Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming
By T.L. Taylor
Princeton University Press, 2018
Tuning in to watch anything on Twitch.tv, one of the most active and popular live streaming platforms today, can be an exciting yet exhausting undertaking. The home page showcases a carousel of featured live broadcasts, one of which immediately begins playing upon loading. Featured broadcasts range from live coverage of professional video game tournaments to someone streaming themselves playing a game and interacting with viewers. Watching an individual broadcast adds a live text-based chat on the screen where viewers can talk to the streamer and to one another. Depending on the number of people viewing a given broadcast, the rate at which chat messages appear can either resemble a low-key get-together with friends, or a digital mosh pit; a constant barrage of capital letters, Twitch-specific emojis, and internet memes.
The ability to experience and react to something as it happens with people throughout the world, regardless of the scale of viewer engagement, is exhilarating. For sociologist and games scholar T.L. Taylor, live streaming made a lasting impression in 2012 while she was watching a competitive tournament for the science fiction strategy video game Starcraft 2. She describes being captivated by the sheer number of spectators both physically attending the event and watching online, as well as how networked communication and broadcasting combined to create an intriguing evolution of a “media event”.
Six years later, Taylor produced Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming, a study of Twitch, live streaming, and the far-reaching impact it has on gaming culture and modern media consumption. Taylor, a comparative media studies professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, drives her arguments with a wealth of citations and sources, including interviews she personally conducted with Twitch streamers, employees, and executives.
For those who don’t have a finger on the pulse of gaming culture, Twitch’s relatively recent explosion of popularity may seem like an anomaly. One of Taylor’s opening arguments acknowledges this perception, claiming that the rapid evolution of live streaming and Twitch was a natural extension of various aspects of internet usage and forms of media intersecting over the last few decades:
To some it may seem like live streaming came out of left field. It is, however, tied to a longer historical trajectory of television and internet broadcasting, yet simultaneously deeply rooted in our contemporary moment, which is filled with online media services, maker/DIY movements, online life, and creative cultural production from all sectors of society.
Taylor begins by examining the roots of streaming through the early evolution of “cam culture” in the 1990s. Grainy pixelated screenshots in this section provide a nostalgic look back to the days when video chats were barely functional by today’s standards. We see groups of people interacting with one another through webcam software with dial-up modem internet speeds allowing for one or two frames of video per second, nothing more than a slideshow to the modern eye. Though the leap in quality of technology from those days to the present is staggering, it’s clear how this early iteration of streaming was a blueprint of what was to come.
As fascinating as it is to analyze the sudden growth spurt of streaming, equally as important is gaining insight into the streamers themselves. The third chapter, entitled “Home Studios”, contains the book’s most human-driven subject matter. Taylor examines every imaginable aspect of being a streamer from the perspective of hobbyists as well as paid professionals. Streaming on Twitch demands that one be a jack of all trades, from being tech savvy enough to assemble a home streaming setup to fostering a community out of viewers who watch one's broadcasts.
For those trying to understand why anyone would want to livestream themselves, it can be helpful to think of the act of streaming as a form of performance through play. While it’s easy to watch a streamer playing games for hours at a time and feel like anyone could do it, a lot more finesse and ability is required than may be obvious at first glance. One streamer shares their thought process while in the midst of a stream:
When I flip on the stream, I’m not just playing a video game. It’s not like you’re just sitting in your living room by yourself not talking to anybody… it’s not like that. I’m an entertainer. I’m performing. I’m trying to keep things relevant, trying to keep conversation cool. I’m trying to make sure that the vibe is right, that nobody’s acting up in the chat. I’m trying to make sure that the gameplay is interesting, that I’m showing people things. I’m trying to make sure that I’m staying attentive to them.
The pros and cons implicit in this response are striking, and Taylor addresses them in great detail. Streaming on a regular basis may lead to returning viewers and a grander audience. This can be the start of a community, ultimately leading to the audience donating money to the streamer to show their appreciation. The flip side here is, for some people more than others, the mere act of being present on the internet means being prepared to deal with an onslaught of harassment at a moment’s notice. Twitch is notorious for issues like this plaguing the platform, and Taylor doesn’t shy away from discussing them with the reverence they deserve.
All throughout the book, Taylor brings some much needed context to Twitch’s sudden popularity by diving into the myriad of social, technical, political, and even legal intersections within the space. That said, any potentially interested reader balking at the prospect of digesting an academic work about Twitch can rest easy. T.L. Taylor is clearly a fan of Twitch, writing with passion and exuberance making the reading experience every bit as engaging as the platform she writes about.
—Tony Perriello is a software developer who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He also plays way too many video games.