Tuesday, 28 January 2020

The Commodification of Fun

I am not an 'extremely online' sort of person, and I don't really give a fuck about video games (I don't think I have played any video game in 3 years), so I have only just learned of the existence of twitch - although, oddly enough, I used to watch pirated football live streams on it when it was justin.tv, back in the day, and I was living far away from home. Apparently in its modern iteration it's kind of a big deal. People even play D&D on it, and presumably make money doing so.

I visited the site this morning to see what's what, and more or less randomly came across this example. As is the case with any "Actual Play" video or podcast I have ever seen I find the experience of watching this group play D&D excruciating - the sensation I can most readily liken it to is being dragged around a department store by your wife or girlfriend, watching her being engrossed in something which is for her great fun but which you can gain literally no pleasure or interest from whatsoever. (I suspect my wife experiences this sensation when I am watching cricket on TV, but I'm not going to let that stop me.) Suffice to say, I wish these people well and they seem perfectly nice, but I simply cannot fathom how anybody can watch more than 2 minutes of ANY actual play video of an RPG. Maybe if Rachel McAdams was DMing for Jessica Alba, Jennifer Anniston, Hyori Lee and Haruna Kawaguchi, or something.

Is the fact that people can now play D&D online while people watch, and make money doing so, a wonderful illustration of how human civilization is flourishing in totally unexpected ways in the internet age, or yet another example of how all of our interactions and relationships are now becoming mediated by market forces as neoliberalism continues its inexorable expanse into every corner of human life, including the personal and familial?

The awful truth is, it is both. It is genuinely fabulous, much as I loathe the experience of watching these things, that people can now connect around hobbies which are dear to them in such a vastly more expansive scope than they could previously, and even get to Make Money Doing Something They Love. But it is also terrible, to my eye at least, how nowadays commodification seems inescapable - that something as innocent as playing D&D becomes repackaged and commercialised and transformed into a resource to be exploited for the making of money, that this seems to end up with a great many people just being made into passive spectators rather than participants (with the purpose of their being there really just to provide all the eyeball-time and all the clicks and all the data for further commercial exploitation) and that the experience of bonding with friends increasingly comes to feel like it is somehow inadequate unless large numbers of other people are watching and commenting. I find it troubling how few people are troubled by this.

I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.
-Philip Larkin, "Money"

24 comments:

  1. I don't particularly get it either, other than watching the infrequent stream to get a feel for some new system I'm curious about. But I don't understand why this is some dire and terrible development.

    No one is prevented from playing games in their own life. We're not forced to watch Twitch to get our DnD fix, or forced to use Twitch-branded DRM-ed character sheets or something. The existence of professional sports doesn't stop anyone from getting a ball and playing in a local league.

    Is the fear that the youth of today will grow up thinking rpgs are only a weird form of theater, rather than a game you play yourself?

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    1. No, it's more that things are lost as well as gained. I do think that the existence of professional sports stops people from playing in a local league. Nowadays you can spend all day on Sunday watching football on TV and this is correlated to Sunday amateur football leagues dying on their arses in most of the country. There isn't a direct causal link but you'd have a hard time convincing me the two phenomena aren't related at some level.

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    2. But it's more that there's something sad about an amateur pursuit becoming performed for money. Love getting replaced by the profit motive. It's not the end of the world but nor is it entirely welcome.

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  2. I like watching some Actual Plays as a chance to see more styles of playing/running games, but the ones that try to be produced like a TV show and show awareness of the viewing audience just annoy me. I didn't check the one that you linked, but the few that I've actually enjoyed were the ones played as if it was just those people's normal game.

    The commodification of what (allegedly) used to be amateur athletic events, like the Olympics or college sports in the US, certainly has its drawbacks, and I'm sure the same can be said for turning TTRPG streaming into a business, too. Time will tell what impacts it'll really have, but I think it's obvious that it'll have at least some negative impacts. Case in point, there was a flurry of videos on YouTube some time ago about the "Matt Mercer effect", i.e. D&D players complaining that their DMs weren't Mercer because they only knew D&D from Critical Role. That seems incredibly bizarre to me, but it seems like it's a real thing.

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    1. Yeah, in many ways the slicker the production the more I get put off. I have never watched Critical Role - I tried to watch the first episode of it just to see what the fuss was about and didn't manage to get beyond the first 30 seconds. I hated it.

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    2. I watched some of their 1st campaign (far more than I should've, really) before giving up because the way they were playing was very different from my tastes. Good for them and their fans for enjoying it, but it's not for me, and I won't deny being annoyed when people who I play with seem to try copying parts of their style without thinking about whether that actually makes sense for the way we're playing.

