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Video game influencers are disrupting data capitalism and building new communities

Alex Golub
Pokemon Go reflected in sunglasses

In the winter of 2019, Josh faced a serious problem: his beloved dog Abby had torn her CCL, the doggy equivalent of the ACL knee injury well-known for hobbling professional athletes. Putting her to sleep was not an option, but the surgery she needed would cost approximately $5,000. That much money doesn’t come easily to your average underemployed twenty-something living in the Bay Area. But luckily Josh was not your average underemployed twenty-something. He had a very unusual part-time job: He played video games for a living.

Actually, he played just one video game: Marvel Strike Force, a popular mobile game where players collect superheroes and use them to beat up other players’ collection of superheroes. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, Josh sits down at the computer in his bedroom and spends two hours streaming himself playing Strike Force to hundreds of fans using the video platform Twitch. Known by his online moniker Khasino, he dispenses advice and demonstrates expert game play to fellow players. Fans who tune in can watch the screen he is playing on, complete with video of his face superimposed in one corner. There’s even a chat channel displayed on screen, so viewers can watch themselves type out questions, which he’ll answer on the spot.

But Twitch allows fans to do more than just watch themselves watch Khasino. They can also donate money to him with the click of a button. And so it came to pass that, one day in February, Khasino held a marathon gaming session to raise donations for his dog’s surgery. He played the game for twelve hours straight. He had giveaways. He held contests. For one particularly large donation, he wore a shirt made of bacon (the screen name of the person donating the money was Bacon). In the end, he managed to raise $3,200 for his dog’s surgery, just enough to help him cover the rest of the bill himself.

Twitch screenshot

Khasino streaming Marvel Strikeforce. Viewers can see his team (on the left) fighting a computer-controlled opponent (on the right). Khasino’s face is in the lower right hand corner. A donation tracker sits in the lower right corner. The lower left shows that he has earned $51 in donations. On the right, people discuss the stream in a chat channel.

The internet is a strange place and, frankly, raising three grand in 12 hours for a dog’s surgery registers relatively low on its weirdness meter. In fact, Khasino’s ability to raise money from his fans is important not because it is weird, but because it is increasingly normal. Twitch and other forms of new media have created a world of entrepreneurial cultural producers who increasingly shape public opinion and mediate between consumers and the companies they patronize. These new forms of community are entangled in the breathless world of social media likes and retweets, and streamers like Khasino rely on the targeted ads and algorithmic curation that many contemporary commenters bemoan. But they also offer something else: a tantalizing glimpse of a world beyond social media, one in which human interconnection is immediate, democratic, and egalitarian.

Khasino’s live video game streaming is an example of what the prominent media scholar T.L. Taylor calls “networked broadcasting.” In some sense, there’s nothing new about it. People have been broadcasting video over television for decades. The internet has been home to text-based chat rooms for a long time, and donating money during a broadcast will be familiar to anyone who grew up with public radio pledge drives. But when you put all of these things together you get something which is more than the sum of its parts: Twitch doesn’t just let you watch people play games, it creates a feedback loop in which you become part of the broadcast you are watching. The result is a powerful new form of media that combines the publicity of broadcast with the intimacy of online community.

Video gamer in bacon shirt

Khasino wears a shirt made of bacon in exchange for a donation of “a couple hundred bucks” from a fan whose screen name is Bacon.

It’s not surprising that people like watching other people play the games that they themselves play. It’s why Americans watch baseball and Australians watch rugby, but not vice versa. It’s also not that surprising that Twitch streamers do more than just play video games. You can watch people cook and ask them questions about the recipe while they are making it. Or you can watch them eat, as in the popular Korean phenomenon of mukbang, where streamers eat a meal live with their audience. On platforms other than Twitch, people have found a way to combine network broadcasting with sexuality, a phenomenon known as “camming” where women (and some men) model and pose for followers, sometimes while clothed and sometimes not. When I asked Khasino if there was a difference between himself and a cam girl, he replied that there wasn’t one. “The difference is just in the actual actions in which we engage,” he said. “I imagine that if I ever met a cam girl we’d have a lot in common. Although she’d probably earn more, though.”

We should not underestimate the popularity of streamers—or how lucrative their streams can be. In 2019, the streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins had 14.7 million followers on Twitch and earned roughly $500,000 from the service every month. Of course, Blevins is the exception, not the rule. Most streamers are more like Khasino, who (currently) struggles to get an audience of 350 people for his streams. His goal is to earn just $50 in donations a day. “It’s just a little bit nerve wracking” to rely on donations, he says, but it’s better than driving for Uber or selling insurance (both previous jobs for him) since “the potential for earning is uncapped.” And at the end of the day, he says, “Ultimately I love what I do because I have the potential to do very well and because this is what I really enjoy.” In fact, professional streamers are like entrepreneurs everywhere, hustling to make a living. Although they may be playing video games instead of writing articles or sending emails, they probably spend as much time staring at their computer as the average academic.

In fact, Khasino does not define himself solely as a “streamer” because he does not make his living streaming full time on Twitch. He is, rather, an “influencer,” a ubiquitous term which he defines as “a popular person, someone who makes things that garner attention.” His daily Twitch stream is just one component of a much broader media presence in which he makes a living by being an expert at Strike Force.

Players do not just watch him play for fun. They also need advice. The process of unlocking famous super heroes like Captain Marvel can take weeks or months and strengthening them requires scarce in-game materials like gold and training modules. FoxNext, the game’s developer, will let you take a shortcut to this process by paying in real money for virtual characters and materials. But how should you allocate your scarce in-game and real life resources? Is it worth spending $25 to purchase The Shocker or should you spend a month slowly unlocking him?

