Nathan J Jackson | The future of social gaming
The list of the one hundred top-earning Twitch streamers included no more than three solo women streamers. Only one of whom was a woman of colour.
In the first few months of 2022, Twitch viewers watched a total of 6.13 billion hours of livestreamed content and fans are showing no sign of slowing down. Over the last decade, video game streaming has become big business. This success is due in part to the fact that streaming sites have become about so much more than just playing video games. They provide a sense of community, a social and cultural hub for people to come together and share their stories. But these platforms are also subject to the commercial whims of the corporations that own them. What do the video game services of the future look like? How do they profit from users without compromising relationships with them? And how can we make sure social justice and equity are keystones of this conversation?
Ann Mossop: In a world of global pandemics, climate emergencies, and ever-increasing costs of living, it's understandable that we might feel fearful about what the future holds. But as we make our way through the 21st century, there are, in fact, many new and exciting discoveries which can improve our lives. I'm Ann Mossop, director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. Welcome to What comes next? From the potential healing powers of magic mushrooms in mental health, to how x-ray vision might help us transition to a renewable economy. In this 10-part series, we'll hear from UNSW Sydney’s brightest minds, unpacking some of the big ideas, which are integral to our 21st century challenges.
In the first few months of 2022, Twitch viewers watched a total of 6.13 billion hours of live streamed content, and fans are showing no signs of slowing down. With such massive consumption of live streamed video game content. Where is this industry heading? Nathan Jackson asks, what does the future of gaming look like?
Nathan Jackson: From visiting arcades, to passing controllers between friends and family members on the couch at home, playing video games, and watching video game play have always been social activities. Today, the social aspects of video game play look a little different. Today, I can pull out any device and watch someone else play my favourite game. But more than that, I can talk to them. And I can talk to anyone else watching, through a live text chat. I can browse until I find my favourite players and viewers, people who share my tastes in games, my sense of humour, and who are there when I want to join. This is the world of video game live streaming, and bizarre as it might sound, it is a popular world. Twitch is a live streaming platform, meaning that it is a home for this social play. Twitch was purchased by Amazon in 2014 for 970 million US dollars. In 2018. The year before I started my PhD, Twitch saw an average of over 1 million concurrent viewers. In 2021, just last year, that average had increased to 2.78 million. In the first quarter of this year, streamers produced a total of 229 million hours of live content. In other words, it would take one person over 26,000 years to sit down and watch everything that was streamed on twitch in the first three months of this year. As a researcher, I'm interested in Twitch streamers and viewers as individuals and how they interact. I'm interested in the culture of live streaming the values that Twitch users have, and how those values are collectively expressed.
I have spent over 1000 hours in hundreds of streams across dozens of channels, researching streamer and spectator behaviours, developing an understanding of the culture of live streaming. That culture is part of an ecosystem that operates with and within the stream platform. And to begin with, I'm going to tell you how we can see what's happening next, by looking at what users are doing now. Platforms, or more specifically, the designers, developers and corporations behind those platforms, care about what their users do. They don't necessarily care about their users, but they care about what their users do. Because platforms use this information to evolve in ways that keep those users using. So imagine for a moment that you were watching me stream, and that as you watched you were earning some valuable points. Let's call them cat bucks. Now you can exchange these cat bucks for access to some of my Emotes for use in chat, or to make me do a handstand. You could also wager your points, for example, to bet whether I'll win the next match, or beat the next boss in the game that I'm playing. Sounds like a pretty great feature, right? It's a reward for your time. It tells you that your time has value and allows you to decide how you're going to spend that time. Well I'm happy to report that this feature exists on Twitch and goes by the name channel points.
This idea, like many of Twitch's platform features, didn't begin over at Twitch HQ. This idea began with users. Before channel points, many streamers used third party chat applications and chatbots to allow viewers to accumulate currency or points while they were viewing or interacting with the stream. These systems varied but included elements like leaderboards, levelling systems, triggering audio visual effects on the mainstream screen. Some more involved versions also added the ability to play many games with other viewers or even included an overarching story. They turned stream participation into a game. Twitch introduced channel points in 2019. And as they were refined and improved over the following year, it was clear that they were heavily inspired by these pre-existing third party alternatives. The big difference is that viewers were now being rewarded for spending time in any stream, they were being encouraged to regularly return to, or to stay on, the Twitch platform. Another benefit of this new system, channel points are consistent. Even if the specifics change from stream to stream, viewers know what they are, how they function, and that they're getting them wherever they go. This consistency comes at the cost of flexibility, and uniqueness. To this day, channel points still can't do many of the things that streamers old informal point systems could. In fact, nearly three years after their introduction, the frequently asked questions regarding channel points on Twitch’s own platform, of the form ‘can I do this particular thing that I used to be able to do with my old system?’, still have the simple answer of ‘no’ or ‘not now’.
