on display as fundamental aspects of the stream’s content.

In some more rare instances, several bodies were present on the screen at a time, such as an international Hearthstone (Blizzard Entertainment, 2014) tournament (Figure 1 and Figure 2). The torso of the female announcer occupied a portion of the bottom left of the screen, and it was her self-fashioned brand that formed the most visually distinct element of the image, evidenced by the video stream of her torso and face being green-screened and more central than the other two bodies present on the screen.

Figure 1. Screenshot of a Hearthstone tournament (Blizzard Entertainment, 2014) streamed on Twitch.tv (click to expand).

Figure 2. Wireframe image of Figure 1 (click to expand).

It is necessary to note that this tournament was being streamed on many different channels, and so it is the announcer’s brand and visual image that distinguished her stream from the rest. The images of people on the screen filled a significant portion of the screen real estate, only further highlighting the focus on people and their identities.

The placement of players or announcers on the screen demonstrates an awareness of the need to be a central focus of entertainment while not hiding any pertinent gameplay. With streamers within the visual space of the game, their bodies offer a stark contrast between the bright, digital and stylized images of the game and the grounded, physical and canny presence of streamers’ bodies. In other words, by virtue of appearing different or out of place, the visual presence of bodies further showcases a general awareness of the corporeality of games.

Apart from viewing players as performers (Smith, Obrist, & Wright, 2013), video feeds of players are sometimes problematic to analyze inasmuch as they bring to the forefront some of the identity politics and conflicts currently present in gaming culture. For instance, as mentioned above, female streamers and players were not difficult to find on Twitch.tv, and streams hosted or games played by females sometimes made up the most popular content on the website. However, several of these streams featured video feeds of women in sexualizing outfits, with camera angles targeting breast cleavage with low-hanging tank tops, or many other portrayals that are difficult to describe or analyze without delving into a more complete critique of gaming culture and gender politics. However, the visual presence of sexualized streamers only further justifies the interactive online corporeality inherent to Twitch.tv inasmuch as the popularity of such streams speaks to the fact that viewers watch Twitch.tv streams not just for games but also for the visual presentation of streamers.

4. Streamer audio

Streaming audio may be divorced from video because some streams only included audio for players or announcers to communicate to viewers. Perhaps the most salient element of the audio feed, in both audio-only and audio/ video feeds, was how players referred to themselves and the games they played. Perhaps because of the player-centered focus of Twitch.tv content, players rarely described what is happening in a game in terms of a third-person or removed perspective. Instead, streamers tended to focus on first-person language when referring to their game characters or actions. Similarly, when in competitive tournaments, announcers referred to the competing players or teams by their individual names, and when a game character underwent some action such as being attacked, announcers described the events in terms of the players, such as when one announcer yelled: “They’re attacking! They’re attacking! They’re pushing them back! [team] CDEC is finally making some headway after [team] DG destroyed their first push”.

Players’ actions took precedence over the narratological or third-person approach to describing the actions taking place in the game, and the audio feeds consistently focused on players, their choices and their identities. In a digital space wherein many hundreds of actions are being performed per minute, the audio feed contextualizes those actions as extensions of the player’s body, and said contextualization occurs through the player’s body by virtue it occurring through the spoken word.

5. Streamer places

Also related to video feeds, but deserving of its own sub-category given the amount of instances found in the data, was the presence of extra-human elements in pictures and video not related to the games being played. This sub-category includes the presentation of streamer’s rooms or apartments in the backgrounds of video feeds as well gaming accessories such as expensive gaming chairs and headphones. Without a green screen, the space behind streamers in video feeds was often visible, and its presence emphasized the contextual nature of gaming: gaming takes place in a real space, not just on a screen. While many streams only included an audio feed or a green screen video feed, many others presented clear views of where players were sitting, what was hanging on their walls, the size of the room they were in, etc. For instance, one stream featured not only a video feed of the player, but also showed the gaming space: a red couch where the player was sitting, the gaming headphones and microphone resting to the player’s head, the slightly unkempt room with various papers or articles of clothing on the couch and floor, and the decorations on the wall behind the player.

The presentation of place provided further evidence of the embodied nature of the gaming experience, even on game streams, so that viewers not only watched the game or the player, they also were allowed a glimpse into the living space of the streamer. Viewers may figuratively enter the physical spaces which contextualize the video gaming experience, and the existence of such places, or at least the visual identifiers of such places, contrasts against the hyper-real, digital and stylized spaces seen in games. The visual portrayal of physical gaming spaces announces the grounded, corporeal reality of gaming which is, as stated above, that gaming exists in real places inhabited by real people, not just characters in fantasy locations on a screen.

Showcasing Viewers

Viewership involvement has carved out a space through which stream viewers may participate as distinct, human elements to video gaming on Twitch.tv. My study revealed two primary sub-categories of data related to the topic at hand.

