Third-person gaming

Bringing the pain.  Family style.

I can’t say that the concept of a “Let’s Play” or video game streaming grabbed my attention, or captured my interest.  Watching a stranger play a game that I, myself, could be playing instead didn’t make sense.  It struck me as an entirely redundant and unnecessary part of gaming culture.  But here we are, in a world where PewDiePie commands unrivaled success on what is currently the world’s most pervasive source of video content, making millions of dollars.  It’s not something I can claim to understand, but it’s becoming as much a part of the phenomenon of video games as the games themselves.  How does this fit into a vision of video games as art and expression?

For some, games are a sport with competitors and spectators.  That by no means comprises the majority of third-person gaming content that’s currently available.  Some of the most successful let’s-players cater to a younger audience – one who doesn’t have access to disposable income to purchase games they might like to play, and instead live vicariously through others who do.  That feels like a much more reasonable explanation in my mind, but not an exhaustive one.  This is a time when many more free-to-play and inexpensive games are becoming increasingly popular.  What makes third-person gaming interesting, and at the same time frustrating, is to consider that it seems to run counter to a core axiom to understanding games as a creative medium: that interaction forms the foundation of games.

Let’s take a couple steps back and consider games from another time.  Arcades, long gone for the most part, attracted those who wanted to play games, as well as those who wanted to watch others play them.  You could see people crowd around cabinets watching other people play games for reasons not dissimilar to why you might watch a “Let’s Play” today.  You might watch someone play a game in an arcade for a couple different reasons.  They might be participating in an entertaining competition with others.  They might be playing the game particularly well.  Or, they might be progressing further into a game than you’re able to and you’d like to see those later portions of the game.

I imagine the reasons for hanging out and watching people play games in the arcade extend to watching others play games next to you on the couch, or through a video stream.  Playing games requires time, effort, and money, which most folks have a limited supply of.  Younger audiences have time, but little money to facilitate the hobby.  Adults obviously have other responsibilities which limit their time and energy.  But these aren’t reasons that stop people from wanting to be able to enjoy these games.  And in some cases, watching the game being played might be the preferred approach to consuming it.  For myself, that game is Skyrim.  It’s a game that’s open, but not terribly motivating to me.  I’d like to enjoy the game’s sights and sounds, but without investing the time into learning the ins and outs of the systems.  As a result, I’ve ended up watching my wife play through much of it.

Are these inferior experiences?  Well, there wouldn’t be a Skyrim experience for me if I didn’t tag along for someone else’s game.  Wouldn’t that represent a failure of the game, by refusing to interact with it?  Are you not just watching a poorly composed film?  Well no.  You’re not accepting that thr person playing the game is acting as the author of the experience. And you’re not accepting that the play-through you’re watching is the only way to experience the game.  What you’ve done is delegate authority to someone to interact on your behalf; to do the things that you can’t, or won’t do.  You’re still acknowledging the game’s systems, mechanics, and rules, while designating someone else to make the decisions you might want to choose.  While the game’s design allows you to manipulate an avatar to perform actions that you yourself could not perform, a Let’s Player is another layer of abstraction to the experience.  Firing a gun in reality is not as simple as in a game.  But firing a gun in a game might still be cumbersome for others, and delegating authority to perform that verb is still about performing the verb.  The difference between direct and indirect interaction is like touring a museum on your own, and having a guide provide a narrative to the experience.  The art itself is not inferior for requiring that some consume it with the help of a guide.

There’s still value in this approach.  A game can be appreciated for it’s composition, even without playing it.  We don’t have to accept one player’s actions while playing a game vicariously through them.  But at the same time, we understand the consequences of the interactions we do accept.  These are not possibilities in a game or movie.  There is not an alternative experience in a film by playing with its rules.  But furthermore, the concept of third-person gaming has an added benefit of providing means for a more inclusive gaming culture.  It provides another way to consume games which doesn’t require an up front investment to be able to appreciate them.  This might be a “well duh” moment for me, being someone who’s not really participated in the Let’s Play phenomenon, but I think there are interesting possibilities for discussion and analysis of games beyond direct interaction, a concept that’s been a lacking crutch for expressing the aesthetic potential for games.  Most recently, I’ve been able to enjoy another open world game that I’ve failed to invest in myself, Fallout New Vegas.  and I’ve enjoyed the audience-based interactions that drove the game forward.  Hopefully, with the rising popularity of platforms such as Hitbox and Twitch, we’ll dig into games more through the lens of third-person gaming.

1 Response to “Third-person gaming”

  1. 1 Jake Stewart
    October 13, 2014 at 2:43 am

    Streaming services help build communities inside of the gaming industry. A game stream feels like a chat room filled with people who all like the same thing as you for the moment. It strengthens the love for games in an individual because they become part of something bigger than a couch and tv.

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