On top of this, there's a default list of redemptions that many streamers draw upon creating a relatively universal standard. This example of an interaction between use and design is not isolated. These dynamics shape the ways that platforms evolve, enabling us to anticipate the future by engaging with present use. If we went back and pause time during the era of third party currencies and point systems, as informal user practices, we could see the essence of cat bucks as formal platform features. We could see the present from the past.
So what if we pause time now? What future could we see? I stand here straight, white, cisgendered, a little overweight and significantly short sighted, but otherwise able bodied, relatively young, and male. I stand here as the person that many of you might expect to talk about video games and game culture. If we pause time today and look to the future, we could see that expectation starting to unravel. On Twitch, the so-called default identity that I just described, is dominant. In October of 2021, Twitch was subjected to a data breach that made public, among other things, the earnings of its top streamers. The list of twitches 100 top earning streamers has included three solo women streamers, only one of whom was a woman of colour. As a representation of diversity, just a year ago, the picture painted by this list is bleak. Just five years ago, however, things looked worse. Since 2018, Twitch has celebrated diversity of its creators and viewers with month-long programs for Black History Month every February, Women's History Month every March and Pride Month every June. This list has since grown with the addition of Hispanic Heritage Month in September from 2019 and Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May since 2021. Now, I'm not here to say that this is good enough that this progress is happening quickly enough, or that it's enough to dedicate one month out of the year to celebrate groups that are regularly subjected to harassment and marginalisation on Twitch, because that is not true. But there is progress. There is movement reflecting an ideological shift. A recognition that playing video games, that socialising around video gameplay is not just for ‘some people’. And that recognition comes in part from increasing the visibility of the diverse range of content creators out there. Twitch is once again following its users by emphasising the diversity of content creators who are on the platform. Myths that gaming and streaming are only for some people are dispelled by making existing diversity visible, which further encourages more diverse participation. There is certainly work to be done however, as platforming diversity does not stop identity-based harassment, marginalisation and toxicity. As representation increases, the power of those attempting to gatekeep game culture and gaming as a social and leisurely activity is undermined. The expectation that people like me are the only people who talk about, and are interested in video games, begins to unravel.
So Twitch hasn't only changed its features in response to users, but also the values that it communicates and the way that it directs its user’s attentions. It is demonstrating a consciousness of social change among its user base and beyond, and it needs to continue to evolve to stop people from disengaging. As players of diverse genders, races, sexualities and abilities grow in number, and as support for that diversity increases, the platform cannot be seen to be falling behind. If we look past what people are doing on Twitch to who they are, and the values driving their behaviours, we can see the next stages in platform development.
Make no mistake, my reflex as a user is to distrust platforms like Twitch and huge corporations like Amazon. A healthy dose of scepticism is warranted when we think about the reasons why platforms change. But there are also good reasons to be optimistic, as well as being a significant source of income for Amazon, Twitch is a social and cultural hub. Twitch enables streamers' livelihoods, and despite, or perhaps more accurately, because of, its economic motivations, who its users are, and what they do, matters. How they interact with each other within the confines of the platform, matters. Platforms and technology provide invitations to use them in particular ways. But they're also sensitive to how they're used. Platforms like Twitch need to care about users and their behaviours for the platform's own survival. And it is precisely for this reason that I hope, that I truly believe, that the future of social gaming and beyond will be more inclusive, more diverse, and more welcoming. But to get there, to see what happens next, and to make it so, we all have to pay attention to what's happening around us today.
Ann Mossop: Nathan, thanks very much for coming to talk to us.
Nathan Jackson: Pleasure to be here.
Ann Mossop: How did you become interested in researching Twitch? Were you somebody who played games? Were you somebody who was on Twitch? What was it about it that made it seem like it would be an interesting academic project?
Nathan Jackson: Well, it kind of goes back to my history with watching games. I went through school watching YouTube ‘Let’s Players’ playing video games. And that helped me through a lot of my study, then. And I then moved into my honours year in theatre and performance. And I had these conversations with my supervisor about ways to get my sort of academic and personal interests together into a project. And we kind of came to video games as a place to do that. And it was just this kind of bit-by-bit process of, okay, let's look at what happens when I play games. That's not right. Let's look at you know, there was a little while there where we were talking about Pokémon Go, because it was such a big thing in that year, and then we landed on this watching people play games, and it really has that strong performance element. I had that history with it, and, and it goes from there.
