Video Games, Performance, and Fun

Words: 1261 Approximate Reading Time: 8-12 minutes

I’ve mentioned before about getting into streaming, which itself started through the lens of watching others stream. Observing others is a valuable way to learn a lot about good practices, both from what they do right and what they do wrong.

But in watching others stream, one phrase I’ve heard fairly commonly has confused me: “oh, I won’t play X game, because it’s not a good stream game.”

This statement always flummoxed me when I heard it, because it sounded like streamers willfully preventing themselves from playing games they’d enjoy because they were worried it wouldn’t make for good content.

Now if it were the case that there was some kind of objective “bad stream game” that people were shying away from, this statement would make complete sense. But what appears to be happening is that people are using gut feelings based on a combination of factors, some of which are relevant and some of which aren’t. And often, people are conflating what they think other people want to see with what people actually want to see.

So I wanted to take a brief look at the idea of streaming and the choice as a streamer of what to play through this lens of what makes a “good stream game.” The answer is surprisingly simple, and yet I think it’s worth visiting for the sake of providing some conceptual clarity.

The Purpose of Streaming

It might be useful to start by asking what a given streamer is hoping to accomplish by streaming.

For example, let’s say that a given streamer is producing content with the intention of building an audience, making money, and doing streaming as a full-time job. In that sense, the constraints upon the streamer are much stricter, because there is a clear need to please the audience. Picking the wrong game can mean fewer viewers, less growth, and lower income.

But comparatively, let’s say that a given streamer is producing content simply for the fun of it. Whether they make money or not is irrelevant to the process. In this case, the streamer has much more freedom in their choices: if a game doesn’t draw in a lot of viewers, it shouldn’t matter, because the streamer – and the audience members who tune in – are enjoying themselves.

I bring this up because it relates to our topic directly. The phrase “good stream game” seems to occur despite the context of the streamer: you are probably just as likely to hear it from someone aiming to make it a full-time job as from someone doing it for fun. And yet, it doesn’t make as much sense for the latter, compared to the former.

So in looking at this phrase, there is some soul-searching that needs to occur. If I, for example, find myself refusing to play a game because I think it would be a bad stream game, and yet I claim that I’m streaming for fun – then I am being internally inconsistent. If it’s a game I enjoy and would otherwise want to play, and yet I’m worried about not growing my channel, then I am sort of lying to myself. I am telling myself (and others) that I’m streaming just for fun, and yet I’m not actually doing it for fun – I’m treating my stream like it’s a job.

What the Audience “Wants”

Now I mentioned earlier that there is some conflation going on: the phrase “good stream game” engages in a bit of conflation about what the streamer thinks the audience wants, versus what viewers actually want.

To address this issue, I want to briefly summarize my previous post on this subject.

In short, people watch streams for a variety of reasons: some tune in for a specific game, some tune in because of the player’s skill, and some tune in for the player’s personality. Understanding what people are tuning in for is important. And it’s important to ask yourself what you contribute that is unique to the space.

I bring this up because the concept of the “good stream game” is really a statement about the streamer, rather than the game.

In essence, to claim a particular game is “bad” for streaming is about what you personally think you can do as a streamer.

As an example, it might be common to hear this statement in the context of a game that has a lot of dead time: lulls in gameplay that might involve a lot of repetition. JRPGs, which might have a lot of grinding, would be an instance where a streamer might say it’s a “bad stream game.”

But there’s no reason in the abstract that lulls in the gameplay make a stream bad. Because ideally the streamer should be able to make up for these lulls. If the streamer’s personality is what marks the ultimate draw, then the streamer might, for example, use that lull to engage with chat or talk about a particular subject or do something else that could provide entertainment. Alternatively, if the lulls are something that a streamer can expect and plan around, then the streamer might play through those lulls offstream, and only show “the good bits.”

Because there are plenty of streamers who play the kinds of games that others will call “bad stream games.” Those streamers draw in viewers. They can provide good content.

Saying something is a “bad stream game” places the blame on the game itself for lacking certain qualities that the streamer thinks is important.

But instead, we should be asking what kind of content we are trying to provide, and what we are willing to do.

Because what should ultimately constitute a “good stream game” is one that the streamer enjoys. It is primarily the case that an audience feeds off of the energy supplied by the streamer. If the streamer hates the game, it will be hard for the audience to watch. If the streamer is bored, the audience will be bored. And if the streamer is excited and engaged, the audience will be excited and engaged as well.

Concluding Remarks

So why cover all of this?

Well I’ve talked before about the ways in which playing has become a kind of performance. And in that essay I remarked that the performative aspect of game-playing wasn’t always healthy.

In this case, content creators may find themselves avoiding games that would give them joy and veering towards games that they think they ought to play, in a misguided belief that chasing trends and avoiding lulls in action are the key to success. And it is important to ask both whether “success” is the kind of measure we should be aiming for (because it won’t be and shouldn’t be for a lot of streamers), and whether the streamer understands what they’re really doing.

At the end of the day, there can be games that a player may enjoy that they still don’t want to play on stream for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they’re afraid of a random chatter coming in and spoiling things. Perhaps they are worried that they can’t sustain attention through the lulls. But it’s important to shift the focus back to us as players, rather than shift the blame to the game. Because the simple matter is that while there are “problems” that crop up with certain games, those problems all have solutions. It’s not a matter of the problems getting in the way, but the fact that we can’t or won’t implement the solutions. And we should ask what that decision says about us and what we’re doing.

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