Does the Audience Play?

Back in June 2019, Some Guy on Twitter, going by the name Rob Wesley, shared screenshots from this article on Rolling Stone, about how Rob Thomas and Carlos Santana came together to make the song Smooth. What Wesley shared in the thread is a section where the narration outlines the way that Rob Thomas was playing Silent Hill and how that was important to Santana’s relationship with him – that their friendship during the songwriting of the song Smooth was marked by long stretches of Rob Thomas playing Silent Hill games while Santana got stoned and told him what to do.

This led to an interesting conversation. The question, as I posited it to my partner, is this: Was Carlos Santana playing a videogame?

Now there’s a way to discard this argument pretty conveniently; you can say ‘no,’ and that’s that. That’s fine, if you want to be boring about it, but it matters when you want to generalise things. Because what Carlos Santana was doing was passing instructions to another player, while compromised, and that player – ostensibly enacted their will.

Let’s build this out, though.

If we assume that you need direct control over a game, then a lot of chess games in history were played by nobody. Fancy lads with fancy hats would send one another letters with chess moves in them, and then the recipient would put those moves in action on their chessboard and send a letter with their own moves in it, in response to the state they were both maintaining. Now in no case did either of these players have direct hand on the chess pieces on theo ther board, meaning that if directing a player to enact your intention doesn’t count, then these people were playing against literally nobody, and therefore, not playing chess, and therefore, probably didn’t exist.

This also runs into the problem of Dungeon Masters or Gamemasters or whatever – after all, in all those games, you have to give your game actions to another player, and then they enact your intentions. This capacity of confusing intention and outcome is a thing I refer to as entanglement, where you become enmeshed in the behaviour of the game. One of those things that games just do is that when you partake in playing in the game, you are committing actions whose outcome is uncertain; not impossible or unknowable, but just that when a game becomes inevitable, it loses something, and players tangibly react to the nature of a game being decided.

That means there is some clear element of game playing that is the way that the control mechanism, while maybe feeling good, is not necessarily capable of delivering perfect outcomes. You don’t need your control scheme to be reliable for you to to be playing the game.

With that accepted, then, what about people watching a stream?

Stream audiences clearly try to have impact on the game they’re watch. If nothing else, in popular channels, it’s not uncommon for them to cheer, to try and remember or suggest strategies, to try and ask the streamer to take a more explicit or clear route through their thinking process. They will try and influence the conversation happening around the game, where they will invite the streamer to speak on a topic, and that has an impact on how the game is played. There is a stimulus, a response, an uncertain outcome, and a control scheme. They are engaged with the stream, and the streamer is affected by that engagement.

But is the player of a stream unaffected?

What about streams where the players are isolated? What about streams without chat, or without the audience necessarily speaking to the streamer? Are they going to have an impact on the game, as it is played? Are they playing the game through their presence? Is their observation an engagement with the game of the stream? Streamers will often explain that the presence of an audience transforms the experience of playing a game – that when you have to be aware of an audience, it changes one’s focuses and reactions. Even if that audience is elsewhere, even if that audience does not interact with the streamer through conventional interface, is the fact of being observed a thing that can be done as the engagement surface of a game?

Now, I’ve got a position I consider pretty radically inclusive for the definitions of games and play. That is, I take the position of Bernard Suits’ The Grasshopper, where he defines games as the voluntary overcoming of unnecessary obstacles – and by that definition, there are definitely some things to squint at. After all, is that which is coerced under capitalism ever truly voluntary, and therefore, can professional soccer no longer be considered a game?

But then, if you accept this vision of game experiences as maximally inclusive, you do have to sit at these odd zones and ask the question: Well, are the audiences playing a game? And if you’re trying to be maximally inclusive, and you want to include the idea that engaging with the game, trying things, hoping, cheering, hypothesising strategies and seeing how your strategies relate to the enacted ones, then you are playing a game, it’s just a game with a component related to another game. A lottery is a game, and that’s a game where you’re trying to correctly guess a number with exactly one attempt, and the result of that is a stunningly engaging game if the incentives are lined up right.

In the end, I want to suggest that the audience are playing a game when they map out expectations, when they cheer, when they connect with one another. They are playing a game just as Carlos Santana was playing a game when he, stoned as hell, gave instructions to Rob Thomas; he wasn’t necessarily playing the same game as Rob Thomas.

The story about Rob Thomas and Santana is completely false, by the way. I was today years old when I learned this. If you click the first link and look for the quote in context, you’ll find there’s no reference to Silent Hill at all in the orginal article.

It doesn’t matter if it’s false, it’s just a funny example.