Many have advocated to consider video games an art. But what makes it an art? The claims have usually been aesthetic, proving the existence of art through a style, a theme, or a point of view. Journey is art because it has no action; Bioshock is art because it mentions philosophy.
But what if art is less about content than about usage? What if video games aren’t art and never can be when the act of playing them removes them from the discussion? That’s the essential premise of Twitch Gaming, a profit model that claims that real life is the art while video games are the forum. The games are backdrops and discussion pieces like the décor in a sitting room. Invariably you come to talk and listen, not because of someone’s curtains, but because of the person.
So it is with Twitch Gaming that the YouTube review model takes the next step beyond the game to become a new social platform using something someone might have considered art as a talking point and a wallpaper backdrop. The GameGrumps took a kind of Statler and Waldorf approach to gameplay and whether out of a lack of critical prowess or an abundance of immediacy have mostly discounted the game in the playing of the game. To them, what’s on the screen is just material to riff from. And when it isn’t, such as in the overextended Pokémon playthroughs, the footage may be ignored entirely. Twitch Gaming takes this kind of thinking and creates an economy from it.
Twitch users can subscribe to streams for a fee and gain access to exclusive chat rooms. They can make donations to their favorite streams and interact with their living room idols in real time. Where art requires some kind of celebrity creator, some kind of artist, Twitch streams have punctuated something that has emerged uniquely from the information age: the apotheosis of normal people.
In other words, the aspects of Twitch gamers that are raised up and showered with gold are not typically their creative prowess, their education, or their insight. They are raised up for their relatable everydayness, their believable hotness, their average insights. Just as Facebook and the selfie economies of Tumblr and Twitter have driven real people into a spotlight of attractive normalcy, Twitch Gaming praises the credibly average to the point that the video games themselves are interchangeable on the platform with mukbangs and mascara tutorials.
But by becoming a culturally universal talking point, is the video game as a work of media being elevated or dismantled?
Video games right now are more social events than they’ve ever been, more communal forums than individualized adventures. Addictive daily material is available for Twitch subscribers who want to unwind after work with their favorite living room DJs, material more similar to television soap operas and radio serials than video games. The talking has become the main event, the elevation of the gamer above his/ her art. Games today even support the phenomenon, if unconsciously, with mechanisms like the loot box providing easy stream material. Loot boxes are meaningless in their games, but the act of opening them and watching someone do so has become an industry, a monetization of real life.
And perhaps the video game threatened to lose something in this transition to an esport, and this more than anything is why the indie market has been drowning itself in pixelated nostalgia. With games like Overwatch, League of Legends, and Dota topping Twitch and reforming the public face of the gaming industry, a divide has opened between those fighting to retain the traditional experience and those open to spraying the art across the social sphere and creating something new.
Their efforts – those of developers like Supergiant Games and Devolver Digital – have filled the other side of the divide, whereas in the early 2000s there was essentially only the AAA. Their efforts make the industry two-faced, both constantly in transition and fighting change. Twitch Gaming may be a reacquisition of gaming material into a non-art, but as General Hospital couldn’t stop the creation of Breaking Bad, the Starcraft streams couldn’t stop Bastion.
The new communalization of video gaming could not occur in another medium – you would not watch someone watch television. Since it’s inseparable from the gamer as a gamer, Twitch Gaming is another view on the same experience, a kind of optical refixation that is worthy of study but is neither wholly beneficial or destructive. A CT scan of a Twitch viewer’s brain would probably be similar to one during which they’re talking to friends on the phone.
The psychology of having friends you’ve never met and whom you have to tip like club dancers mid-act may not be beneficial to the mentality of the future. But the platform has turned video gaming into a discourse, one that has created a view of players as a kind of new theatric of the act of play. The idea of this Truman Show-esque voyeurism that has peaked within the last year with the rise of Twitter IRL is a fascinating evolution of interactive media. It implies that the desire to watch people do normal things is an extension of the gamer’s desire to play a game.
In other words, Twitch is implying that a love of video games is not driven, as has been suspected, by a desire to control one’s life and universe. It is proving the opposite: that a video game is built on the desire to surrender to someone else’s parameters, to act within perfectly safe limitations and be free of the responsibility of success. Twitch Gaming would be an ideal extension of this belief as it reattributes the responsibility entirely to someone you trust, giving gamers the freedom of powerlessness they may crave even more than entitlement. I’m curious to see how far Twitch IRL goes beyond the game, but even more to see what happens to games beyond the gamer, at the end (or beginning) of this industry of performance art.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org