Ann Mossop: What is the appeal about watching people play games? When you started doing that, what was it that you wanted to get out of it?
Nathan Jackson: I mean, it was entertaining, because I was familiar with the games, in some cases, or, you know, over time you develop a familiarity with the personality, which is really where my research is, right? The personality playing the game and who they are. And when you move from pre-recorded YouTube stuff over to live Twitch stuff, what you're really seeing is this interaction with those people. So suddenly, when I was in school, and I was just watching people post pre-recorded videos, and then moved over to Twitch, I was actually able to have interactions with the people who I'd, sort of, felt like I've gotten to get to know, were people in those similar roles.
Ann Mossop: So it's really a version for today of many other kinds of cultural phenomena. But with this unique element now, that it's both participation and being a spectator at the same time.
Nathan Jackson: Yeah, yeah, I mean, there's so much in it. There's really like, I do think the social element is really strong. I think that it's a strong motivator, like, research, mine and others, has shown that it's a really strong motivator for getting people coming and watching. That kind of sense of connection with others is really strong. And maybe even in some cases stronger than the game content itself, right? That's kind of a facilitator, it's there, but the rest is happening around it and through it.
Ann Mossop: So, you know, we can all understand the appeal of playing video games. But for some people, the question is, why would you want to watch other people doing it? And I'm just wondering whether you have a sense of what the relationship is like, between the amount of time people play and the amount of time people watch other people playing.
Nathan Jackson: There is research out there that kind of quantifies this. I can't recall the numbers off the top of my head, unfortunately. But there's also research that says that there's no correlation that's found. That there's no real strong correlation between time spent spectating and time spent playing games. There is research that examines people who only watch and don't play, right? There's certainly, there is an appeal for some players in watching people play. One of the great things for me personally, is that, you know, I'm so busy doing PhD things and working and things like that, that I don't have as much time to play as I might otherwise like to. So it's kind of a way of getting my dose of gaming on some days. But there are lots of people who just do it for the social side, lots of people who share their gameplay with others on Twitch. So what they're kind of doing, you know, when they're not watching some people play while they're watching, they'll be doing, they’ll be grinding through a part of a game that doesn't require a lot of attention, while they've got a stream on in the background. And so there are lots of different ways to engage that are both sort of independent of gameplay as a hobby, and related to it.
Ann Mossop: One of the most interesting things in your research is that you've made, effectively, an ethnographic study of Twitch. And to do that you had to watch a huge amount. Tell us what did you do, tell us what your life was like, while you're doing this research? Does it look like research to other people?
Nathan Jackson: No. 100% no. So my first year, you know, pre-pandemic, it was in a shared office space. And every day people would come in, they'd look at my screen, the big gameplay videos up. And of course, that was my research, but it didn't really look like it. And you know, there was a really intense period of data collection, where every day, every hour of every day, there was someone who I was interested in observing or interacting with as part of the project. And it was kind of intense, in a way, that's sort of intense watching, like saying that over 1000 hours is absolutely not an exaggeration. It was so, so much time, like it wasn't all active time. It wasn't all me sitting there, and I'm chatting, or I'm actually watching sometimes just on in the background while it's doing other stuff. And that's kind of the way a lot of people use the platform, genuinely anyway. But yeah, it absolutely did not look like your typical sort of picture of what research is.
Ann Mossop: You know, one of the most extraordinary things in your talk is the sheer scale of this phenomenon, you know, the amount of time, that this is an incredibly important cultural phenomenon? Do we have a sense of how people are using it, and what proportion of people are really intensely engaged, when they're watching a stream? What proportion have got it on, you know, in the background as they're doing something else, potentially?
Nathan Jackson: I think that's a really difficult thing to put a number to. And one of the biggest challenges with that, is, it's not just one mode of participation that people engage in, I think a really, really common practice is to kind of switch in and out of that active engagement. I mean, it's something that I mentioned doing myself, and it's something that lots of people who I've observed do as well. And the reason I know that is because they announce it, right? They'll say, ‘oh, I'm just gonna lurk for a while’, and then they'll disappear. So there's kind of this acknowledgement of passive engagement and active engagement and moving between the two, back and forth.
Ann Mossop: Can you tell us what you've observed about the kinds of relationships that people have with gamers that they observe? This is part of a big picture, where we're seeing this happen in all kinds of platforms and all kinds of media, which is, whether it's influencers on Instagram, or whatever it is, is that audiences, spectators, feel that they have a relationship with that person of some kind on the basis of this kind of engagement or shared communication. How does it work on Twitch? Do you feel that there are genuine relationships, genuine engagement? And how much of that back and forth is really there?
