The Evolution of Games: How YouTube and Twitch have changed what it means to be a gamer
If you’re perusing Random Nerds, chances are pretty good you’re familiar with the term gamer. You might also know that it’s a term that, like the community it represents, is constantly evolving, especially given the exponential rate at which gaming is taking new forms and, consequently, becoming more accessible. Not 10 years ago, the word gamer would have almost unanimously evoked images of Dorito-crusted teens and young adults guzzling the energy drink of the month, shouting obscenities on Xbox Live or not saying anything at all, donning a thousand-yard stare as they kill boar after boar in World of Warcraft. Now we have parents raving about how great Plants vs. Zombies or Angry Birds or (gods forbid) Candy Crush is, we’ve got nieces and nephews furiously trying to beat Flappy Bird or begging their parents to buy them just one more Skylanders figure. These people are all gamers too.
As the medium has evolved to become more accessible (see mobile games, Facebook games, etc.), so too has the community that partakes of that medium. And that’s an incredibly good thing for gaming! The more diverse a community is, the more it can continue grow and expand. I remember feeling like I had to pretend Pokemon was stupid in middle school because it just wasn’t a normal thing to like, and now I feel like I can’t go two blocks in D.C. without seeing a 3DS in the hands of some happy, normal, not-ostracized person. That’s mind-boggling! If you had told 12-year-old me that, I’d have called you a liar before making up an excuse to go prepare my team for the Elite Four. But it’s true. Gamers are everywhere. And we should be embracing them all.
In the past year, two relatively recent evolutions of gaming have surged in popularity: “Let’s Plays” and Livestreams (primarily on Twitch). In fact, currently the most popular channel on YouTube by a pretty wide margin is (or at least was, for a while) a gaming channel about playing weird games and saying funny things while doing so. But these channels aren’t exclusively for hardcore gamers, quite the contrary actually; they’re followed and enjoyed by a wide range of both gamers and “non-gamers” alike. These channels have helped leak gaming into the popular part of pop-culture, and that’s led to a really interesting phenomenon where all of a sudden, these “non-gamers” are now fairly knowledgable about video games. I’ve even found myself making friends who know more than I do about video games, but who’ll admit they barely even play them, if at all. They’re huge fans of those Let’s Plays or particular streamers, but they don’t often play the games hands-on. It was a strange concept to accept at first, and it had me really questioning that word ‘gamer’ – what it meant, how it was changing just like my community was.
Eventually though, I came to the conclusion that we’ve gotten to a point where you don’t need to “play” games in the traditional sense to be a gamer.
Before you jump down to the comments, hear me out…
Let’s Plays are basically just a visual tour of a game with commentary, usually with a comedic spin to it. Similarly, most streams that focus on game footage are giving the viewer an experience tied to the game, which is generally positive. Then there’s the “Twitch Plays Pokemon Incident”#, which demonstrated a radically different way of approaching games (and showed how to make thousands of people cheer after defeating Brock). Both of these forms of content are creating an experience where the game is still center stage (even if it shares that stage).
It’s also worth noting that these channels/avenues/whatever-word-you-want-to-use make once-stationary games an experience you can take with you on the go. People can take part on their bus commute, while they work out or cook dinner. The gaming generation has really and truly grown up, and your average gamer just doesn’t have the same amount of uninhibited free time that they had when we were kids. Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of getting to sit down and just play something (assuming you can even afford the financial luxury of a console or PC powerful enough to run those games since, you know, financial responsibilities), but you can still get a bit of a fix by watching Game Grumps while you eat lunch. In my own experience, I am an absolute wuss when it comes to horror games, but some of my favorite Let’s Play series are on those very same games; once I’m not constantly struggling against my fight-or-flight response, I can enjoy the other things the game has to offer.
I bring all this up because like I said, gaming culture is always evolving, and this is its next big step. As Let’s Plays become more widespread, as more people take up the mantle of streamer, more and more people are going to find themselves interested in gaming content, further diversifying an already vibrant conglomerate of nerds. And again, that’s a good thing, it’s something communities need to stay healthy. Moreover, as this content becomes more prevalent, gaming becomes talked about more often by more people, and that’s a surefire way to fully assimilate the culture into society. Again, good thing; the fewer people that have to hide what they love, the better off society tends to be. Also, as someone deeply invested in the continuing innovation of game design, I’m confident we’ll be seeing more instances of ingenuity like “Twitch Plays Pokemon” as the content evolves on its own.
Lastly, and most importantly, I bring this up because gaming culture, like the umbrella of nerd culture that encompasses it, needs to strive to be as inclusive as possible. The happiest moments of my life as a nerd have involved finding common ground with other nerds and getting excited about the same game, or the newest episode of a show I love. In the spirit of that inclusivity, I posit that those people that keep up with their favorite Let’s Play series, who follow their favorite streamers or watch E-Sports# every week (which I’ll talk more about another time), are just as much gamers as I am for having played World of Warcraft since Burning Crusade, or those amazing individuals who build breathtaking monuments in Minecraft, or pro gamers competing for cash and glory. We’re all gamers, and we’re all in this together.
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