This paper explores the online gaming community and the facilitation of this community in the modern era through the growth of the Twitch video streaming platform. Also examined within this paper is the new way in which self-identity is formed within these gaming communities without taking into account the skill factor of the players themselves, but rather their presentation of self. This identity is not only redefined in a modern online context, but also brings about emphasis on generating social capital through identity. This paper presents a focus on the research conducted by Goffman (1959) on defining identity and presentation of self through its overarching, social based context. Whilst seemingly outdated research from a technological context, this paper will be applying this research to the modern technological world we live in today from a gaming perspective. Further research on this area from Pearson (2009) reports of how peoples online identities are shaped through worded exchanges however this paper demonstrates that nowadays, construction of online gaming identity goes beyond this. Gruzd, Wellman and Takhteyev (2011) discuss the topic of imagined communities which is heavily incorporated in this paper with the worldwide gaming community continuously growing, albeit in an “imagined” space whereby players interact digitally and not physically. This paper will illustrate how this interaction is becoming closer through live streaming platforms.
As a worldwide community, it is without a doubt that the gaming scene has met with dramatic change in the demographic and number of members throughout the last decade. Through the rapid expansion of technology, gamers have been met with a wealth of ways to reinvent themselves with an online identity and create a cult-like social community following. Online platforms such as Twitch present any gamer with the opportunity to grow an audience and community through a smooth live streaming experience. It is through platforms like Twitch that gamer personalities can ultimately reinvent their own identity in an online version and form a presentation of self that is uniquely attractive to a large worldwide audience. This paper will attempt to demonstrate that through the evolution of technology, online imagined communities within the gaming sphere have been conjured and facilitated through astronomical social capital development. As a result of this social capital, the overarching identity modern game streamers has been reshaped and is no longer so heavily associated with the game itself, but the way in which they visually portray themselves.
Gaming Community facilitation through Social Capital
Through the growth of the gaming community in the twenty first century, the social presence of prominent gaming personalities and their own community that support them have brought gamers to all new heights within the social hierarchy. In terms of the online gaming community, social interaction is what allows it to flourish through constant multiplatform engagement between members and personalities. Social Capital is a term that incorporates relationships within online communities that continue to allow the community to flourish as one such as cooperative behavior and the reliance on one another (Jiang, 2012). Because this community is entirely virtual through the actual games themselves, social capital as discussed by Trepte, Reinecke and Juechems (2012) has accumulated incredibly through different social networking opportunities besides playing the games alone. Although physical distance may remain large from player to player within this community, specific online gaming communities represent a reachable digital distance which is unmatched and the opportunity for social capital acquisition grows through the gamers connection to a game and its players (Trepte et al 2012).
With technology playing such a significant role in the lives we live today, the ways in which these online gaming communities are facilitated is evident in many cases throughout the modern day. Platforms including YouTube as well as Twitch, whereby gamers can share their gameplay content in a live or compiled manner attract hundreds of thousands of viewers from within the widespread gaming community. Modern games of juggernaut popularity such as ‘Fortnite Battle Royale’ and ‘PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ have accumulated incredible viewership of game content on different creator channels. With an amassed average total of over 250,000 viewers of these games on Twitch at any one time (“The Most Watched Games on Twitch, May 2018”, 2018), the growth of this online gaming sub community has propelled streamers like Tyler ‘Ninja’ Belvins to celebrity status. Not only has social capital been generated through viewing gaming content, but also through interacting with the community members on multiple social networking platforms. Through prominent social media programs including Twitter, Facebook and again YouTube we see gamers generate a sense of belonging and grow social capital within the community as a whole through commenting and posting. Meanwhile as I write this paper, we see 420 tweets under the hashtag #fortnite in the past hour from around the world!
The Inclusion Factor of the Twitch Community
In the online world we live in today, the notion of a community has taken dramatic twists and turns. Not only are we seeing the word “community” becoming a more talked about topic, but also through the work of Gruzd et al. (2011), we see the idea of “imagined community” coming to life as technology becomes more prominent in our own lives. They discuss how through the internet, we are now able to interact in numerous ways, without actually meeting physically in person (Gruzd et al. 2011). This in essence has spurred the notion of “imagined community” to come about. In the context of the gaming community, this is ever-present in the ability for people to join online sessions without knowing the people physically in person, and then simply cut the online ties by disconnecting from this session. In the modern day, the gaming community expands further than simply games however. Through the growth of platforms discussed previously including Twitch, we see the gaming community interact in multiple new ways. Labeled as the “rapidly growing live-streaming multimedia phenomenon” (Hilvert-Bruce, Neill, Sjöblom & Hamari, 2018), Twitch has risen to become a go-to platform for gamers to share their live gameplay content to a wide audience. In fact, the live streaming genre of gaming has become so popular in recent years, that sometimes we see more people viewing someone play games as an audience, than the number of people actually playing the games themselves (Kaytoue, Silva, Cerf, Meira Jr & Raïssi, 2012). This communal growth is highlighted by the doubling of audience figures annually, with viewers in 2014 reaching heights of over one hundred million unique monthly users (Ewalt, 2014).
Twitch’s broad community is formed through the ability to comment live through a text-based chat room function and have an audience interact with the streamer in real time. This feature allows the streamer to answer questions from their audience or comment on messages sent to them whilst they publicly broadcast their gaming stream (Hamilton, Garretson & Kerne, 2014), which in turn generates a complex, more engaged online community. When compared to platforms such as YouTube for example, Twitch caters heavily towards this closer community integration to the creators, and hence is used extensively by todays streamers to entertain their viewer base. Ultimately, the consistent interaction with other members of the online gaming community via the Twitch platform results in a sense of belonging for people within this community (Blight, 2016).
