I’ve always liked gathering a group of friends together for a multiplayer game, or cheering on a girlfriend as she mowed down zombie hordes. Still, when Twitch became a thing, many people, including me, had the same reaction: “Why would anyone watch strangers play video games?” Over the years, my view has changed, but my question remains: Why on earth do I love watching strangers game?
Here’s how the transformation happened for me. Years ago, when my friend Aaron Bleyaert started streaming on Twitch, I’d occasionally check in. Every so often a viewer would say something funny in the chat window, and I’d click over to this mysterious person’s channel for a second. Most of the time there would be no content. But sometimes, there’d be a page of archived videos, and I’d poke around for a peek into this random person’s life.
Every so often, I would check in with that stranger’s Twitch channel again. Oh look, she’s offline now, but she’s “hosting” another streamer. Might as well watch this guy for a few minutes. Before I knew it, I could rattle off five or ten Twitch streamers scattered across the world whose streams I loved. AlphaPotato. KatiePetersPlays. EndGameBlues. What happened?!
“My guess is that if you watch the same handful of people over time, you start to feel like they’re… your friends,” Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, California, said, with what sounded to me like just a hint of shade. But it’s true. I do want updates on these Internet strangers’ lives. How’s Katie’s dog Kodo doing? What does the EndGameBlues guy eat when he pauses for a 15-minute “meal break?” That’s not enough time. I’m worried about him!
This phenomenon isn’t unique to streaming. “Daytime talk shows, like Oprah, feature these people that we come to know, and we start to feel an emotional connection to them. We care about how they react to things. So they become part of our sort of social circle,” Dr. Rutledge said.
Tom Chick, the well-known video game critic and a streamer himself, references a different sort of show. “It reminds me of talk radio,” he told me, “where the show is partly the listeners. Talk radio with just one guy holding forth wouldn’t be as effective as talk radio where somebody calls in to interact with the host.” Likewise, video game streaming is “a shared interest where the audience can participate in the broadcast.”
Of course, there are reasons to watch a stranger play a game that are less sociological and more gameplay-related. Sometimes you want to learn how to “git gud,” or just bear witness to gaming proficiency. Take PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the “battle royale” game in which a hundred players fight until only one remains. Tom explains that when you play, there’s only the smallest chance that you’re going to see that thrilling final showdown. “When you watch football, you watch the season, you watch the teams get winnowed down, you want to see the Super Bowl. When you play PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, you don’t get to see the Super Bowl, because you’re dead. I think a lot of people can appreciate that higher level of play by watching someone stream who’s really good at the game.”
Watching experts perform feats of excellence is at least as old as the Greek Olympics. But I’m more intrigued by that feeling of human connection with a stranger. They may or may not be any good, they may or may not be playing a game I’d ever play, but there’s an emotional relationship that keeps me hooked. And now you can reward streamers that you connect with by using your free channel subscription that you get for free with Twitch Prime (which is itself free with Amazon Prime). You also get ad-free viewing, free games, and other in-game content with Twitch Prime, giving you even more incentive to continue to interact with streamers on Twitch.
You can bet that, in spite of my skepticism years ago, I’ll be there.
Why do you watch strangers play video games? Let me know in the comments.
Tony Carnevale is a senior writer for Studio@Gizmodo.