Nathan Jackson: Yeah, that's a good question. And there are a couple things I'd like to say to it. Firstly, it depends, right? Like, as with anything, you know, we have a variety of social relationships in our real, in inverted commas, lives. And in the same way, there's a variety of social relationships that exist on the platform. And these things come down to the streamers approach, the spectators' approach, to what's going on. But also, volume in the sense of the number of spectators, right? If there are 150 people in a stream, I'm gonna have a better chance of having my kind of voice heard as a spectator, then if there are 10,000. And maybe if there are 10,000, I might get my message read or something like that. And they'll have those little happy feelings for a second, and then things will move on. But if I'm returning to this channel with, you know, 150 spectators and having regular interactions with the other spectators and with the streamer, then, of course, I'm going to be recognised there, right? There's going to be a more genuine social relationship that happens there. And I guess the other point is, to that, maybe, I mean, in terms of an anecdote, while I was conducting this research, I had a period of about six months where I was streaming myself for a while, and someone else who was a spectator in one of the streams that I was observing, as part of my research started streaming at about the same time. And this became a really nice kind of bonding for us, where we kind of, you know, I was able to see this new streamer, grow and have some really good conversations with them. In fact, this streamer lives in Australia and visited Sydney and we had dinner together on that trip. So there is a genuine sort of social element to these things. And that's not an unusual occurrence, I think. There's always, of course, that boundary in some cases where maybe there is a really popular streamer who has meetups and things whether there is a stronger sense of social… but it still feels, maybe a little less genuinely social. Like, it's a spectrum, really. Yeah.
Ann Mossop: And so, when you're chatting with people while you're doing that, what are the protocols for the fact that this is research? This is not just Nathan interacting with people on Twitch?
Nathan Jackson: Yeah, a very comprehensive ethics application answers that question. But it was very much about developing a process that works for me, as well. So you know, ethnographic research has underlying principles that drive it. Things that really acknowledge your subjectivity, your space as a genuine participant, but also your kind of distance from your research subjects as well. So it's this kind of insider outsider hat that you have to don at all times. You have to sort of realise, yes, I'm here, as a genuine participant looking at what's going on, and I want to follow my interests in that regard. But I also need to remember that I'm there to observe as a researcher. So it's really hard, at times, to separate that, and that actually ends up becoming a really important part of the research output. So when I'm analysing what I've observed, looking at, okay, well, what does the researcher part of me say? And what does the genuine participant part of me say? And what's driving both of those things? Like, if there's a difference there, how can I account for that difference in my analysis? And what have I observed in other people that aligns with maybe the genuine user? Is that just a me thing, or is that a, is that an everyone thing? Or is that a more generalisable thing?
Ann Mossop: And so in terms of answering some of those questions, is there a community of people doing research on gaming, gamers and the platform Twitch?
Nathan Jackson: Yes, yes. When I started my PhD, or when I did my honours year, in fact, and I did my honours project on Twitch, there was very little out there. This was 2017. Very little research out there. A couple of, sort of, conference papers, but since then, dozens of research articles, conference presentations, PhD, theses, master's theses, so many people are out there looking at this, from different perspectives. Some of them are ethnographic like myself. Some of them are performing more sort of strongly quantitative analyses. But yeah, there's lots and lots of people out there doing that.
Ann Mossop: Where do you see it going? Do you think it's something that's just going from strength to strength? Is it something that we're going to look back on in a few years and think, Ah, that was the crazy Twitch bubble? What was that about?
Nathan Jackson: Oof. That's tough. Like, I guess, the point of my talk is to look at what's happening now. And we can maybe get a sense of what's going to happen in the future.
Ann Mossop: I'm asking you to be very unacademic. I'm asking you to speculate wildly with a cavalier disregard for what is actually certain or definite.
