I like it when people watch.
Hello everyone! Don’t you love it when bloggers use a provocative sentence to start an essay? I know I do!
That statement is quite true though, at least when I apply it to video games. I find that some of the most fun I have had with games has come from those times when I have had an audience watching my adventures. I am not talking specifically about multiplayer games either. Although that voyeurism is certainly a component of a multiplayer experience, the spectators in those venues are not ideal. They are too pre-occupied with their own gaming experiences—like trying to kill me.
When I say I like it when people watch, I am referring to when I am playing a game in my living room or my man cave (it’s more like a corner, but I digress), and a friend or passerby watches me play. It is stunning to me that I can think back on those experiences when I was playing a game, and suddenly my play style completely changed once I knew someone else was invested in my in-game actions.
I would say that the biggest change in my “gamer demeanor” when someone is watching me play a game is that I become far less utilitarian in my actions. For instance, I no longer try to advance through levels methodically, because I no longer see efficiency as a primary objective in the game. What is the new primary objective?
Because I have an audience, I feel a deep, internal compulsion to impress whoever is watching me play. I am no longer engaged in a singular experience devoted to advancing the plot, attaining high scores and maximizing my player abilities and skills; I have become an entertainer.
This propensity might appear unusual to some gamers, but at least I can say I have been consistent in my passion for showing off. This is to say, my desire to entertain while I play games is not a new phenomenon. Back in 2007, I was at my friend’s house checking out his new PS3 and one of the hottest games of the season: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Oblivion is an open-world RPG that allows players to freely explore and interact with a vibrant fantasy world. This means that players generally roam the world, searching for missions, weapons, artifacts and money. My friend played for a couple of hours, as I watched, learning about the gameplay mechanics. He was playing a high level conjurer/warrior hybrid who advanced through levels methodically. He dispatched enemies efficiently, with little flourish, and searched every box, sack and container for potential loot.
An ideal player.
Then he handed me the controller.
I should say that when he handed me the controller, I honestly thought I would play the game like a normal person. I thought I would “do it right.”
Something strange happened to me once I entered the world of Oblivion. I felt my friend’s eyes taking note of every action I took, judging me. Maybe it was the fear of doing something wrong. Maybe it was the fact that it was two hours into the game and nothing truly mind-blowing had happened. Maybe I just wanted to start trouble. Here’s the basic exchange that happened when I took the controller:
Me: “Hey, are there vampires in this game?”
Friend: “Yeah, you can turn into a vampire actually.”
“Yeah, but the sun will damage you.”
“How do I become a vampire?”
“You don’t want to do that—”
“I know, but do the vampires bite you or something?”
“No, they fight you and you can catch a disease. Like, there’s this cave southeast of Skingrad.”
(I travel southeast of Skingrad)
Friend: “What are you doing?”
Me: “Show me what you are talking about.”
“No, it’s a pain. Becoming a vampire ruins the game.”
“Whatever, I’ll load a previous save and it’ll be like this never happened.”
“That one, over there.”
(I enter the cave and fight some vampires. At one point during the fight, I get an on-screen prompt that I have contracted a disease that would eventually lead to vampirism)
Friend: “There, you have the disease. You’ll be a vampire soon.”
“Like, 72 hours?”
“Hmmm. I’ll go to Skingrad in the meantime.”
“I thought you said you would load a previous save once you—”
“I know, but I want to go to Skingrad first.”
(I go to Skingrad and find the castle.)
Friend: “What are you doing?”
Me: “You think the Skingrad royalty has jewels?”
“They might, I guess.”
“Great! How much do you think they are worth?”
“Don’t even think about it; the guards will kill you.”
“No they won’t.”
“Yes—yes, they will.”
“I’ll be fast!”
(Before he can continue to protest, I advance into the castle, and to his horror, break into the royal quarters.)
Friend: “I don’t know what you’re planning, but this won’t end well.”
Me: “You won’t be saying that when we’re rich.”
“You’ll be dead.”
“I’m already dead! Remember? I’ve got the vampire disease.”