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  3. Aside from a few streamers that manage to get a big fan base, I suspect there's no real money to be made. I'm more of a YouTube guy than twitch but the few actual play streams I've checked out didn't seem to have many viewers. Maybe it's more of a hobby in and of itself or another way to share the hobby than profit motive? Although I do share your concern about passive observers rather than active participants. For example, I find I spend a lot more time watching people play videogames than playing them myself.

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    1. I can at least kind of see some appeal to video gaming streams. One way that the two kinds of streams differ is that more and more video games these days have support for Twitch integration so that viewers can kinda/sorta play along or at least influence the action to some degree, but I can't imagine how a similar system for tabletop streams would work. Also, videogames are almost always streamed by one person who can read/interact with the chat constantly, but a tabletop game by necessity involves multiple people devoting their attention to each other rather than their audience. I think any tabletop stream is much more likely to be a passive, spectator affair as a result.

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    2. We all have our passive hobbies - you don't get much more passive than watching TV after all - but I do think there's a quite dramatic and rapid change in the RPG hobby when it goes from something that was only really doable actively to something which is readily consumed passively.

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  4. I wonder how many folks are thinking "well we already play D&D, let's stream it", or if many of them wouldn't bother playing at all if they couldn't get attention for it. Certainly this is a phenomenon I've encountered in many other areas of life.

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    1. I do imagine it is an incentive to make sure you play each week.

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  5. A few days ago, I did see someone on a message board or blog somewhere worry that they weren't ready to start their first role-playing game because they didn't know how to record it for a podcast.

    Somehow they had got the idea that broadcasting one's game was a crucial component of the experience.

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    1. Young minds are being corrupted, Kelvin!

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  6. Some of these streams have very enthusiastic communities, with fan art, shipping, furious debate etc (don't ask me why). It might be reductive to consider the viewers as mere spectators. They are participating in something, it's just not a game of D&D.

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    1. I am sure that's true, but I'm also a fuddy-duddy about online communities. I don't think they're an adequate replacement for real communities, as some people seem to want to treat them.

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  7. I think that DND-as-performance will create some weird dynamics where people try to replicate moments that looked cool from the gallery but aren't actually great to experience. In this respect it's a lot like performance sex.

    I enjoy listening to the McElroy brother's DND game, but that's because they're all extremely funny people who I'd enjoy going to the ER with.

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    1. Yeah, porn has I am sure been a malign influence on sex in a lot of ways, and I think the same thing will happen/is happening with RPGs.

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  8. My biggest problem with the increasing popularity of straming tabletop games is how that might shape future products. Think about how "gamers not actually playing anymore just reading RPG books" impacted Paizo's Adventure Paths, catering to the needs of "readers" not "players".

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  9. In general you are correct.

    But the internet is only interesting in spikes of probability, which given its size will produce counter examples.

    I mentioned these guys before, in the early days they were amazing. A freak occurrence, but pay attention because if D&D grows it will grow on youTube, and these guys are the best I've found. All of these players are intelligent and interesting, in the early days --- more than two years ago.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bw_5Vyk9pvQ&list=PLaweBRvpqqNDJ6rZe9y9uxKKiesAggzfp

    What I am saying is the future of D&D is through youTube personalities, just like every other blasted thing.

    If I had three players I would ditch my my blog and go full youTube

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  10. Recommend "Watch Me Play" by T.L. Taylor. Gives some insight into how Twitch and live streaming of games became popular.

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  11. Wow. How dare people be seen doing *our* precious fun hobby, or even acting as though they're having fun doing our hobby. RPGs should only be done in the privacy of one's own home. Because they're shameful,and I cringe at other people having fun.

    Seriously though? I love RPGs. I love podcasts. I love RPG podcasts. I love seeing how other people do the thing I like. I love laughing at their humor and experiencing their narratives. Particularly the Adventure Zone and The Delvers, which are actual-plays featuring actual families playing together. I don't buy in to this completely unwarranted alarmism.

    This just the author complaining about something he personally doesn't enjoy, and is therefore condemning it with zero evidence of negative impact. Welcome back, Satanic Panic. The RPG community is canibalizing itself. Actual-plays are the new rock n' roll, and God damn it if our kids have fun any different than we did.

    Noisms, I love your blog, and I love Yoon-Suin. But this post is the most thoughtless, self-indulgent, masturbatory dreck I've ever seen from you.

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  12. Remember a while back you wrote that some RPG books were not used, but used as a some kind of "imaginary RPG" - the reader reads the material and imagines "how would it be to run this game" - but never does due to a number of reasons.

    I thought that was a bang-on observation. I only have so much time, and for every book I have that I have used, I have another one that I read, enjoyed, thought about and... nothing ever came of it.

    Isn't this another form of the phenomena? Roleplaying by proxy, but instead of it by reading a never to be used RPG book, it's by watching a stream or a youtube video?

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