1. Viewer labels

Usernames are a prerequisite to participating in the large chat box to the right of the video stream. When creating a Twitch.tv account, the username is the first piece of information the viewer must fill in, and the username allows for viewers to participate more fully in the Twitch.tv culture. A viewer cannot follow or favorite a video stream without a username, and thus it acts as a portal into interacting as an individual on the site.

The username becomes the viewer’s name on the site, an easy to miss element of the Twitch.tv community unless one pays attention to how streamers refer to their audience. Unlike video content that is hosted, the live streaming video on Twitch.tv lets streamers interact with individual viewers, and streamers often spoke to those watching by referring to individual usernames. Through this design element, viewers are more than just a number or statistic at the bottom of the video stream declaring how many people are currently watching. Instead, the username as seen in the chat box humanizes viewers and the back-and-forth between viewers chatting combined with a streamer’s mentioning of viewer’s usernames during the stream mark it as more of a community event rather than simply a top-down content delivery system. The presence of usernames is so pivotal to the experience that many streamers set up second computer monitor screens so that they can watch the chat box as attentively as they are watching their own gameplay.

The chat box occupied a large portion of the video stream screen, taking up approximately 25 percent of the screen when not in full screen video mode. While many sites place their comment sections underneath the video content, Twitch.tv’s live feed of viewer chatting appeared to continually draw attention whenever a new message was posted. Individual viewers expressed their thoughts through text and emoticons, often responding to what is happening in the game or something the streamer said. The chat comments align with the human-focused elements of the website’s design, allowing yet another avenue for the people involved in the entire process, from streamers to viewers, to manifest both their presence and their identity.

2. Viewer presence in streams

In some of the more popular streams, algorithms were in place to recognize whenever a viewer subscribed, favorited, or donated to the stream, and any one of those actions would be rewarded through a pop-up announcement on the video stream. The pop-up would often include the username of the viewer, and sometimes, especially in the case of donating to the stream, the viewer could include a message to appear on the video stream itself. In a popular stream with many hundreds of viewers in chat, receiving on-screen recognition meant that everybody actively watching the stream saw the username and the action the viewer took. Such actions were often recognized by the streamer/ player with an expression of gratitude or a response to the message included in the donation text. In this small way, viewers were sometimes not limited to the chat box and could become a part of the video stream itself through their participating in one way or another.

With the ability to enter the space of the video stream, viewers are not only casual consumers but contributors to content. A chat message may or may not be seen by other viewers, especially in streams with massive audiences and large amounts of chatting viewers, but by entering the stream through favoriting, donating, or subscribing, viewers’ usernames and messages are the content being consumed.

Showcasing the Relationship between Players and Viewers

While the chat box supplies plentiful opportunities for viewers to address the streamer/ player, it does not inevitably signify an interaction between the two. However, there were subtle, yet consistent, instances of interactions that acknowledged the relationship between players and viewers. Perhaps most significant of these was streamers addressing individual viewers. Among the barrage of chat text in the more popular streams, the players/ streamers would often take time to look at the chat box and answer specific questions or address particular viewers. Oftentimes streamers use a second screen, apart from the monitor with which they play videogames, to keep track of the viewers’ chat messages. In streams with a video feed of the streamer, the feed shows the streamers sometimes glancing to the left or right where the second screen is set up so that they can seamlessly keep track of their gameplay while also reading chat messages.

The physical feedback provided by the streamer through the video stream transforms the interaction into something human and recognizably physical. The eye movements to read chat messages, the head shakes, the hand gestures, and the various non-verbal communication cues present in face-to-face communication all denote that the interaction is between people instead of from a content creator to a nameless, anonymous audience. The physicality of the interaction, besides foregrounding the streamer’s corporeal presence, humanizes an otherwise sterile and disconnected communication environment. Although the messages which respond to the streamer do not include the same level of non-verbal feedback, the streamer’s behaviour is sufficient to recognize the humanity and existence of the non-visible participants.

These interactions are not isolated incidents, and it was the frequency of these interactions across a wide variety of different streams that made them stand apart from gameplay commentary: many of the most popular streamers made a consistent effort to respond to and interact with individual viewers. In these interactions, it was not uncommon for the streamer to mention the viewer’s username and wait for a response from that same user later in the chat box.

