Lately I’ve been completely entranced by Let’s Play videos and Twitch streams of Critical Role (a D&D game) and it has a very different feel compared to TV binge-watches I’ve done in the past. So this is my attempt to unravel how and why watching gaming videos is different than television or movies (at least for me).
A few weeks ago in Game Design we were assigned to write and GM (game master) our own tabletop RPGs (role-playing games). To take on this daunting task, the teaching staff gave us an incredible repository of materials to pull on to help us write narrative, create characters, and become a good GM. One of those resources was Matt Mercer’s series of GM Tips videos on the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel. After watching those videos I became obsessed with watching Critical Role – a Twitch / YouTube series where Mercer DM’s Dungeons and Dragons for his voice actor friends. The series has a HUGE following and just began their second campaign after several years playing their first.
I have a few friends who watch live streams on Twitch and I previously could not fathom why they might enjoy watching someone else play a game rather than themselves. Then over the summer during my game design internship at Schell someone emailed out a link to JackSepticEye’s Let’s Play video of Schell Game’s VR game I Expect You to Die. I’d never played it and really wanted to and was also surprised that a video like that would be considered a boon for a game company. I opened the video and really got hooked on watching Jack struggle and puzzle out how to win the game. I really enjoyed the running commentary and it felt like I was not only learning about the game and following that narrative, but also enjoying a more meta narrative of Jack’s hero’s journey to solve the puzzle.
Most of the articles I’ve seen about Twitch talk about the monetary aspect (e.g., how college students are paying off loans by playing video games and the best ways to improve your views). I haven’t seen as much from the viewers side in understanding what is the deep-seated appeal. In starting to analyze my own viewing habits I’ve noticed that I’m drawn to games I wouldn’t normally play on my own – narratively focused games. So far I’ve watched several Let’s Play videos of Dream Daddy as well as Firewatch and Night in the Woods. These games are all almost exclusively dialogue and narrative-based games. While I love the story, I just don’t have the patience to sit down and walk through these on my own. By watching streamers I get to enjoy the story in the background while doing something else and enjoying the meta story of the gamer themself. Their “character” is as important as those in the game.
Watching Critical Role has helped me answer this question of what is so fascinating even more. At this point I’m watching the live streams on Thursday, the talk show ABOUT the game on Tuesdays, and even listening to the podcast of campaign one. I’m completely hooked and can see from jumping from campaign two to one that it’s much more the players that I enjoy watching than the stories they create. They’re creating the world, acting in it, and opening up their lives and friendships for their viewers to see. In some ways I think it serves as almost an intersection between video gaming and reality TV. Psychologically I’m fascinating by this concept and am looking forward to diving more deeply into this fascination that brings in millions of viewers every day.