The construction of a video gaming audience

A sign that video games are becoming central to understand our contemporary cultural forms is their increasing presence in the media. Not only have the specialised magazines on video games grown in numbers - particularly online, but also the traditional press already includes specific sections dedicated to video games. 

Magazines have historically played an important role in the formation of early gaming culture, as it was stated by Kirkpatrick (2012) in his Bourdieusian analysis of UK's video game magazines in the 1980s and 1990s: ‘Through the development of a discourse of game evaluation, gaming acquires independence and begins to define itself as a cultural practice’. When this discourse is broaden and inserted into the general-interest newspapers and media, the specific gaming culture starts to blur its boundaries and to affect larger portions of society, generating multitude of video game-related cultures and practices. Nevertheless, if there is a media on which video games have naturally proliferated, that should be, undoubtedly, the Internet.

YouTube, for instance, is packed with gaming channels. In fact, the YouTube channel that has more subscribers is a gaming related one, which is owned by the user PewDiePie, that is, the Swedish Youtuber personality Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg. Currently, his Let’s Play - and many other things to be honest - focused channel has more than 34 million subscribers.

Ramdurai states on Think with Google that among the top 100 YouTube channels worldwide are more than 20 that are gaming related. He shows more data that demonstrates video games are one of the most important audiovisual apparatuses nowadays: ‘YouTube data shows that six of the top ten most-viewed channels in the U.S. are about gaming’. Video games are a central aspect of today’s YouTube generation.

More relevant is the relatively recent creation of a specific broadcasting platform for video games on the Internet: Twitch. I already wrote about it on this post. It was launched on June 2011 and was purchased by Amazon in August 2014 for $970 million. According to Twitch, they have an average of 60 million visitors per month. Twitch basically consists in people watching other people playing video games. Someone creates a channel, starts playing a video game and broadcasts it live. Then, other people can join the channel and watch him or her playing, while they comment on a chat with other viewers (and the person who is playing, who might make references to those comments) and have the opportunity of following, subscribing (paying) or donating to the broadcaster. Moreover, in December 2014, the biggest digital distribution platform in the world, Steam, launched its own broadcasting service.

All of these examples are suggesting that a video game audience has been created. Not only is there an imagined community (Anderson, 2006) of potential gamers that can be represented as an audience of players in a broad sense, the ones who consume and receive a product, but there is also a very particular audience who explicitly seek to watch others play and know more about video games by becoming knowledgeable in that area. It is, indeed, the construction of a more traditional notion of audience, that is, ‘watching others perform’ (Crawford, 2012: 34).

This undermines, as if it was not already undermined enough, the idea that video games do not have an audience. When Eskelinen and Tronstad affirm that video games are audienceless is because they consider that video games ‘don’t need audiences as an integral part of their “communication” structure’ (2003: 196). This reluctance to admit the existence of video game audiences relies on a strict ergodic - the requirement of nontrivial efforts beyond mere interpretations (2003: 197) - approach to video games, which refuses to conceive them as media or to admit that video games can have some characteristics that have been traditionally associated with media such as television, cinema, music or literature. This approach is ignoring essential aspects of video games that are not ergodic or purely interactive (a problematic notion, why should not we consider interpretation as a kind of interactive action?), like ‘map screens, score or lap-time feedback screens and so on’ (Newman, 2002). Crawford expands this not just to cut-scenes and on-rail video game experiences, classic examples of players as simple spectators, but also to the ‘visual- and audio-scapes present in standard video game play’ (Crawford, 2012: 34). Players watch at least as much as, but probably more than, interact with the game. Even the act of watching could be considered a form of interactivity and, undoubtedly, watching is an indissociable part of playing a video game.
The idea of video games as audienceless has always been weak, but now, there are powerful reasons to affirm that there is a vast and massive audience of video gamers. It is also noteworthy to mention that this video game audience goes beyond the specific, yet large, group of video gamers. According to a Google Consumer Survey  (cited in Ramdurai) fielded in October 2014, only a 37% of a group of people who watched gaming videos on YouTube considered themselves gamers. Video game culture is reaching society as a whole. The fact that video games are starting to occupy a central position in the media, especially those that belong to the so called new information and communication technologies, is another argument to support the idea of the emergence and consolidation of video game culture.

[An extended version of this post in Spanish can be found here at Zenhgames]


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