For example, after one German streamer finished a match of League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009), her video feed box changed positions and increased in size marking that this was time for her to interact with her viewers. One user commented, “I don’t understand any words!” After laughing, the streamer read the message out loud followed by the comment, “Poor ninja; you’re watching a German stream!” It is the informality and the prominence of the back-and-forth that stands out in this instance, as well as in many other similar moments on Twitch.tv. On a website dedicated to streaming videogames, the games take a backseat to the relationship formed between streamers and viewers. The questions, jokes and discussions take precedence over games. The relatable humanity of these interactions makes the relationship between streamers and viewers an attractive reason to visit and participate in the website, and where there is a human relationship there are people, living and breathing people, who stand apart from the games being played. Corporeality exists not just in where bodies are sitting, standing, or otherwise existing; corporeality is the overall emphasis of people over characters, of bodies over pixel sprites and models, of humanity over the digital space of games. The informal conversations that arise in streams between the player and viewers showcase the corporeality of the stream by grounding the interaction in the presence of real people.

Lastly, some streams also use advertisement space in the video stream to indirectly interact with their audiences. These advertisements were in the form of a small box with rotating logos and promotions from a stream’s various sponsors. For example, rotating text in one stream advertised Logitech computer equipment, Intel processors and the streamer’s logo. The sponsorships, it can be assumed, benefited the streamer while also directly addressing the viewers as consumers. This formal recognition of the relationship between players and viewers is less of an interaction and more of a visual identifier of the importance of the streamer-viewer presence in the gamespace. Without the viewers, the streamer would not have been sponsored to advertise for Logitech or Intel, and without the sponsorship the viewers might not have been able to watch the streamer if s/ he could not afford to dedicate the large amount of time game streaming requires.

Interconnections between Categories

Twitch.tv’s design includes various elements that support my claim that gaming on Twitch.tv is about people watching and interacting with other people, thus grounding videogames in the corporeal, embodied context. Streamer’s profile pictures acted as summaries of personhood, or a minimalist representation of the streamer’s corporeal presence, and their placement directed attention away from the game being played and refocused it on the presence of the player. By highlighting characteristics of bodies, such as gender, race, age and other physical characteristics, Twitch.tv lets players choose game streams based on the corporeality of the player instead of the game being played. The labels or names for streamers are ubiquitously showcased before the title of the videogame being streamed, and labels such as usernames and team names suggest that the corporeal presence of players on Twitch.tv supersedes specific mention of the streamed games. Video feeds of players place players’ bodies directly into the game stream, and their visual presence, including movements, facial expressions, gender, race and clothing, make up a significant element of the stream. The contrast between the digital or cartoonish design of the games and the video streams of players offers a stark contrast that draws attention to itself: players’ bodies do not blend into the background, they are one of the primary visual elements of the stream window. The occasional inclusion of sexualizing outfits or camera angles further emphasizes the body-focused design of Twitch.tv in which people watch people who happen to be playing games. Streamers’ audio presence not only adds to their corporeal presence, but their particular words or phrases re-direct attention to the streamer by using first-person pronouns to describe the action taking place in the game. Without a green screen, video streams of players also allowed visual access to the physical spaces the players inhabit. Viewers may witness the actual, physical places in which gaming takes place, suggesting that gaming does not take place on a screen but in lived spaces such as living rooms and offices.

Viewers are able to pronounce their humanity and individuality through their usernames and chat comments. Unlike a simple statistic at the bottom of the video detailing the current number of viewers or subscribers, the chat box showcased the people watching the stream. Even the size and location of the chat box, which resides directly to the right of the video stream, reject any pretense that viewers are somehow less important in the viewing experience. In fact, viewers may watch the video stream and the chat box in tandem, making the usernames and comments, and the people behind them, a fundamental aspect of the viewing experience. Similarly, viewers are allowed to enter the video stream by donating, subscribing, or favoriting, which occasionally let viewers add personal messages to pop into the stream for all to see. Both streamers and viewers would override the game content with their own identity markers, be they usernames, messages, or video feeds. The interactions between players and viewers humanized the experience by closing the relational distance between people who are often many thousands of kilometers away from each other. Whenever the streamer answered a viewer’s question or when viewers responded to the streamer, all watching may witness the person-focused content at work.

Two broad comparisons can be made between the categories described in this study. First, all categories highlight naming, labeling and self-identity as primary factors in the materiality of playing/ viewing games on Twitch.tv. When physical presence is not feasible, it is understandable how other methods might be employed to represent both the individual and collective humanity of the gaming experience online. Players/ streamers named and labeled their online personae through their Twitch.tv channel name and profile picture. Viewers use their usernames and their interaction options--subscribing, donating and favoriting--and by so doing are able to make their presence on the stream. The relationship between streamers and viewers relied on naming and labeling in order to create individual interactions among a cacophony of participation on all sides.

