No Thanks, I'll Just Watch: Why We're Content to Play the Spectator

One of the people who deserves credit for my interest in computer games is my uncle Darrell who I visited in Texas every couple of years as a kid. He'd whip out (kid)inappropriate games like Unreal Tournament which was a big relief from Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing (thanks dad). But one thing I regret is that I didn't get to spend much time with my cousins. Take Ginger, for instance. Turns out we actually share some common geek interests:

When she's not curled up with her poodle, she's probably chipping away at her PhD...or watching a few friends battle it out on the PS2. WHOOPS did I say "watch"? I did! Funny, it turns out this is something we actually really love to do...

Consider this Major League Gaming headline (and check out the article):

When you look at the facts, there's no doubt that the eSports audience is huge--so huge that the live game streaming site TwitchTV is reportedly worth around 1 billion dollars. Bloggers have spouted a ton of theories about why: we want to learn top player's secrets, we love to watch just about anything that's pro, we want the interactive thrill of watching online...

...But why do so many of us also love watching average Janes+Joes play video games? Why would I want to sit for hours and watch my brother play Tony Hawk Pro with his friends? Why would he be glued to my game of Portal? And why the hell do people assume that girls would rather watch cause they "can't play"? 


Some of my best memories are of hours spent sitting, pajama clad, with a bowl of pop-corn at hand, night after night watching some extremely sophisticated and intricate narratives unfold through the touch of one skilled gamer and a Sony PlayStation 2 Duel Shock Controller. It was during these long nights that my appreciation for the complexity of the character development and epic story arcs in video games grew from passing curiosity to utter fascination. It was not until years later, when I was studying for my M.A. in Literature that I began to reexamine the games I had grown so fond of and ask myself, “What is the function of video games in shaping and portraying society and what is the role of the spectator in such function?” Furthermore, are roles of gamer/spectator gendered, and if so, what social constructs enforce these roles?

If you don’t play video games, there is much to be gained from watching the stories unfold, and the role of spectator cannot be undervalued as people often crowd around champion gamers in conference halls, arcades, and recently, for the first time, during the X-Games in Austin, Texas. Is there gender stratification between gamers and spectators? Are girls more likely to be spectators of games because the role of spectator is passive, and girls are supposed to be passive? It seems that there is a common perception that girls just watch video games because they don’t think they are good enough to play, or that they simply feign interest in gaming just to seem more interesting themselves. This could be true of some people, but as a girl spectator of gaming, I have to say that watching people play video games is one of the most relaxing, interesting, and entertaining things that I could do in my spare time. In fact, I often nag some of my gamer friends to buy and play a certain game that I want to watch. Why don’t I play the game myself then? Because I find watching more relaxing.

One could also argue that a spectator can’t really be into games if they are only watching. I disagree. I know more about certain games that I have watched than some others who have played the games themselves. Girls will probably never represent the majority of certain activities such as pro-football or sumo wrestling, but that does not diminish the magnitude of their genuine interest and expertise in activities that they are passionate about. Video games are no different, and I say if you are a girl spectator, embrace it because video games profoundly address issues that affect everyone.

One of my friends wrote her Master’s thesis about female characters in Final Fantasy VII. Through a discussion with her, I began to understand that video games are, like other genres of entertainment such as science fiction and horror films, able to present rich social criticisms because they are not meant to be taken seriously. My friend argued that female characters in FFVII worked to reinforce stereotypes about women. Whether I agreed with this argument or not, I started to think about video games differently. They were like a new form of folk tale, designed by people with vested interests, portraying certain ideals to a specific audience. I thought about how FFVII was rich with eco-criticism, and how Resident Evil mirrored George A. Romero’s zombie metaphor, with a particular jab at pharmaceutical consumption. So, whether gamer, or observer, video games offer a unique medium through which to tell modern day folk tales and offer an entertaining lens through which to view society. Gamer, spectator, male or female, everyone has something to gain by understanding video games as something more than just mindless entertainment. Anyone who sees the parallels between Michel Foucault’s social theories and the closing dialogue in Metal Gear Solid would agree.