Some people—known as “whales,” an imported bit of gambling slang—can just buy their way to success by spending huge sums of money. But for most people, keeping up with the game’s new characters and latest challenges can be daunting. This is where Strike Force influencers like Khasino come in. If you are curious about The Shocker, you can simply log on to Khasino’s stream and donate one buck. After twenty four other people have done the same, Khasino will buy the character and use it live in his stream, and tell you whether the character is any good or not (thumbs down). This willingness to spend money so you don’t have to is what earned Khasino the nickname “the people’s whale.”

Khasino’s influence is not restricted to the two hours a day he holds court on Twitch. The rest of the day, he may make infographics and charts about the game, or create YouTube videos with other Strike Force influencers about the latest in-game news. He visits gaming and streaming conventions, and occasionally even makes trips to the FoxNext’s headquarters, in Los Angeles, to meet with the game developers themselves. You can pay him to review your roster of superheroes and suggest improvements, or you can log on to the website Patreon and create a monthly recurring donation to support him. You can subscribe to his Twitch feed, which also nets him some money, or log on to his Discord server, which hosts a series of chat rooms where you can discuss the game with Khasino and other players. All together, these little activities and revenue streams add up to a full-time job.

So how do influencers like Khasino create new forms of community? There are three areas where their work is caught in our current moment, while also looking beyond it: Their business model, the communities they create, and the influence they wield.

First: their business model. Influencers are partially reliant on what the author Shoshana Zuboff has called “surveillance capitalism” to earn money because of the advertisements run against the content on YouTube, Twitch, and other social media sites. These sites target you for advertising by using (or, often, misusing) your personal information. When you use these sites, you are not the customer, you are a product sold to advertisers, and the goal of these companies is to keep you watching as long as possible so you can view more commercials. As a result, their algorithms feed you a steady diet of content that is designed to be engaging rather than informative or challenging, which is a real problem in a democracy where most people get their news from social media.

In one sense, influencers are part of the problem. In another sense, they are developing new business models that could be part of the solution. In these models, their fans are their patrons, not their product. When influencers’ income comes from donations, subscriptions to their Twitch stream, or support from their Patreon accounts, they are answerable to the fan community, not to advertisers and the tech companies. Some intellectuals have argued that small donations from a large fan base could support a thriving network of independent cultural creators. In this model, subscriptions and upgrades, rather than advertisements, drive cultural production.

Second, the communities. The internet is a notoriously hostile place. Authors have long pointed out that it can be misogynistic, and most people who are online today are familiar with trolling, flamewars, and other forms of bad behavior online. In some ways, video game streamers are part of this trend. Khasino, for instance, would probably not be a favorite of the woke academy. While he doesn’t see his channel as contributing to what scholars have called toxic masculinity, he does admit that “we’ll regularly make a lot of off-color jokes about rape” and his Twitch homepage lists one of his personal goals to be to “hire prostitutes just to teach them video games.”

All the same, while some may object to the content of Khasino’s online community, they may find its form broadly appealing. Khasino fans regularly meet not on Facebook or Twitter, but on his Twitch stream or his private Discord server (in essence, a series of private chat rooms). These online communities are smaller and have a stronger shared culture than large networks like Twitter. “Every Twitch streamer runs their own bar/club where you decide who gets in and what the theme of the club is and the general atmosphere,” Khasino explains. In these smaller, more closely monitored spaces fans share a common interest and have less tolerance for drama than in more open, anonymous, and agonistic spaces. “We do a pretty good job of keeping it civil,” Khasino says of his Discord server and Twitch streams. “Not in a ‘we will ban you’ [way] but I’ve kind of conditioned the community to, if someone comes in, if someone starts trolling, the community will sort it out. No one wants to be the person in chat everyone hates.” While many wouldn’t see rape jokes as “civil,” the idea of small, self-policing communities probably will have broader appeal. They offer a model of online community that is a welcome alternative to the large, anonymous, decontextualized flamewars of much of social media today.

Finally, influence itself. Do influencers really offer something of value to their fans and the companies whose products they comment on? Can one really provide impartial and judicious advice when your personal success is so tied to the success of the game you play? Why provide careful analysis when social media will award you with more likes and retweets if you just scream into the camera about how awesome (or terrible) a new character is? Isn’t conflict of interest baked into contemporary social media?

This is a fair concern, and there certainly are a fair amount of influencers who spend more time screaming into a camera than carefully and quietly analyzing their game. But influencers who mediate between corporations and customers can also leverage their position to make corporations more responsive. For instance, Strike Force influencers have worked together to pressure FoxNext when it releases poor quality content or charges too much for in-game items. Their influence also runs the other way, allowing them to tamp down fan outrage. Khasino is quite blunt about this aspect of video game culture. “I’ve never been to a gaming subthread that wasn’t predominantly negative,” he tells me. Strike Force, like most video games, has a community that regularly rages against the game developers. Amazingly, even players who play Strike Force for free complain endlessly about how FoxNext is not providing them the value they expect from the game. Influencers can moderate some of this outrage and use their celebrity to set expectations for what is reasonable and unreasonable to expect from a game. “I try not to pander to the masses who just want to hear you drum up outrage,” Khasino says. “Ultimately the best thing is to work with the devs to improve the game.”

In the end, video game influencers have not created a utopia just waiting to be applied to the rest of the world. But they do demonstrate the tantalizing possibility of a world in which anyone can make a living doing what they love while being supported by other people who care about the same things as them. This would be a world in which play, expertise, creativity, and community are rewarded, a world in which creators could earn a living wage and—who knows?—maybe even get a little help paying for their dog’s surgery.

This article was originally published on JSTOR Daily.

 

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