Someone to watch over me: social spectatorship in games

New parents spend a lot of their free time exhausted, wondering if they will ever sleep again. Following my daughter’s birth, I started playing Oblivion. I began the game by myself, but my wife Anna eventually came to watch me play. Though she never touched the controls, Anna was an active part of our time exploring Cyrodiil. This first attempt at playing videogames together blossomed, and over the past five years we have developed a social spectatorship approach to cooperative play.

In the context of videogames, social spectatorship encompasses three key concepts: performance, interactivity, and risk. As Patrick Lindsey argued in August, games are performative and should be viewed as a “medium through which the player expresses his or her performance.” Thinking of videogames as performance has wide-ranging implications for how we understand the act of playing. Spectators change the nature of interactivity and introduce tangible risks in which the repercussions of our play can enter into and impact human relationships.

Performance has always been a part of videogames. Prior to Internet-connected computers and consoles, many of us spent hours hovering around illuminated screens, passing controllers and keyboards back and forth, eagerly anticipating our friends’ fatal mistakes, because then it was our turn. This approximated performative gaming to an extent, but my experience tended to be far more competitive than cooperative. Those of us who were watching didn’t see ourselves as spectators but as prospective players who were just waiting for our turn. Spectatorship is more than just “watching stuff happen”. With the advent of professional gaming, the idea of videogames as a spectator sport has gained more traction. Jim Rossignol’s reaction to watching pro gaming tournaments in This Gaming Life mirrors the one I’ve just described: a sense of boredom accompanied by a desire to actually play rather than watch.

Those like Rossignol, who view e-sports with a wary eye, tend to understand spectatorship and interactivity as mutually exclusive. If you’re watching someone else play, so the argument goes, then you’re removed from the game’s interactive components. But perhaps we should refrain from limiting interactivity to whoever happens to be holding the controller. When my wife and I were playing through Mass Effect, we came to the moment when Shepard must choose between the saving the life of Ashley Williams or Kaidan Alenko. I was apathetic: neither character was beloved to me, as I had been more interested in Garrus and Liara. Anna, on the other hand, was extremely vocal: Ashley had to die. For some reason, over the course of the game, Ashley’s personality had bothered Anna more and more, so off to her death Ashley went. The interactivity of videogames can extend beyond the person in whose hands the controller rests. Our vision for interactivity is broader than direct control in other contexts: you don’t have to be on stage to experience the interactivity of a live performance.

In conceiving of videogames as performative, perhaps gaming’s nearest analogue is not cinema but the stage. Theatrical performance exists as part of a fabric of interaction between the audience and the performers, a fabric whose tension is altered by both the actors and the spectators. Richard Burton once told the story of performing Hamlet with Winston Churchill in the front row. Churchill constantly muttered the lines under his breath, which caused Burton to alter his performance (presumably in an effort to get Churchill to stop). But Burton was always going to perform Hamlet, the story of the play was going to remain.

In videogames, player choice creates a unique kind of experience: they are often designed with the intention that through the players choices, a unique narrative progression will be created, dynamically according to their moment-to-moment actions. Whereas a theatre audience might nudge a performance in one direction or another, spectatorship in gaming, as with our Ashley Williams verdict, can lead to substantive difference.

The impact of spectatorship isn’t limited to death sentences. Comedy is one particular area of theatre in which professional performers must read an audience and adjust their performance to accommodate them. Unusually, this principle was crystallized for my wife and I while playing the generally somber L.A. Noire. We discovered that reckless driving in the game is hilarious. I couldn’t drive in anything resembling a straight line: as I careened off the road, Anna exploded with laughter. I knew I could start making the trips between locations more enjoyable by trying insane maneuvers and taking turns at dangerous speeds. Knowing this enhanced our playing of the game for Anna, adjusting my performance in L.A. Noire increased the game’s value as entertainment.

But what risks do we take in introducing social spectatorship and performance into our play? Finding a place for videogames as an interactive performance can impact our play in ways that we might resist. A game like Dark Souls, which often relies on trial and error, and in which error usually leads to death, can be downright soporific for a spectator. While a player might be honing a strategy or learning the intricacies of the game’s combat system, a spectator sees little more than a series of deaths. This is where the social component of social spectatorship can enter in and contribute to the videogame.

Rather than being relegated to a passive role, an engaged spectator can partner with the player to unravel puzzles and develop strategies. I am not simply describing a kind of backseat driver who complains about how the player should have done everything differently; on the contrary, an engaged social spectator can share in the responsibility of failure as well as in the joy of success.


Despite interest enjoying Oblivion, I found myself quickly uninterested in Skyrim. Anna thought that by convincing me to create a woman character she had diminished my interest in the game. Initially, I rejected this idea—surely a videogame couldn’t expose some underlying chauvinism, could it? Yet the more I thought about it, the more her explanation made sense. I felt awkward when a male NPC expressed interest in my character. Or should I say in me? Part of the complication may have stemmed from the way that RPGs encourage players to fully identify with and take on the role of their chosen character. In this case, entering into that process with a character of a different gender introduced complications. Skyrim became the stage on which something of myself was exposed, something that would never have been possible if I played alone.

Cultivating social spectatorship can encourage a deeper contemplation of the ways in which videogames impact our social and cultural contexts, as with my character in Skyrim. Discussions with my wife helped me understand my own motivations. I doubt that every instance of videogames operating as an interactive and performative medium will result in significant personal insight, but by fostering opportunities for spectatorship, we might actually learn something about ourselves.


  1. Fengxii

    Back Seat Gaming: The Right Way.

  2. patriciaxh

    @dualhammers @virtualstowaway That’s the point? Unless I’m missing something they’re both by Jonah.

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