If anyone is confused why more than half a million people would watch a congresswoman play a video game for three hours, here’s the core reason: Almost 3 billion humans play video games.
Once you accept that statistic, it becomes easier to understand the appeal of Twitch streams, YouTube videos and other avenues to watch strangers play video games.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) “Among Us” stream is the third most-watched stream by an individual person on Twitch, peaking at about 440,000 concurrent viewers. She maintained well above 300,000 for the three hours she played “Among Us” with about a dozen other gaming influencers and celebrities — as well as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) — all of whom streamed on their own and kept the concurrent viewers for the total experience well above half a million. It was part of a “Get Out the Vote” effort to push “voting plans” on viewers. But while Ocasio-Cortez’s stream brought in new viewers — she called out Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) in particular — plenty of players and viewers are already spending hours every day on Twitch and similar platforms. It’s hardly a novelty.
The entertainment medium of watching other people playing video games was crystallized in 2007 in the form of “let’s plays,” which started on message boards, leaped to YouTube, mutated into streaming culture, and eventually gave rise to global stars like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, while also drawing in established names like rapper and producer T-Pain.
Streaming is a default entertainment option for many these days, often because they grew up with an understanding of games and the adjacent technologies. “Games and the gaming culture is a huge part of my development,” said Hasan Piker, a former journalist who left The Young Turks in January 2020 and focused more on streaming. In January he had little more than 11,000 followers. As of today, he is almost at 600,000, thousands of whom pay a monthly fee to him and Twitch as subscribers. “I grew up in Turkey, going to the market at the beginning of every month for the first 15 days for the one Turkish video game magazine to finally come out."
Piker helped organize the stream with AOC. “I think it’s like sports, it brings the world together.”
It’s a salient point. People watch sports because of their familiarity with the athletes and personalities, and also with the rules of the game, and what it takes to play and compete. It’s similar to how millions of people can immediately grasp easy-to-understand rules of a game like “Among Us” (you’re stranded on a ship, two players are killers and you have to out them while finishing routine tasks). The thrill comes from seeing how someone else succeeds (or fails) in navigating those same rules.
Video games also encompass and utilize every single other medium, like art, design, text and music, which also explain their viewable appeal. Consider story-based games. To watch a beloved streamer go through “The Last of Us Part II” is like watching a friend play a famous role in a film or stage play, yet somehow occupying the perspectives of both character and the person they are. And for many viewers, they’ve played this same role themselves by playing the game. It’s a great way to size up a person, get a read of who they are, and feel at ease with them. Video games can be sports, or they can be performance art, or a comedy show. The variety is as limitless as the imagination. It’s unlike any other entertainment or viewing experience because of its shared personal intimacy with every aspect of that performance.
Sometimes that artistic overlap can lead to tension, too. Twitch streamers were handed copyright notices from music publishers Tuesday because they’re not licensed to air the music previously licensed to the game’s maker, causing much consternation and uproar, and signifying how the music industry has yet to square streaming with copyright law.
This shared intimacy is why Piker focuses so heavily on covering politics on stream, even while playing incredibly difficult games such as “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.” People relate to his frustration with the game, all the while absorbing his commentary.
“The gaming space has a lot of progressive-minded people, but the anti-social-justice-warrior content creators absolutely changed the dynamic,” Piker said, referring to how YouTube has been swarmed by conservative personalities like Ben Shapiro. “So I saw a void, and it worked.”
It’s evident that Ocasio-Cortez had an audience ready to welcome her. She felt at ease on stream, addressing audio level issues live (a common thing to see on streams), and inquiring about specific mechanics, such as whether impostor players have a special animation when they crawl through vents, showing her familiarity with how video game physics and animation can dictate how games are played. Viewers can ably pick up on that curiosity — and how earnestly or cynically its deployed.
At least two generations have been raised on video games. AOC’s questions on stream further underscore how she isn’t paralyzed by technology or games — only curious and willing to give it a shot. It separates her from many of her congressional peers. Even viewers not inclined to agree with her politics came away genuinely impressed.
While it’s far too early to say whether her stream changed the future of electioneering, there’s little doubt to many gamers now that Ocasio-Cortez is definitely among them.