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Making Games Watchable: Broadcasting Video Games and Playing Attention


Making Games Watchable examines spectator video gaming as an emergent media phenomenon with an attention to the way it relates to a wider media ecosystem. Industries and platforms of video game spectatorship are recent inventions. Games have long been watchable, an effect of their nature as screen media. Productions designed to formalize and distribute play as streaming content have arrived as the culmination of technological affordances, platform and participatory media, and the globalization of gaming culture writ large. As emerging media, video game watching is actualized across a number of platforms and in several distinct formats. The variety and novelty of these practices has limited the study of watchable gaming as a collective phenomenon. However, in the last half-decade an industry of platforms for distributing spectator video game content has succeeded by aggregating disparate modes of game spectatorship, signaling a need to think of game watching as its own kind of media.

This dissertation is focused on particular cases where game spectatorship is solidified as a media form. The throughline for this research is the formalized practice of watching video games. Rather than an exhaustive study of any specific platform, format, or industry, this work considers competitive play, video game live streaming, and Let’s Play videos among a wider set of contexts in which games are shared online or watched in specific spatial arrangements. This project examines these contexts with the aim of articulating how play is repackaged and distributed as spectator media, and how these platforms for game viewing produce new relationships to play. The goal of this work is to ask what this emergence can teach us about the way media making or media audiences are changing. What changes have occurred to produce a media ecosystem that is hospitable to spectator play? And what practices or processes are needed to make games watchable? The intervention is critical and theoretical, seeking to attach game streaming to a wider media ecosystem, to the political economy it emerges out of, and to its growing cultural impact.

The work of making games watchable includes practices taking place on different platforms, emerging out of production contexts that vary widely in scale, and aim at vastly different kinds of markets and ends. To explore this complexity this project adopts a research method drawing from site-specific studies of game spectatorship, oral histories of production, and a political economy of streaming platforms. The primary archive for this project comes from conversations with 30 video game live streamers between December 2015 and March 2016. This dissertation also draws from grounded site studies of esports studios located in Seoul, South Korea and Los Angeles, California, as well as trade conventions and streaming studios. These archives are examined against a political economy and cultural analysis of platforms and markets for video game spectatorship. Through this research, this dissertation articulates a transformation of video game play from interactive media to spectator content by examining the industrial frameworks and production processes that repackage play for an audience of watchers. It also suggests three interventions in the areas of game and production studies. Making Games Watchable finds video game spectatorship is the extension of wider trends in media making, in the domestication of content production, and the personalization or deeper segmentation of media choice. Video game spectatorship industries are sustained by production arrangements blurring the boundaries between labor and leisure activities, and between domestic space and production space. They are built on forms of marketing that move away from mass appeal towards higher degrees of interactivity, intimacy, loyalty, influence, and patronage. And finally, they succeed through identifying and catering to micro-scale audiences in ways that enable novel kinds of content creation, especially in response to the values and biases of these audiences. At the forefront of trends in streaming and interactive media, video game spectatorship production offers insights into future trends in media making.

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