We spend a lot of time at Pixelkin—and in gaming communities in general—talking about how games bring us together. Co-op and online multiplayer features are often touted as “proof” that video games aren’t just antisocial war simulators. I think what we forget is that games bring us together in lots of different ways—gamers love to watch each other play, to bring gaming culture into real life, to create fan fiction and art, and to talk endlessly about games.
We Watch Each Other
Most of the games I had growing up weren’t co-op. We had a PC and a large pile of discs we’d mostly bought from Costco—games like Age of Empires, Command & Conquer, and Heroes Chronicles. My dad was the original gamer in the family (though technically my Nana also dabbled). I remember him showing my two younger siblings and me how to play the first Warcraft. It was a moment of great pride, because we’d been watching him play for so long, and we were finally “mature” enough (I was four) to join the fun. What we all found, I think, is that gathering around the computer and watching my dad and each other play games was good fun on its own. As the years went by, we continued to do it—graduating from Warcraft to Warcraft 2 and 3, and finally World of Warcraft. At that point we had the ability to both join the same game (and did, frequently), but we never stopped watching. In fact, my entire first experience of Bioshock was over my brother’s shoulder. I provided moral support in the face of Ayn Rand capitalism gone wrong—and maybe added a few shrieks of my own.
Technology has changed the way we interact with games. There are certainly more opportunities for playing alongside one another these days. But it turns out that we gamers still love to watch each other play. Twitch, the live streaming service, gets about 100 million unique monthly visitors as of January 2015. Though not every channel on Twitch is game-centric, the site is known for its huge gaming audience. Viewers can jump into a live stream at any time and chat with co-viewers in the sidebar. I stopped in at a League of Legends stream just now—with 80,000-plus other viewers. And that’s just one video. Of course, if you want a more intimate experience, there are plenty of private streams and channels with smaller audiences.
Polygon recently interviewed Twitch co-founder and COO, Kevin Lin, who had this to say about the community: “There is this huge demographic of folks who play games and are happy to interact with content based on games. They don’t have to be actively playing a game to interact with that game.”
YouTube is another way gamers engage with the culture. Individuals post videos of themselves playing games, usually with commentary—some of these Let’s Plays are made with humor in mind, while others act as more of a game guide for when players get stuck. Some simply offer viewers a chance to see what the game is about before they go out and spend a lot of money. Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, aka PewDiePie, is the most popular YouTuber in the world. He has the most subscribers of any channel, and his channel has 7.9 billion video views as of February 2015. This is because he does Let’s Plays of popular games, complete with funny and occasionally thoughtful commentary. When you ask a young person these days who their favorite celebrities are, chances are a popular YouTuber might be in the roster.
Watching someone play a game over an internet connection may not be quite the same as watching over someone’s shoulder, but it’s still a hugely popular pastime. There’s clearly something captivating about enjoying a game with someone else, even when one party is a silent onlooker.
We Play in Real Life
It’s less true now that we’re adults, but my brother and sister and I used to play all kinds of imaginary games that were, in essence, based on video games. If we had water-gun fights, they were water-gun fights on the surface of a distant planet infested by Zerg. If we were exploring the forest around our house, we were Night Elves evading the dastardly Undead. Not all of our games were based on video games, but the ones that were didn’t suffer any limits on imagination because of it. Instead, we used the games we adored as a jumping off point for even greater adventures.
Many folks still find ways to maintain that childlike spirit of play. LARPing—live-action role-playing—while not vastly popular for logistical reasons, is beloved by some in the community. Cosplay, or costume play, is a great way for teens and adults to engage the imagination by dressing as their favorite game characters. Even tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons (which has inspired many video games) are linked in spirit to our childhood escapades in a visceral way.
We Create Our Own Game Art
Games, like any creative medium, have the potential to inspire. Any story can foster writing, drawings, music, even fashion, and games are no exception. I have spent the last few months enthusiastically drawing Dragon Age: Inquisition fanart, which in turn has expanded my circle of friends and acquaintances. A friend of mine does re-orchestrated versions of the 8-bit Pokémon soundtracks and has met countless incredible musicians from across the world because of it. Others make elaborate costumes based on game characters and wear them to conventions with their friends. Some write epic fictions, design tattoos, or make machinima (movies using video game footage).
Even when we aren’t doing the creating ourselves, fans find ways to contribute to the community. Commenting on works of art, beginning conversations, sharing photographs or fictions, and of course making friends with one another. We clearly share an interest we’re all passionate about, after all.
(As a side note, some folks even find themselves making a career this way. The late Monty Oum was discovered by a production company called Rooster Teeth, which makes several shows popular with gamers, after he released a Halo fan movie.)
We Talk About Games
Above all, gamers talk. We have forums, news sites, blogs, and channels. We write reviews and opinion pieces. We flood Twitter with 140-character thought snippets about whatever game we’re playing at the moment. Many of us are delighted to meet a fellow fan, because it means we have someone to discuss the latest releases with—or the old favorites.
And while social media has given us a great outlet for discussion (though at times, not so great—we’re working on that), this isn’t a phenomenon that is limited to the screen.
Earlier this week I went out for fries with my younger sister and my best friend. We discussed all number of things: rent control, taxes, my sister’s med school applications—she got into NYU!—and yes, video games. We spent a lot of time talking about video games. We talked about the true-to-life teenage angst in Life is Strange, the morality of decision making in Second Son, and the narrative structure of Dragon Age: Inquisition. Not to imply that the conversation was all dry-sounding stuff—there was a lot of “Oh my god, that part was SO COOL. I love how the fire comes out of the staff when you do the thing.”
Not everybody is as lucky as I am, being surrounded by loved ones who enjoy the same pastimes they do. But part of the reason I do love games is because I get to talk about them. I look forward to it, especially with my siblings, since I don’t see them as often as I’d like. I’ve made plans to hang out with people for the sheer purpose of discussing the latest game we’ve both played. This may not be the case for every gamer out there, but if that doesn’t make gaming a social activity, I don’t know what does.
There are still some people who think gamers are all losers who don’t know how to talk to people—and there are certainly aspects of our game culture that could use some work. But the fact is, like movies, books, and television, video games are an important part of our lives. All this can make games a great pathway to friendship, discussion, and socialization, and not just because co-op play is becoming more widespread.