Second, as expected, instances of how Twitch.tv streams showcase the player/ streamer greatly outweigh the number of data points found in the other two categories. Twitch.tv is a streamer-focused enterprise, and it is that emphasis that distinguishes it from other online venues to view gameplay content. While it may have supported my argument to have a more symmetrical representation of data from both streamers and viewers, it would have diluted the fact that Twitch.tv is more of a venue for streamers’ and their content than viewers and their participation. Perhaps it is a result of the somewhat passive experience of watching gameplay content, but Twitch.tv’s design and content production relies on streamers and the human presence they bring to digital gaming. As a result, I gathered significantly more data originating from streamers/ players than any other source, and it is necessary to note that, if there is a human element to Twitch.tv, it primarily comes from the presence of players/ streamers.

The various arguments made throughout the analysis may speak to larger issues of bodies and humanity in gaming, and it is at this point that I wish to turn attention to those issues in order to suggest what may be learned from the findings. What we find here is that the presence of people’s bodies need not be limited to being in the same physical location in order to be compelling to players and viewers of videogames. Even the smallest, perhaps what some would call insignificant, representation of people’s corporeal identity such as usernames denote the presence of bodies. The nature of videogames has led to the invention or invigoration of various strategies to place people into the process of games. People are not satisfied with just the game; they are interested in the people surrounding it: the players at the helm and the viewers who appreciate the performance. Twitch.tv demonstrates what the popularity of multiplayer games, including those online, have been suggesting for years, specifically that gaming is a method of human interaction and communication, and one of the most compelling aspects of games is how people play, view, comment and otherwise relate to each other. Within this emphasis on people implicitly lies the importance of corporeality in gaming. Videogames are, by nature, digital, mechanical and electric. They seem removed from physical experience, widely described in cultural discourse as a series of ones and zeros rather than something natural or physical. Perhaps because they feel so alien or ethereal do humans necessitate the acknowledgement of humanity in order to tie gaming back into what humans are inherently most familiar with: their own lived experiences with bodies. Even within the most abstract method of human interaction in gaming, that being online instead of at the same location such as in a living room or gaming cafe, gaming culture emerges with methods of showcasing of humans and bodies.

The purpose of the study was to discover what strategies Twitch.tv employs to direct attention toward humans, bodies and personalities, and the findings of the study provide strong evidence that game streaming as seen on Twitch.tv necessitates a human touch, so to speak, to ground the online game viewing experience to something familiar. The general design of the website, and the content streamed therein, directs attention to the human, corporeal, offline realities within which gaming occurs. Perhaps in order to better conceptualize and contextualize the findings, it is helpful to imagine what Twitch.tv is specifically not: a website that hosts videos of games being played without commentary, without video of the player, without a chat box updated in real time. It is the fact that the streaming is live, the player is visible/ audible, and the viewers can participate that creates an interactive online corporeality within the game streaming website.

Interactive online corporeality arises from the extent to which Twitch.tv showcases people more so than games. Yes, at its most simplistic description Twitch.tv is a game streaming website. But the sheer number of data points surrounding the presence of people, human beings, and bodies speaks to the corporeal nature of gaming, even if participation does not include actually playing the game. In more ways than one, as the findings of this study suggest, game viewership is not just about watching games being played. It is about watching something with other people, not unlike what draws audiences together to watch films in cinemas or a live broadcast of a professional sporting match on TV. Streamers do not just play games; they play games for an audience of viewers and fellow gaming enthusiasts. What draws people to the phenomenon of game streaming may be a complex and worthwhile area to research, but perhaps my study demonstrates that one element that binds the disparate elements together is not the games, but the bodies participating together to watch and play games.

Several implications arise from the conclusions offered here, including new directions of study. First, the question with which I began this article regarding the strategies Twitch.tv employs to direct attention toward humans, bodies and personalities, is settled only insofar as my findings suggest that such strategies exist and are in full display throughout the website’s design. While I propose several specific strategies, several of which are undeniable to even untrained observers, the overarching implication is that Twitch.tv, and by extension other streaming sites, use various methods to draw viewers’ and players’ attention to the human element of gaming. Second, further questions may be asked regarding the interactive online corporeality in videogame streaming, such as the following:

  1. How do game streaming viewers think or feel about interactive online corporeality on game streaming websites?
  2. Why do video streams of players, in particular, hold an especially important place in game streaming above other strategies aimed at bringing awareness to bodies?
  3. How are culturally coded aspects of corporeality, such as race and gender, constructed through game streaming?

These and other questions stemming from this project would further establish the nature of corporeal identity in gaming and game streaming. Third, the particular strategies discussed in this article suggest that humans feel a need to insert their corporeal identity into that which is abstractly digital, perhaps in order to make it more familiar to their day-to-day embodied existence. Therefore, researchers would be wise to direct future research endeavors to studying other domains, online or otherwise, in which similar phenomena occur, including in multiplayer gaming, online social media, virtual tour websites and cellphone interactions, among many others possible avenues of investigation.


Acknowledgements

The author would like to acknowledge Dave Armstrong, designer at damselflygraphics.com, for creating the wireframe image for Figure 2.


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