“Speechless? I know.”
(I continue to sneak through the castle, avoiding guards until I reach the Count’s bedroom, with a jewelry chest on his bedside table.)
Me: “See? Riches!”
(I move to the chest and see that it is locked, by a “very hard” lock.)
Friend: “You’ll never unlock that chest. You’ll break all of your picks.”
(I unlock the box on my first try)
(I open the box and find a piece of cloth)
Friend: “See? No riches.”
Me: “This proves nothing. It could be a valuable cloth!”
“It says right there that it’s worthless.”
“To you maybe!”
(I proceed to storm out of the Count’s chamber and into the dining room when I see someone sitting at the table eating)
Friend: “That person will see you. You’re still trespassing.”
Me: “I’m hungry.”
(I sneak up behind the person eating and start stealing food from the table.)
Friend: “What are you doing?”
Me: “Stealing food. See? They can’t see me. I’m a shadow.”
(A guard enters the dining room and sees me stealing food from the table—in addition to trespassing. The guard walks up to me and arrests me. I am transported to the Skingrad dungeon.)
Friend: “You deserve this, you know. You deserve to be caught.”
Me: “Jail is boring. I’m going to escape.”
“Fine, you know what? Escape. You’re not going to get passed this lock anyway. You only have one pick.”
(I escape in a single attempt.)
Friend: “Ok, fine. You’re good at getting through locks. That’s simple, but you’ve got no armor and now you’re a fugitive.”
Me: “I’m going to run for it!”
(I run out of my prison cell and into a lobby area where guards are not too pleased to see me. I run past a box.)
Friend: “That box! That has your stuff in it!”
Me: “There’s no time! We have to run!”
(I escape out of the front door, dodging guards shooting at me with arrows. I finally make it outside of the city gates, naked, wounded and exhilarated. I proceed to travel into the woods to find a campsite where I can sleep and plan my life as a fugitive in Oblivion. I find a bed and sleep for 24 hours)
Friend: “You’re an ass.”
Me: “This is fun!”
(I wake up and see that I’ve become a vampire. I also see that it is daylight and I’m taking sunlight damage)
Me: “Crap! I’m going to die out here!”
Friend: “Hahaha. Ass!”
(And then I died, putting an end to my “special” adventure.)
Looking back on my experience with Oblivion, I think that’s where my showmanship streak started. When people are watching me play a game, I don’t always do stupid or silly things to make them laugh. I was playing Mass Effect 2 on my laptop on a train to Philadelphia and noticed that the man next to me was watching me. I decided to play that section of the game very aggressively, turning a standard shooter into an action movie. At the end of my “performance”, the man asked me what game I had been playing. I told him and he walked away smiling. Maybe he bought a copy of the game and is putting on his own show for friends and family.
Sometimes I perform dramas and experimental pieces for my audiences. In Fallout 3, I shot up a bar and hid all of the bodies behind the bar. My friend, who was watching me asked what I was doing and I said I was trying to “clean up.” She stared at me for a while, before reckoning that I was just messing around for her sake. Whenever I play the Sims in front of other people, I have an incredible urge to terrorize my virtual puppets, forcing them into awkward and socially unacceptable situations. An insane mother raising seven obese children? Only when I have an audience.
There’s probably a good reason why I like trying to impress my friends and strangers when I play video games. Maybe part of me feels that games are still an under-appreciated medium that grants players an immense amount of control and power. I want to have people take pause and reconsider their pre-conceptions about the content of video games. Maybe I want to break outside of norms and play games differently, experimenting with different scenarios that I would normally have no incentive to try. Hearing a friend laugh or a stranger gasp at some incredible feat in a game is more than enough of a reward to try something crazy or unique.
I have always argued that video games have a unique and vast potential to inspire people to think differently. By playing games in different ways, I have forced myself to view the medium differently.
Essentially, I am saying that by creating a naked vampire jewel thief, I am exploring the video game genre in a more meaningful way.
That’s what I’m going to tell my friend the next time we play anyway.
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