I spend a lot of my time in games. I work in games, I play in games. Sometimes I dream in games. When the energy it would require to actually play feels like too much, I’ll watch someone else play. It’s comforting.
There’s nothing like that with other media: We might get posters of a film to remind us of seeing it, we might post quotations from a book we love, but we don’t take pleasure in observing someone else watch or read. We may be glad that they’re sharing in this thing that we love, and we may value their reactions, but the actual activity of them partaking just isn’t that interesting.
Games provide many things, though, and one of the chief among these is that they create a virtual space to exist in. Even aside from the gameplay content itself, we become accustomed to these spaces, comfortable within them, and we sometimes miss them when we leave. Of course, we can always return, but when we do demands are placed upon us. We must rescue the princess, we must slay the evil king, we must massacre the local wildlife population, whatever. Sometimes we’re just not in the mood. Sometimes we just came for the architecture, the musical accompaniment, the friendly faces. Sometimes we would rather hang out with the hero than be the hero. It’s a lot of pressure, really, heroing.
I watch games even more than I play them these days. I feel the pressures of my own ambitions so acutely that adding play-acted ambitions on top of them sometimes feels like too much for me to handle. The expectations of an unfamiliar world with unfamiliar people, overlaid on top of my own familiar expectations of myself, are overwhelming.
Sometimes you want to be able to be in the kitchen without having to cook. Sometimes you want to be in the field without playing ball. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to spend time in the worlds of these games without having to save them.
This is a bit strange to think about, though, from the perspective of a game’s designer. Of course it’s worthwhile to try to make a game an interesting and engaging aesthetic and narrative space to occupy, but is there a way to continue to provide that passively? Is there any reason to do so, when that effect can also be achieved by watching friends and strangers play through the game? Is it okay that this huge slab of the enjoyment people glean from a game isn’t actually sold with the game and is instead experienced through a secondary source online?
There’s an idea here, waiting. A nascent form of it exists in DOTA2’s tools for viewing replays and live gameplay with commentary, but this is still a comparatively active form of game consumption since it encourages live analysis of gameplay. There are many more ways in which games could enable their audience to consume them passively as well as actively, ways which aren’t being explored at all at the moment… by game developers, that is. The exploration is being done by streaming services, such as twitch.tv, by hardware manufacturers, who seek to integrate these services, and the end-users of both.
Well – should game developers be exploring this? After all, designing a game not to be played goes against what most developers understand a game to be. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other. We can play when we wish to engage, and watch when we wish to observe. All I know is that I see one increasingly popular way in which people use games, and one which the developers of those games are almost completely cut off from, conceptually, financially, and creatively.
There is an opportunity here for someone.