Can watching video games be a social exercise?

Why are so many people attracted to online games or exchanges?

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Gaming is quickly surpassing yesteryear’s entertainment giants, such as film and television. According to Elan Lee, former chief design officer for Xbox Entertainment Studios, “There are more cumulative hours spent playing games than there are in any other form of entertainment.”

Gaming is no doubt a booming industry. In 2014, the global games market was estimated to have generated $81.4 billion. Canada is the third largest game producer worldwide after Japan and the United States. Rough estimates indicate that the global market could exceed $100 billion by 2017.

What’s the draw? Lee says that it’s the agency of the medium.

“It taps into something that is much larger than anything that has come before it. The reason is I believe because you are in control, you the player,” he says.

Yet not only are people cumulatively spending more hours playing games, increasingly there are more people watching games as their primary form of entertainment. The board appeal of gaming is larger than what may have once been considered the isolating experience of playing alone.

Streaming services such as Twitch generate audiences of 100 million unique viewers per month, with up to 1 million concurrent viewers per day. In September 2015, Amazon acquired the live streaming video platform for $970 million. Just this month, YouTube announced the launch of its own platform, YouTube Gaming.

These numbers are indicative of a rising trend. In 2013, Twitch boasted 45 million unique viewers per month, which had more than doubled their previous year’s average of 20 million. This trend continued in 2014, more than doubling up to 100 million. If this rise in scale continues, what will 2015 hold? Or 2020?

What is this draw to play together online – or in fact, watch someone who might otherwise be considered a complete stranger play?

danah boyd is a social media scholar and principle researcher at Microsoft Research. She says, “There’s an assumption that technology has transformed [our] lives tremendously, but in fact technology’s filled in gaps that were created by other social factors. For example, today’s young people have less freedom to roam than any previous generation.”

Watching a stream online – or broadcasting yourself play – replicates the experience of sitting around in a friend’s living room. It’s a highly social experience, tapping into the nostalgia perhaps of that first all-nighter playing Tetris with a neighbourhood kid in your parent’s wood-panelled rec room.

While we may no longer be able to simply run across the street and sit on a friend’s shag rug drinking SunnyD, that social component of gaming is still highly desirable. Video games have always been a social exercise, from the classic arcade to Super Nintendo. Rarely as children did my brother and I ever play video games alone – whether it was a two-player game or simply watching the other one play.

In that way, the experience of watching a video game online is simply a digital extension of what we’ve always done. Playing with others is the crux of our experience – online or AFK.