Nathan Jackson: Oh, wonderful, wonderful. Look, it could go one of two ways. And this is probably not the most satisfying answer to your question. But I see this, in the way people talk about Twitch, you know, Twitch users, in particular, how they respond to the decisions that Twitch makes, that sometimes are really in line with what's going on. So that you know, the talk about channel points, the idea there is really in line with use. But there are so many decisions that they make as well, that are just completely out of line with what users want. And so there's this constant balance going on. And at any given moment, it might feel you know, if they continue down this direction, the whole thing is going to tumble apart. Whereas, if it sort of acts like a pendulum swing, and it comes back and they course correct, and start making decisions that are more invested in their, in their users, and that sustained use, then of course, it can persist indefinitely. I mean, look at YouTube, it has its ebbs and flows, but ultimately, it shares with Twitch, that it's the biggest online space for a particular kind of thing, right? Now, I'm obviously talking about, in particular, parts of the world, where other parts of the world have more prominent streaming platforms. But, you know, Twitch holds a huge portion of the market share. It's not even remotely challenged. In fact, I think just today or yesterday, Facebook gaming removed their app. So, you know, that's one of the major competitors, gone. And similarly, Mixer a few years ago, Microsoft streaming platform, gone, a few years ago, completely disappeared. So in order to disappear, Twitch needs a competitor, someone else in the market who can sustain a user base. And so far, that hasn't happened.
Ann Mossop: And particularly in the context where Twitch starts, you know, like these companies start off small, gets much bigger, gets bought by an even bigger kind of entity, the whole thing about how the original energy of founders or people who are passionate about what the role of the platform was, how that gets modified over time. What's the story with Twitch? Are the people who were originally in charge still there? Have they all gone off elsewhere? Or is it perceived by its users as now part of this giant, faceless corporation? Or does it have a sense for its users of, you know, a platform with personality and people behind it?
Nathan Jackson: I don't actually know what the original founders of Twitch are doing at the moment. So I can't really answer that. But I can say that I do see regular scepticism around Amazon and Twitch’s, sort of, corporate decisions. I mean, at the end of the day, this is a way for a company to make money, right? This and it makes money off the backs of users and this entertainment system. So you know, earlier on, I was talking about this idea of developing a personality that people engage with. And of course, there's an economic lens that needs to be sort of drawn, when we're thinking about that as well, people pay these personalities to continue doing what they're doing. It's a full time job for many people. And so of course, whenever there's money involved, there's scepticism, right? There's always this motivation, and sometimes that's kind of launched in the direction of the streamers depending on what the streamers are doing. Sometimes that's launched in the direction of the platform. But I do think that there's a really strong awareness of that economic angle from an average user.
Ann Mossop: And is there conversation in either research circles or user circles about all of the issues that people are talking about now in relation to surveillance culture? This idea that all of these environments, these platforms, where we spend our time, are really about monetizing our attention, taking our data, selling it to other people? Is there that kind of conversation and scepticism from some around Twitch? Or is it still that kind of enthusiastic user community?
Nathan Jackson: As far as research goes, I think that researchers are aware of this, and some are speaking about it. I haven't seen a lot in that regard. And similarly, with users. Again, there's kind of this tacit awareness that you're being surveilled, wherever you go. And whatever you do online, sometimes that plays out in the conversations that people have. Certainly, I kind of think that idea is more prominent in something like Facebook than on Twitch.
Ann Mossop: So this is a really interesting piece of research. What happens next for you? What's next on your slate?
Nathan Jackson: Well, finishing the thesis is the big thing. So getting all of this research down in writing, getting it out there, potentially getting a book out of it. Who knows? You know, if there are any publishers listening do feel free to reach out. But I think the next step, I have a few thoughts about what the next thing that I might like to look at, in terms of Twitch are and for me, really, it does continue in that vein of practices, and what people are doing and behaviours. So obviously, ethnographic research focuses on, really, the mundane, right? It's kind of big picture thinking, but also really focusing on moment-to-moment behaviour.
Ann Mossop: So, the nitty gritty of what people are actually doing.
Nathan Jackson: Yeah, that's where that's where I'm at. And of course, I'm still following that interest in performance, like what are we really performing as spectators as streamers? And what comes out of that, what kinds of identities emerge? And I'm really like, that's the work of my thesis in some ways, but I think it can be pushed a lot further. And I'm definitely interested in following some of the parts that were opened up through this research in a closer way.
Ann Mossop: Well, good luck. Good luck with locking down that thesis. And thanks so much for coming to talk to us.
Nathan Jackson: Thank you so much.
Ann Mossop: What comes next? is produced by the UNSW Center for Ideas. With music composition by Lana Zacharia and editing by Bryce Halladay. For more information, visit centreideas.com, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Nathan J Jackson
Nathan J Jackson is a PhD candidate in the School of the Arts and Media, Faculty of Arts, Design & Architecture at UNSW Sydney. His ethnographic study of the platform Twitch combines performance, media, and games lenses to examine the construction and performance of persona in video game livestreaming. He is interested in the ways that streamers and spectators perform for and with each other, and the emergent social, cultural, and political value systems that accompany these performances. He has been published in Persona Studies and Convergence journals, with a forthcoming contribution in the first edited collection on livestreaming culture.