Identity through a Gaming Perspective
The topic of identity is extremely broad and can contain differing definitions depending on the context. Identity as a general term as discussed by Goffman “is seen as part of the flow of social interaction as individuals construct identity performances fitting their milieu” (Goffman, 1959). In the current day, identity takes shape in differing formats with arguably the most recent form being an “online identity”. In an online setting, identity tends to be controllable and of disembodiment (Boyd, 2006), meaning people on social networks can filter content in ways that best represent them. It is through technological innovation that a shift in the coming about of one’s online identity has been seen. Originally, online identity was conjured through simple worded exchanges, however nowadays it is formed by characters and their actions throughout a digitally constructed and competitive environment (Pearson, 2009). Pearson’s referral of this is to games and their ability to generate a player’s identity by the degree of difficulty of their actions within the digital environment. In the modern environment, it could be assumed that this remains, with many players’ online identities being characterised through the difficulty in which they play their games. Through rising audiences in the live stream genre however, we are seeing streamers attempting to differentiate themselves from the herd and their identity being formed from a fictional portrayal by the player. In a bid to entertain on a gaming platform, modern streamers have been seen use their reimagined, fictionally constructed self-identity as a huge marketing tool to generate a community on their channel. This is compared to previously, simply presenting high difficulty content and with the characters within the game generating much of the identity for the player (Pearson, 2009).
Constructing an Identity separate from “High Tier” Gameplay
Modern gaming has a dense and widespread player base. With a booming market and an incredible amount of games to choose from, today’s players are spoilt with a plethora of different skill-based games in which they can play for hundreds of hours per year. From the hardcore players of war games such as the ‘Call of Duty’ franchise, to strategy games like ‘League of Legends’, these many hours of experience can forcibly generate gamers who build up an identity of being highly skilled. Research demonstrates that it is simply through consistent and intense practice by which these players generate this skill (Huang, Yan, Cheung, Nagappan & Zimmermann, 2017). These players tend to become interlocked in the ever-growing competitive world of electronic sports, or more prominently known as e-sports. Within this extremely competitive arena, players belong to specific franchises and compete in teams across different leagues as well as tournaments throughout a season in their game of preference (Hamari & Sjjblom, 2017). Constructing an identity as the best player of a game is significantly challenging however when taking into account the incredible skill and hours of playing it takes to achieve this high tier gameplay. It is for this reason that members within the gaming and streaming community have found alternative ways to reinvent themselves online. This reinvention, whilst attempting to attract a viewership, allows for the creation of a fun, fictional identity pioneered by the use of the Twitch service alongside the widely known market leader in YouTube (Sjjblom & Hamari, 2017). This allows gamers to both play the games they love and also build a fictional online identity to entertain their inclusive community of viewers, regardless of their playing ability.
Participatory online media has generated some incredible characters, who from a gaming standpoint have transformed the identity of the everyday gamer. Much of this change has been spearheaded by the astronomical rise of YouTube personalities such as ‘PewDiePie’, whose identity has been shaped by the ability to deliver humorous content himself to his online community whilst almost unskillfully playing games. Nowadays we see streamers and creators alike going beyond this and forging a fictional online identity separate to that of their own personal identity. Prominent twitch streamer Guy Beahm, who goes by his alias of ‘Dr. Disrespect’, facilitates what Gruzd et al. (2011) calls his online ‘imagined community’ through his ability to entertain and create a presentation of self as a dense fictional character. With a previous world record of 388,000 concurrent viewers on a live stream video of his at one time, Beahm has attracted an extremely broad community following of his Twitch channel (Alexander, 2018). Beahm fictionally presents himself as a macho posturing and hyper aggressive character whilst wearing a humorous mullet wig, glasses and thick moustache. This character in which Beahm has created in order to prioritse the entertainment aspect before the gameplay heavily falls back on research from Pearson (2009). This research is regarding identity being formed online through simply the actions the person behind the screen makes (Pearson, 2009). In this case, it is the actions that the gamer player makes within the game on a competitive level. However, we see through examples such as Beahm that this visual aspect of someone in character whilst streaming games moves beyond this possibly outdated research in the context of gaming. This shift is seen through identity originally being constructed by worded exchanges in its simplest online form (Pearson, 2009), to now a more densely constructed visual identity by the player, that is different to their own.
The online gaming community has seen astronomical change both in size and social stature in the past decade. This paper has demonstrated that through modern digitalisation and social networking platforms, the gaming community has generated a wealth of social capital associated with its existence. Whilst considered an “imagined community” as it is entirely online, gamers have found many platforms and routes to generate further communication to grow the community. Platforms including Twitch and YouTube have facilitated this social capital, allowing for constant inclusivity and interaction with community members through the viewing of gameplay videos from fellow members, essentially creating a close digital distance between one another. Not only this, but it is also clear that the fundamental identity traits that were previously associated with gamers such as the difficulty of their gameplay are no longer so existent. Amazingly, we see that through live streaming platforms, gamers are able to generate an entire new identity separate to that of their gameplay. This in turn contributes heavily to the entertainment aspect of watching gaming and heavily benefits the social capital within the community. Gamers such as Guy Beahm demonstrate just how the community is producing aliases such as ‘Dr. Disrespect’ to provide a fresh avenue of content creation, sharing and entertainment within the gaming community.
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