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The Emergent Rules of Games Spectatorship

The next speaker at this AoIR 2013 panel is T.L. Taylor, focussing here on spectatorship in gaming. The mix of playing and watching has always been central to gaming as a social activity, but game studies has always privileged the hands on the controller; spectatorship has traditionally also relied on physical co-presence (e.g. at gaming championships).

But now there are sites like Twitch, which enable gamers to make their private play public as a livestream, and even to make money in doing so, as a spinoff from The site currently has some 600 unique broadcasters per month, with some 45 million viewers per month and around 1.5 hours of play watched per day (hope I have those stats right). On Twitch, viewers can choose by game title, player, or channel, and players can trigger occasional commercial breaks in order to generate revenue.

Broadcasters on the site are transferring their private game into public entertainment, while making some money from doing so; this is a strange twist on the existing idea of networked play. Whole new layers of interaction with audiences are being created in the process, as gamers also create further off-game connections through accompanying Websites and social media feeds, and set up meta-channels which discuss and commentate on the game livestreams. In the process, other existing media production models are also being reshaped.

All of this is in flux and emergent, of course. What results is a regulation assemblage, combining a variety of aspects in a free-for-all but with a complex set of regulations shaping the practices. The overall model appears to be "noncommercial, but...": similar to YouTube, most content is noncommercial, but some commercial activities take place. In addition, rules regarding content ratings, hate speech and other aspects are also being developed on the fly - especially also as soon as commercial partnership and advertising arrangements are being set up. Gaming channel views is also being discouraged.

What is the legal standing of all of the content being produced here? At the moment, this remains unclear and the legal status is precarious. The use of copyrighted background music is problematic, for example - and the stakes get higher as people seek to develop professional identities through their activities. The use of the copyrighted images from within the games themselves is itself also problematic, of course - but the claims to ownership of any such content by the games developers also still need to be fully tested in the courts.

Those regulations are now often also enforced algorithmically, through automated content detection tools which sometimes misrecognise content as infringing when it is not. The streamers themselves often address this by building a strong audience first, which would lead to substantial community backlash if the games developers try to shut them down. Their counter-argument is built on the idea of "fair use" by fans in noncommercial contexts; but the practices and platforms for what they do are often inextricably built on commercial models.